I was reflecting the other day on why I think the word “maybe” destroys people.
I realized that in my own life, I learned how to say no and how to go after what I really wanted at the same time. The two lessons, boundary setting and goal pursuit, were learned simultaneously. And I wonder if these two lessons are inseparable.
For instance, if people have been trying to manipulate you, then you’ve been taught to go after what someone else wants and also to avoid setting clear boundaries at the same time. And manipulation can be polite, well-intentioned, even kind. Everyone has been manipulated. So if manipulation is what you are used to, then maybe you have to learn goal pursuit and boundary setting simultaneously, just like you learned their opposite simultaneously.
Also, going after what you really want and setting boundaries both involve establishing a sense of self. For me, I had one hell of a time trying to figure out what I really wanted, and disentangling it from everyone else’s desires (especially the desires of my dead ancestors, since I didn’t even realize their influence). Because again, it’s not like people wanted bad things for me. They thought they were acting in my best interests. But in the end, they aren’t me, and they don’t really know what’s best for me.
Finally, when I started to go after what I really wanted, I noticed that other people wanted to join in. People are attracted to ambition, to that emotional fire. It feels good to be around purpose-driven people. So it became easier to set boundaries because the people surrounding me really wanted to be there, thus they had incentive to respect my boundaries. (And yes, I am implying that the people who disrespect your boundaries are the same people clinging to you even though they don’t like you that much. They just like some fantasy of you that they have burdened themselves with.)
Of course the other side of it is, the more I went after my own true goals, the less time I had to mess around with unimportant busywork. So I had to set better boundaries or else I would just get exhausted.
When I started to set clear boundaries, at first it was tough. I had to endure a few curse-laden phone messages from people who had been used to being able to use me. I lost a couple of “friends” who had been stabbing me in the back for years. But pretty quickly I noticed that all my interactions were less stressful. I no longer dreaded seeing people. I no longer avoided social settings.
And yes, I lost two “friends”. But after losing them, I found out more about how they treated other human beings. I realize now they were two of the most emotionally abusive people I’ve ever known.
The real story, though, is that everyone else changed their behavior towards me, in ways large and small.
Just like you can change, other people can change too. It’s so easy for me to look at myself as being someone who is capable of personal transformation, and at the same time put everyone else in a box with a label on it. When I established my own sense of self, everyone else changed how they related to me. They had to. Their only other option was to get frustrated and exit my life. At the same time, establishing clearer goals and boundaries made it easier for me to stop labeling other people, because I no longer had such a need to project my own frustrations onto them. And since I viewed other people more positively, they became more willing to change their behavior towards me.
So while it’s true that setting boundaries and being your own person will drive some people away, doing so will also bring other people closer to you. And which group of people would you rather be surrounded by?