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Setting Boundaries Doesn’t Make You ‘Weak' or 'Selfish'

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“OK people … everyone take a pencil and eraser from the table and find yourself a spot on the floor. (The group leader had covered the carpet almost entirely with giant squares of paper.)

• What is PTSD?

Yep, go ahead take a seat right there on top of one of the squares. I’ll explain what we’re doing in a moment, but for now, please use your pencil to draw a circle around yourself.

Topic for today’s group: boundaries.”

Oh for God’s sake … boundaries … again!! These “therapy people” loved to talk about boundaries! And apparently, us “people with eating disorders” were particularly horrible at setting boundaries (as evidenced by just how often this was a theme in our group work). Ugh.  

I wasn’t even supposed to be in group today. I had an appointment with the dietician, but she was running late. Hopefully, she’d come “rescue” me soon.

It wasn’t that I hated the idea of boundaries, but it wasn’t really something I needed help with. Not to sound all full of myself or anything, but I was kind of a rock star at the whole boundary thing.

I’ll tell you what though, I would not  recommend using a freaking pencil  to create boundaries! Pencil drawings can be erased or manipulated pretty easily. No, I’m not sure what our mighty group leader was thinking with that!

My “boundaries” weren’t going to be “penciled in.” Nope, they were going to be drawn with permanent  fucking marker. There would be no getting through that shit.

I raised my hand, “I’d rather use a marker. Can I go grab one from the art room?”

Request denied. “No … it’s really important that we use a pencil for this activity.”

Just as I was about to explain why the use of a pencil for a boundary activity was probably the silliest thing I’d ever heard, the registered dietician (RD) came in to fetch me. Saved by the dietician! It was sort of a shame though I didn’t have time to impart my bits of “marker wisdom” upon my peers. Now they’d be stuck with their weak, little pencil boundaries … and a lot of good those would do! Oh well. I was outta there.

Until recently, I honestly didn’t think I had missed anything important in group that day. As I said, I was no newbie when it came to boundaries.

But, it hadn’t always been that way. In the early days, I was known for handing out all-access passes to pretty much anyone who came knocking on my door. People knew they (along with their thoughts, beliefs, values, morals, judgments, etc.) could come and go from my personal space as they pleased.

I mean, wasn’t that was what “good little girls” were supposed to do? They were my “guests” and it was my “job” to be welcoming.







Good little girls with proper manners didn’t complain or question. It wouldn’t have been “nice” to make my guests feel uncomfortable for taking, dumping or using/misusing whatever they wanted while they were there.

And I really did want to be the “good girl,” the easy-breezy girl who could roll with the punches and go with the flow.  But all of the taking, dumping and misusing was starting to break me down.

Where had I gone wrong? I thought I was doing everything a “good girl” was supposed to do. So, why did I feel so hurt, so misunderstood, so used and so utterly confused? It didn’t make sense, but I didn’t know at the time I was “allowed” to be any other way.

Don’t get me wrong, not all of my “guests” pillaged and plundered. But it was hard to differentiate between friend and foe, so I was always on guard. Always looking over my shoulder. Always sleeping with one eye open.

The uncertainty of it all left me in a constant state of extreme anxiety. And, frankly, it was becoming unlivable.

I didn’t actually want to close myself off. I wanted to have friendships and relationships, but I had no clue how to let the “good” in while also keeping the “bad” out.

Allowing others inside my world just seemed too dangerous. I was paying too high a price. There were too many people who could not be trusted. So many selfish, scared little monsters who were going to do as they pleased … and there was little a “good girl” could do about it.

Enter boundaries (or, at least what I thought  were boundaries).

So, up went my wall — solid, indestructible, impenetrable protection. No more allowing other people’s feelings, emotions, morals, values, beliefs or bodies in my  space! Nothing was getting through my wall.

And although it wasn’t always fun being alone (not having anyone else around to talk with, work with, laugh with or even to cry with), I finally felt safe.

I was in charge.

I was in control.

No one was going to make feel or do anything I didn’t want to ever again!

Call it a wall, call it a boundary — did it really matter what name we assigned to it? The important thing was it was permanent! “Penciling it in” was not an option! Nope, I was smart, my “boundaries” were going to be there for the long haul.

And my “Permanent Marker Wall” worked like a charm in terms of keeping what was in, in  and what was out, out. But it didn’t take long to realize I had built my wall in such a hurry, that some of what was left inside wasn’t actually mine … and some of what was  mine had been taken out by the pillagers.

It was unfortunate, but I guess I would just have to make it work. I would have to sacrifice the missing parts of myself and try to make do with what was left.

And that’s exactly what I did for the next several years.  It didn’t make for a particularly happy home, but at least it was safe. It was survival, which was more than what the all-access passes had provided.

And I thought that was enough for me.

Until it wasn’t.

And that’s when I met Linda. Linda knew what living in survival mode could do to a person. And, as strange as it sounds, she knew sooner or later, “survival mode”  was actually going to be the death of me.

Of course, I kept her at a distance, but I was curious. How had she moved from surviving to thriving? How did she feel safe without her wall? It seemed utterly impossible to me.

As I started to explain the pain, chaos and destruction I endured in the days of the all-access passes, she stopped me.

“Oh no, no, no … I don’t give out all-access passes. But I don’t really have a wall either. I guess a therapist would call what I have boundaries.”

Oh geez … that word seemed to follow me everywhere!

“What I have is more flexible than a wall. It can change, adapt, grow, shrink, toughen up or even become permeable at times. It does whatever I want or need it to do. But a wall … a wall seems so … I don’t know, permanent.”

Permanent! Yes! Wasn’t that the whole idea, though? To build something indestructible, unbendable and unchangeable?

Apparently not.

Wait. What?! Had I been wrong? Was there actually a legit reason the group leader wouldn’t give me my permanent marker that day? Was there a method to her pencil madness?

But I was so sure I had it all figured out. I was positive my “Permanent Marker Wall” was a sign of strength — a bright, flashing, neon sign that said, “Don’t fuck with me!” And wasn’t strength of utmost importance when building walls?

Maybe. I mean, I’m pretty certain strength is a key component of boundaries, walls, whatever … but maybe this was a different kind of strength. Maybe what I needed was more strength coming from the inside … and less on the strength protecting me from the outside.

Yeah, my wall was physically durable. But, to be honest, it didn’t require much effort on my part.  It was simple.

In or out.

Black or white.

Yes or no.

Good or bad.

Oh shit. Had I taken the easy way out?!


All this time, had I been misreading the bright, flashing neon sign? I thought the permanent nature of my wall screamed strength, but damn … was it actually screaming weakness?

I mean, my “Permanent Marker Wall” did all the work for me. Once built, I could sit back and relax. Easy-peasy.

But, with these flexible boundaries Linda spoke of, I’d definitely have to step up my game. I’d have to make decisions. I’d have to carefully assess each and every visitor who knocked on my door and choose whether or not I’d allow them to enter my orbit.

And what if I made a mistake? Those wolves looked pretty darn convincing dressed in sheep’s clothing. What if the soft, fuzzy wool came off once they were inside? Could I then ask them to leave?

That could get awkward, to say the least. And making things more complicated and difficult is not  what “good little girls” are meant to do.

But maybe it should  be.

Maybe it should be OK for me to ask disrespectful guests to leave.

Maybe it should be OK for me to demand the departure of those who had lied and cheated their way in.

Maybe it should be OK for me to kick those who had harmed me to the curb.

Maybe it should be OK to refuse to believe the intruders who insisted I was to blame for their transgressions.

And maybe doing any or all of this, didn’t make me bad, selfish or heartless.

Maybe it actually made me the opposite. Maybe it made me responsible, strong, wise and even sort of badass!

It would be uncomfortable for sure.

But maybe that  was even OK?

Was it really my job to make other people feel comfortable? After all, we were talking about my  space, my  body, my  emotions. Shouldn’t it be my  decision??

It would be hard, yes. Survival mode was definitely easier, but ultimately, unlivable. This new “way of being” would be a challenge, but it was the first thing in a long time that felt like freedom.

It was time. Time to grab a new sheet of paper, trade in my markers for pencils, and start redesigning my life.

Do I have the whole boundary thing all figured out now? Hell if I know. But even if I fuck it all up, I’m not worried. I’ll just erase and start again.

I am going to make mistakes. And it’s going to be messy.

But maybe that’s what being fully alive is all about.

Maybe it’s the mistakes and the messes that make this life so damn beautiful.

Unsplash image by Ruben Ramirez

Originally published: February 7, 2021
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