Having firm personal boundaries can be challenging in the face of social obligations and norms. We agree to things that go against our instincts, making us defensive in our decision-making.
A few years ago, a girlfriend and I planned a joint family holiday. We were so excited to spend fun, sunny afternoons together, while our kids play happily alongside us. We agreed that we needed a babysitter for evening outings without the children. She proposed that we hire a live-in sitter for the entire week, so that we would also have extra help during the day. I liked this idea, but I was reluctant to agree to share the cost equally because my children had become quite self-sufficient. Furthermore, I suspected that my friend's one-year old baby would take up all of the sitter's time and attention. I asked my husband for advice. He reasoned that the cost of finding an independent sitter for the few adults-only evenings would be the same as sharing the live-in, and counseled me to agree.
Although I saw the logic of my husband's argument, I felt like my friend was taking advantage of me. All that week, the sitter was busy with the baby: feeding him, bathing him, changing his diapers, and pushing him around in his stroller. She did not attend to my children at all. In fact, she did not even give them a single bath. My dream had been to form a deeper bond between our families, but this holiday severely tested our friendship.
I blame myself for not being clear with my friend, and vowed to do better at the next opportunity. Last year, I allowed my children to borrow my smart phone to play games while we were idling in public places. Sharing my phone felt like an imposition each time, but I shrugged it off. It seemed convenient for one child to be glued to a screen while the other one was having a piano lesson, and I could catch a small break. Reaching for my phone soon became a bad habit. My sons started demanding it all the time and resisted returning it to me. Access to the phone became a source of constant and increasing friction. I decided to reestablish my power over my device in a bid to restore the relative harmony we previously enjoyed together. I changed my password and explained that my phone was now solely for my use. The clear message and the unequivocal enforcement of the new rule helped me reassert my boundaries with relative ease and elegance. Today my phone is not even a topic anymore.
The importance of being honest with myself and with others cannot be overstressed. My intention was to be fair and fun in both instances, but by not owning up to my true feelings, I accomplished exactly the opposite. I gave my power away when I agreed to something that was conflicting for me. Then I felt resentful that I made myself a victim of circumstances, and felt guilty that I was angry. With my children, I came from a place of self-love and self-care to turn the situation around. There was neither shame nor guilt in the decision.
Communicating clearly what I expect and accept is key. Prioritize yourself and your wellbeing, and discover what is true within you. Express your feelings and set your boundaries. The clearer the boundaries are, the fewer people will cross them. Expect more graceful, friction-free living.
Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.
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