My friends always say this thing, whenever they (or we, or both) encounter something in “real life” for which school failed to prepare us:
“Instead of Calculus they should have made us take [insert ideal class title here].”
The point being that we never EVER use anything we learned in AP Calculus (lol, like I took AP Calculus) but we really could have benefitted from a class on insurance—what it is, when you need it, why, and how to buy it. Or how to deal with mechanics at the car dealership trying to sell you stuff you don’t need. Or how to grocery shop for one person, for two people, for three (etc). You get it.
The class I wish they had offered in school is a class on boundaries.
What do I mean by boundaries? I don’t mean the kind of boundary between friends that says I will help you move but I will not help you move a dead body. Or the kind of boundary that says I’m willing to accept criticism, even tough criticism, but I am not willing to endure verbal abuse or attack from the people to whom I am close. Or even physical boundaries like the boundary of who is allowed to touch you, when, and where. These are what I would call “external” boundaries. They are like little red flags that pop up and let you know when it’s time to leave a relationship or a friendship; when you need to look for a new job; they tell you that, for better or for worse, things just aren’t working.
It definitely takes life experience and maturity to learn where to build your external boundaries. I know I came by mine honestly, and I really don’t think you could be taught how to have external boundaries in a classroom (I don’t actually believe you can learn much of anything in a classroom, but that’s another rant for another day I’m afraid…).
No, the kind of boundary I wish I had learned how to draw is an internal boundary. “Internal boundaries” are the boundaries within the self that allow you to keep a handle on who you are, what you like, what you think, what you believe, and what you love. They are the lines you draw around your heart and mind. These lines aren’t there to tell you when to make a change or when to move on—they maintain you, they ground you, they keep the voice in your head stronger and clearer than the voices coming at you from all sides.
You wear a dress to a party. Someone says to you “I don’t like your dress. It makes you look trashy.”
Your external boundaries tell you that maybe you don’t want to hang out with someone who thinks you are trashy, or who would say something like that to you. You walk away. Maybe you say something like “that wasn’t very nice.” Maybe you say nothing at all.
Because you have these lovely invisible lines drawn around the internal parts of you that matter, they stop the comment at the gate. You consider this statement: “Trashy.” You consider the dress. When you put it on you didn’t think it looked “trashy.” In fact, you still don’t think it looks “trashy.” You like it. The dress makes you feel beautiful & sexy and you really need to feel good about yourself right now because it has been a bit of a rough week. That person may think you look trashy, but you decide that you disagree.
You rejoin the party, still feeling good.
In my entire life I have literally NEVER reacted to any situation like that in such a secure and grounded way. Sure, I might choose not to hang out with that person again (my external boundaries are pretty strong, I think) but I really wish I knew how to draw those lines that say “You don’t get to change what I think about myself. Only I get to do that.”
This is how the same party would go (and honestly has gone before in much the same way) with my current ability to draw internal boundaries:
I tell this completely stranger some bogus story about how my friend convinced me to wear the dress in the first place and that I feel really uncomfortable before muttering something about asking the hostess of the party if I can borrow a sweater or something to cover up.
The complete stranger moves on, completely unaware, while I fight the urge to actually go put on a sweater, find a dark closet to cry in until the party is over, or just Irish goodbye and get the hell out of dodge.
I choose one of these three options, and spend the rest of the evening feeling ashamed that I caved to the stupid opinions of another person while simultaneously wondering if everyone else thought I looked trashy too and if they were all laughing at me behind my back. Maybe I should go thank that person (whoever she was) for being woman enough to tell me to my face? No. No that’s ridiculous, Annie. Get a grip. You’re fine. Nobody is looking at you. Nobody is judging you.
I leave (if I haven’t already), convinced that everyone is looking at me, laughing at me, and judging me.
I never wear the dress again and finally donate it to Goodwill.
I have to admit that this definition of a “boundary” is a bit of a departure from what I have previously considered a boundary to be, but I kind of like it. Boundaries are supposed to be about protecting ourselves from abuse, misuse, and violence. I think that's all very valuable, but what about protecting ourselves from losing touch with who we are? I don't think I'm alone here—I don't think I'm even close to alone (especially as we live in a social media society that is increasingly centered around what other people "like" about our lives). After all, I'm sure I learned somewhere how valuable it is to listen to the opinions of others. Valuable, maybe. Listen, sure. But boundaries allow you to listen to the thoughts, opinions, beliefs, judgments, and criticisms of others without making them mean something about you—that is, unless YOU decide there is merit to what is being said. Take it from someone who knows, living life without these boundaries is exhausting, and ultimately completely futile. I just wanted people to like me, I guess. But having people like me is becoming less and less worth the effort.
So I’m learning how to draw my internal boundaries—creating my own curriculum, so to speak. It is taking time. Breathing helps. Breathing has this way of slowing time down so you have a second to think; to mull it over and decide what I want to do or how I want to feel. There have been days when I’ve just had to avoid certain people because I’m having trouble maintaining that strength within myself, and that’s okay. The biggest and brightest motivation that keeps me plugging away is the desire to live my life for myself. Weird as it sounds, I want to be the one to blame if everything goes to crap. I want my failures to be because of MY choices, not choices I made to appease someone else.
If my ideas crash and burn, at least they were mine. If everyone hates me, at least they hate ME and not someone I was pretending to be.
If you think I look trashy, so what?
This dress makes me feel beautiful, and it has been a really rough week.