This post was first published to my substack when my blog was being moved after hacking and I’m slowly but surely bringing the content back over here that it’s safe again. It is back-dated to match the day I wrote it on the substack.
I’ve talked a lot about boundaries over the years. My understanding of boundaries actually started in therapy 6+ years ago as I learned how to let go of some of the pain from the absence of my Mom in my life. It was very good that I had started working through all of that abandonment trauma back then, and learned to set boundaries, or else I would have never been able to help her during the final years of her life.
(And I’ll be honest, I still had to wrestle with a lot of those feelings I thought I had dealt with. Sometimes the pain is dormant, not dead.)
A big portion of boundary setting is understanding that you can’t change a person, or make them what you want them to be, and so you set that mark in the road that stops any efforts from trying. This is because you’ve tried before and it always hurts more than it helps and so the boundary saves you continued pain so that you can hold onto the relationship in some form, without sacrificing your other relationships or your self-love. Boundaries are often needed in relationships with people who have toxic behaviors from their own unconquered demons. Maybe they’re an addict, maybe they’re a narcissist, maybe they never developed any sort of emotional intelligence due to a complicated childhood…maybe they’re all of the above.
Usually this type of boundary setting is necessary with relationships that are also simply hard (practically speaking) to let go of. Like with family members who you’re going to see at family gatherings or who you are not prepared to cut ties with entirely for the sake of other people in the family. Boundaries are often needed after years (decades) of failed attempts to make a relationship worth without boundaries. Setting those boundaries is often a person’s final battle to save a relationship. And if the boundaries are trampled over, then that is when you say: I did all I could. Then…in theory…if you have to completely break ties from the person you can do so knowing you tried.
But jeezus it’s all very painful.
I was reminded this weekend that boundaries are not something you set and forget. And they don’t always come naturally. You have to set them very deliberately because they usually contrast the years (decades) of attempts you made to make a relationship work without them. I had a clash with a family member last week with whom I had to set boundaries and my instinct was to reach out to them because they said hurtful things and I thought: I need to explain myself because these hurtful things they said indicate they obviously don’t understand me or my family and if they did then they would apologize and…
Then it hit me: Oh wait. BOUNDARIES. Y’all…I even composed on a document exactly what I would say before remembering I set those boundaries because we’ve been here before and it never works. We are two very different people and we handle conflict two very different ways and I set those boundaries because THESE CONVERSATIONS NEVER GO HOW I WANT OR EXPECT. And then I’ve spent all of that emotional capital only to lose money in the effort. This is why I set the boundary to not EVER engage on this level NO MATTER WHAT.
When it comes to friendships, you have control over whether or not to invest time or energy into those relationships and if you don’t? They fade into your past. But with family, you don’t always have control over that. I couldn’t just disconnect from my Mom entirely when I started facing the pain I had from her absence. Just like couldn’t separate from a sibling of your spouse or a grandparent or a daughter-in-law, those people are in your life at some capacity because they’re in the lives of the whole family including the ones you love unconditionally. You can’t easily sever a relationship with someone who loves your child or your spouse. So when you realize that you will never be able to have a deep relationship with that person without hurt, you set a boundary to keep the relationship at the level where it can continue without the opportunities of pain.
But setting that boundary is painful because to do so you have to admit: This person is toxic. My conflicts with them poison my other relationships and my capacity to love myself. I have to let go of trying to make this relationship what I hoped it could be, and now I will find a new form of this relationship that will allow me to continue to love this person while also respecting myself.
Honoring your own boundaries often goes against all of your normal instincts that come with conflict management with people you love who aren’t toxic. In those relationships you talk through conflict, usually both people take some levels of responsibility. There’s mutual respect and understanding and both sides put up efforts to resolve the issue without relying entirely on blame.
But with a toxic person, none of that works. So you have to keep reminding yourself of the boundaries whenever there is conflict. This means you have to relive the pain of setting them all over again, and while this is very necessary in terms of managing your own mental health and family life, it still always hurts.