“I’m not sure I’m doing this whole healthy boundaries thing right.”
“What do you mean?” I asked her.
“Well, you know my story. For most of my life, I went from never ever holding boundaries and feeling like I was always being taken advantage of to then learning what boundaries are and trying to practice them.”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ve watched you make a lot of progress.”
“Maybe. But now I feel like I’m moving through the world, braced for battle all the time, constantly on the lookout for people who are being disrespectful to me and feeling like I need to say something each time “as part of my healing work”. It’s exhausting. I don’t feel taken advantage of, but I feel tired. Are those my two options?”
She shared this all with me, sounding dejected.
This conversation is an amalgam of conversations I’ve had with therapy clients over the last decade who, like with most of my relational trauma clients, is re-learning what it feels like to hold and assert healthy boundaries.
It’s a common experience in this re-learning: feeling like you can either not set boundaries and be taken advantage of, or hold boundaries at every turn and feel like a little battle-scarred and weary of it all.
But, as I tell my therapy clients, I think there’s a very valid third option and there’s one specific question and tool I use to arrive at that third choice.
Ask yourself: “What’s your level of investment?”
For most individuals who come from relational trauma backgrounds – backgrounds in which they were raised by personality- or mood-disordered parents resulting in a childhood that didn’t meet their emotional and psychological developmental needs – boundaries can, at the beginning of the healing journey, feel like a little bit of a mystery.
And what’s also true is that as you start to learn and relearn what healthy boundaries look like, you may start to feel like you swing to the extreme opposite end of a pendulum.
What do I mean by this?
Someone who never spoke up, asserted herself and confronted anyone about anything may, in the course of trying to overcome her past and esteem herself, now feel compelled to speak up whenever she feels slighted.
She swings from one end of the pendulum – not holding any boundaries – to the other – holding boundaries about everything with everyone.
And this swing – living at either end of the spectrum – can feel draining and exhausting.
But also, this same person may imagine that, if she doesn’t confront and speak up, she will be “tolerating poor behavior” or “not acting in integrity” – things which she refuses to do anymore.
So what options does this leave?
Personally, one of the things I love to share with my clients when they find themselves in this situation – wondering if there is an option between confronting and letting something go but feeling like you’re abandoning yourself – is this:
We can hold boundaries with literally anyone about anything, but it’s also really important to ask “What’s my level of investment in this relationship?”
I share with them this example:
If I’m at the grocery store and the person bagging my groceries is rude to me, sure, I could confront them about this, let them know how they’re impacting me, and challenge them about this, but then I ask myself, “What’s my level of investment in this person?”
I don’t mean this in a checkout-teller-doesn’t-deserve-compassion-and-regard-from-me-kind-of-way.
Instead, what I mean is that I’m likely not going to see this person again (or often) and, given that, the role and impact they have in my life is minimal.
So in that case, because my level of investment in the relationship with this person is low, perhaps I can give myself permission to not confront and hold a boundary, knowing that that might take more energy, time, and vulnerability than I’d like to spend on this person.
And perhaps that – not confronting, not holding a boundary – is the more self-loving choice at that moment.
Not holding boundaries with someone doesn’t have to look like self-abandonment.
Sometimes, when our level of investment in a relationship is low, it can actually be the more self-supporting choice to let things go.
To walk away and not confront.
To save our emotional and mental energy for the conversations that really do ultimately matter more.
However, if the person who was rude to me or who crossed my boundaries was one of my best girlfriends and the experience was getting in the way of me feeling close and connected to that person, then my level of investment in the relationship would be high.
And because my investment in that person and in that relationship is high, I’d be more inclined to move through the vulnerability of speaking up and holding a boundary with them if something they said or did was truly bothering me.
This is an example of a conversation that would matter more, that is worth expending my precious life energy on.
So the next time you feel overwhelmed and are wondering if you really do need to hold a boundary, confront, or process something with someone, pause and ask yourself:
“What’s my level of investment in this person? In this relationship?”
Let this question be a self-supporting discernment tool that you use as you move through the world, living more in the middle of the proverbial pendulum than on either of its extremes.
Now, if you feel so inclined, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:
Please, if you feel so inclined, leave a message below about your experiences and how you’ve learned to live more in the middle of the pendulum swing when it comes to setting boundaries. Our community of 20,000+ monthly blog readers might benefit from your wisdom and from hearing your story.
And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.