Adventure Girl learns a lesson in setting boundaries and saying no
At the beginning of last year I made a resolution to ‘stop collecting crazies’. It sounds a little ridiculous when I write it out, but after a succession of tumultuous relationships beginning with an abusive boyfriend, and then a drama-addicted manipulative friend (who later became an unreliable and vampiric house-mate), and a year of dating and befriending people who managed to barge into my life and sponge off me emotionally and financially, I was exhausted. Something had to change. Then when my not-so-crazy friends starting asking, ‘How do you keep getting caught up with these people? What is it about you?’ it occurred to me that I might be a big part of the problem.
I was never the popular kid growing up and my sisters, cousins and the neighbourhood kids, who were all older, never wanted me around. Growing up on the sidelines, hoping to be invited in, it became my habit to accept any offer of friendship, because I never knew when the next one might come along. Fearing rejection, I also ended up dating the people who showed interest in me, rather than those I fancied, something that prevented me from fully exploring my sexuality, and fully experiencing a healthy and balanced relationship.
Historically I have also fallen into hero-victim types of dynamics with people. I would see that someone ‘needed’ me and want to rescue them, even if it meant they walked all over my boundaries, leaving me feeling violated and utterly drained. I guess being needed, and not just wanted, made me feel valued. It seemed like a safe place to be: if someone needs me they are less likely to reject me.
As an adult my situation has changed. I am not short of wonderful, giving friends, who go above and beyond, who bring me to life and who I would do anything for, who I never hesitate to spend time with, who never make me feel guilty for not calling sooner, and who I look forward to seeing every single time no matter how much time has passed. These are friends who give me space, who respect my boundaries, who I feel comfortable and intimate with, and with whom I wish I could spend more time. So why was I still giving time and energy to people who were so clearly bad for me?
I realised that a big part of why I let these people into my life, and then stay there, is because I have so much difficulty saying ‘no’. Such a simple word, yet it carries so much weight. In childhood being told ‘no’ meant being rejected. No, you can’t play with the older, cooler kids. No, you aren’t invited to my birthday party. What if when I say no, I make someone feel like that? Or worse, what if I say ‘no’ or set any kind of boundaries, and I don’t get asked again? What if I say no, and then people don’t like me?
Adult me knows this is screwed up logic, that nothing is that black and white, or shouldn’t be, but when you grow up experiencing conditional love, you learn to accommodate, to please, and to be compliant. Growing up tiptoeing around a father who flew into rages any time he felt crossed, and who would manipulate any situation to make it somebody else’s fault, I have learned to avoid any kind of emotionally charged situation. I am hypersensitive to conflict and go into self-preservation mode whenever I think someone might explode around me. I do whatever I can to keep people happy, including not telling someone ‘no’ or that I don’t want from them what they want from me.
From this same family dynamic I have come to recognise that when I meet new people, my mechanism for evaluating ‘appropriate’ and ‘normal’ behaviour and for recognising and enforcing boundaries is a little messed up. It’s far too easy for someone to slip past my walls and latch on, developing a degree of intimacy (real or imagined) too quickly and too intensely, and I get caught up in the whirlwind, excited to have someone in my life who appears to value me, or who makes me feel needed, regardless of the cost.
In some ways I’ve almost been moulded to expect people to play on my emotions and to intimidate me to get what they want: being manipulated and frightened feels familiar. This was something my abusive ex capitalised on for a year and a half, whose ‘gaslighting‘ behaviour left me questioning not only my judgement but my sanity.
What I have had to recognise since then is my part in these scenarios: I have allowed these relationships to form by not identifying when a situation is unhealthy, and by not setting appropriate boundaries and accepting that it is okay to say ‘no’. If that person reacts badly, exploding at me or otherwise being manipulative, I am probably better off without them. I no longer have the same fear of rejection because I have worked on building up my self-esteem, on my jealousies and insecurities, and for the most part feel confident about my body and about who I am. I no longer need to push myself forward to be seen and heard, afraid that if I don’t I will remain invisible. In fact, I’m quite happy to sit on the sidelines and watch, comfortable that if I’m not at the centre of whatever is happening, if I’m not invited to this event or that, this is no reflection on my value as a person.
I treasure my close friends and know that they value me, and since making this resolution, when new people have tried to enter my life, I have established boundaries and made sure things have developed slowly. In doing this, in not giving in just because something is asked of me, in not being so concerned with whether or not someone likes me that I forget to evaluate whether or not I like them, I have found that people who might once have latched on and developed an unhealthy attachment or who have wanted to be ‘rescued’, have simply slipped away, existing in my life as acquaintances, rather than intimate friends, which is a much healthier place.
The last step in reaching my goal has been realising I need to apply the same filters and set the same boundaries with old friends as well as new. If their behaviour sets off the same alarms, if the friends whose judgement I trust (because I still don’t entirely trust my own) say ‘This person’s behaviour is a little odd’, or I notice their reactions to things aren’t particularly logical, I pay attention. And if someone makes unreasonable demands or rages at me without taking any responsibility for themselves, I’m not going to panic, wanting to make amends, frightened of losing a friend, I’m going to interact with them assertively, like a secure adult, confident in saying ‘no’ and knowing I’ll be okay with or without them.