Most of my life I struggled with setting boundaries.
We all need boundaries, but establishing them is really hard to do. And even harder is to not feel bad about it after you’ve done it.
I remember the first time I saw someone do it masterfully.
I was eating lunch at a Buddhist monastery. The custom is for lay people to eat separately from the monastics and the rule is that the monastics eat in silence but it’s optional for the lay people.
I had been at the monastery for a few days and the other lay guest (let’s call her Carol) always chatted during lunch. It didn’t bother me – we were quiet a lot of the time – so I just let Carol set the tone.
Then we had a new guest arrive – we’ll call her Sue.
As we sat to eat our meal, Carol began talking immediately and then asked Sue some questions.
Sue looked up from her plate and said very firmly and yet with the utmost kindness, “I’m going to eat my meal in silence, thank you.”
I nearly dropped my fork. Not because she said it so calmly and kindly – but because I could see she didn’t have a drop of regret for saying it. She went right back to eating her meal and it was obvious not a flicker of guilt crossed her mind.*
I was in awe.
What Do You Need?
I am one of those odd ambivert people. I wrote a blog about this several months ago – if you’d like to read it please click here. So although I often come across as extroverted (I’m not shy), I’m actually much more introverted than people realize.
I need a lot of alone time to feel my best. If I’m around people for too long, I need to retreat to solitude to balance that out – it’s how I refuel.
For the longest time I didn’t know how to express this need. Mostly because I was worried about offending someone. How do you tell someone you need to be alone without them hearing it as, “I don’t want to be around you?”
I can’t tell you how much time I spent trying to come up with suitable excuses to get out of something or how to let someone know that I wasn’t available to hang out and chat every single day – that it was too much for me.
How could I let them know that I needed more space, without causing them and then me subsequent pain?
Who Am I Really Hurting?
The first thing I did was to acknowledge how much pain this was causing me. This was my life and I wasn’t living it the way I wanted for fear of offending someone else. How insane is that?
So the next question was, is it possible to communicate my needs without causing them any pain?
That’s where things get tricky. We simply can’t control how others will respond to us.
I never asked Sue but I imagine there must have been times when someone was offended; and I’m pretty confident that it didn’t bother her. In my imaginary conversation with her, she would have said, “we can only control how we respond.” And she’d be right.
If we choose our words with compassion and speak honestly then there is nothing more we can do. If someone chooses to take offense, then we were probably never going to be good friends with them to begin with. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Are you willing to take that risk? To be true to who you are?
In the book, “The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying,” Bronnie Ware a palliative nurse who counsels people on their deathbed, says the greatest regret of the dying is, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
When we don’t set boundaries, this is one of the ways that we aren’t true to ourselves. We’re so afraid of offending someone else that we end letting them dictate how our lives should be. It makes no sense!
But as long as we speak with kindness and honesty, then there is nothing there for US to cling to. No story for us to pick up and torture ourselves with. We can say our peace and remain peaceful.
We all walk our own path and setting boundaries without feeling any guilt about doing that is unbelievably liberating. In fact, it’s awesome!
Thanks Sue! 😉
*I was asked by a few people if Carol was offended by Sue’s request to eat in silence. I should have addressed this better in the original post. Firstly, this was not an unusual request in a monastery – I wouldn’t reply this way to someone I’m sitting next to on a plane. Setting boundaries must be done skillfully and with the utmost compassion and kindness. I do my very best not to offend anyone and how I deliver my request has a lot to do with that. My intention is never to offend anyone. When I said that’s a risk I’m willing to take, I don’t say that with disregard for someone else’s feelings. But what often happens when we don’t set boundaries is we will reach a limit where we are no longer speaking with kindness or we become resentful. In my experience it is better to handle the situation early on when we are calm and our intention is not to harm. I hope that helps.