This article was written for Holl and Lane Magazine Issue 20: Growth.
How boundaries helped me to reclaim control of my life
Whenever I see velvet ropes, I think of all the fancy people that are allowed to see what’s on the other side of them. I correlate this image in my mind with exclusivity and permission. Not everyone gets to go behind the velvet ropes and not everyone deserves to be invited in.
I’ve started to think of boundaries as my personal version of a velvet rope.
I’ve never been good about saying no when I should or not speaking up when I didn’t agree. I always wanted to be liked. I always wanted to be agreeable. I didn’t want to be the girl that made everything more challenging for everyone else. To describe me as a pushover would be accurate.
I was raised by a Southern woman who taught me how best to keep up appearances and avoid making waves. When things were good, you shared only enough to let people know that you had it together. More than that would be bragging and that was unbecoming. When things were bad, you pretended that everything was A-Ok so that no one would know that you didn’t have it together. Don’t ever let anyone feel sorry for you.
My entire life, I said yes to things I wanted to say no to, I never told people how I really felt until I exploded in anger, and I was walking around carrying a lot of resentment in my heart. I was mad at the world for my feelings of discontent, but it took my parents’ divorce to make me realize that I actually had control over how others were treating me.
My parents divorced when I was 35. I haven’t figured out whether or not it’s harder to have your parents divorce as an adult or as a child. When you’re a child, your parents do everything they can to protect you from the pain. When you’re an adult, all bets are off. My siblings and I were square in the middle of the fallout as our parents’ 36 year marriage quickly unraveled.
Both of my parents were horrible as they dissolved their marriage. My mom regularly spent her air time with me bashing my dad and telling me all of the things he was doing and what a terrible human being he was. My dad used his to explain why he was such a victim in all of this as well as why he had better sexual chemistry with his new girlfriend. (TMI, Dad, TMI).
I would sit and listen to each of them for hours at a time, feeling a constant tug on my loyalty from side to side. Both of them would profess how much they didn’t want us to take sides and then launch into a spouse-bashing diatribe that made it clear that each of them hoped the side we would choose was theirs.
It was exhausting. After a few weeks of this daily battle, I couldn’t take any more. For the first time in my life, I put up a boundary. I simply used the phrase, “I may be an adult, but I need you to remember that I am still your child.” It was my way of signaling that I didn’t want to participate in this feud and that my energy was spent.
Both of them had a similar reaction. At first, they retreated in shock. And then they pressed forward harder. This time, telling me bigger, more salacious details. He was so abusive. She was a controlling bitch. It was as though they both believed if they could make me see their side of the story, I could be swayed to join the alliance. And while I did see their respective sides, I also saw a little girl who was having the images of a strong mother and a loving father shattered.
The phrase, “I am still your child,” became a mantra that I repeated over and over until they both backed off. At this point, I was using it to convince myself that I was right not to get sucked into their mess.
About a year after the divorce, I started therapy. At this point, I had been estranged from my mom for the better part of a year and the guilt of cutting my mother out of my life so completely was overwhelming me. I had good reason for not wanting to talk to her–my mom had interpreted that the boundaries I was learning to set with her as me taking my dad’s side and she punished me for it.
When the opportunity came for her to move across country with her job, she not only chose not to tell me, but she asked my siblings not to tell me either. As if I wouldn’t have noticed when I came home for a visit that she no longer lived there. Her reasoning was that she didn’t want my dad to know that she was moving and she assumed I would be the one to tell him. I was so hurt that my mother would choose to punish me in such a cruel way that I decided to just disengage completely. I reasoned that she couldn’t hurt me if she couldn’t talk to me.
But after about six months, I began to doubt my decision. What kind of a person cuts a family member out of their lives? Only the truly horrible ones, right? I knew I wasn’t horrible, but I also knew that having a relationship with my mother was hurting me. I was lost and confused, so I found a therapist and started talking.
As I rehashed the previous 24 months of my life, my therapist asked why I felt this obligation to my mother, who was clearly manipulating me for her benefit. I paused and considered the question.
“Well, because she’s my mother,” I answered finally.
“So?” she said.
I looked at her quizzically and said, “I don’t understand what you mean. The woman gave birth to me. I can’t just avoid talking to her for the rest of my life.”
The next thing she said will stick with me for the rest of my life— “If a relationship is hurting you, then you are under no obligation to participate. And if you do, it needs to be on your terms, not theirs.”
Wow. I had never once thought about having a different relationship with my mom than the one I had that wasn’t serving me. To put myself at the center seemed so incredibly selfish. I was being given permission to share only what I wanted to share and learning that I was not obligated to anything just because she gave me life.
I suddenly felt free.
It took a lot of time to modify the terms of our relationship, and my mom was not always accepting of my boundaries. When I would put up the velvet rope, signaling that she was not allowed in to this part of my life, she would push harder to get in. But I learned to hold the boundary and stopped feeling guilty for doing so.