Relationships aren’t a quite a crime scene, but sometimes it feels like you’re navigating one when you walk into a conversation. And I’m not just talking about romantic relationships. Friendships, familial relationships, all of it can be a minefield when you’re working with other people.
No one is a mind reader. Unfortunately, that means we all need to learn how to communicate. One part of communication that often falls by the wayside is establishing healthy boundaries. If you’ve been reading my blog for long enough, or even just a few posts here and there, you’ll know my motto is “Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others.” Boundaries can help you do that, and they can also help other people do that for themselves. Communicating about where you draw any sort of line helps keep relationships balanced and healthy, assuming you actually talk about them before it becomes a problem or a crisis.
People are imperfect. And sometimes, setting boundaries hurts them, hurts us, and just doesn’t feel good. Nobody likes to say “no” to their friends, families, or partners, but for the overall and future health of the relationship, it’s important to draw some lines.
Departing from the abstract, I’m going to use myself as an example. Or a couple of examples, really.
I have one friend who, like me, is in recovery from an eating disorder. She has been in recovery for a longer period of time than I have, and she actually is the one who helped me realize that I had an eating disorder before I went to the doctor to talk about it. But how that happened was, I sent her a text asking her if I could ask her a few questions about eating disorders. She responded, and through text, we had this conversation. The next time we saw each other in person, I wanted to talk about it again, to get more information and support, but she told me that she couldn’t do that. She said she was fine talking about it in vague terms via text, but she couldn’t talk about it with me in person, or in any specifics because it triggered some very visceral memories for her. That was a boundary. My need for info and support is not greater than her need for support and comfort around the topic. I can go elsewhere for what I need, and we can still continue to be friends. If she hadn’t set that boundary, something that could have happened would have been that we would have talked about it, she would have felt very uncomfortable and unhappy, and she wouldn’t have let me know, because she didn’t want to upset me or she wanted to show support as I was figuring this out. However, due to her own discomfort and history with an eating disorder, this could have fostered resentment, not necessarily towards me, but possibly, and possibly towards the situation, which, at some point, would have caused her to lash out at me and possibly harmed our friendship. Now, that might not have happened. There’s no way to know, but boundaries are a way to keep that from happening at all.
Sometimes, it’s more complicated than that, though. Saying, “I can’t do this right now,” or “I can’t be that person for you,” or “I can’t be your therapist,” to a person who may be in crisis may cause them to feel rejected and abandoned. Just because you’re setting a boundary doesn’t mean you’re not there for them, but they might not see it that way. Ultimately, you can’t be in charge of or control other people’s feelings, and you shouldn’t cause yourself harm to help others. Again, this is complicated, and I’m talking about on an interpersonal level here. When it comes to the grand scheme of things, sometimes you have to suffer discomfort for the sake of other people (paying extra for your cup of coffee in the morning, for example, so the workers can have a fair wage is totally something that makes sense. Even something one-on-one, like standing on the bus so the pregnant woman can have a seat, that makes sense too). But on an individual, interpersonal level, with your own friendships and romantic and familial relationships, you can’t do everyone’s emotional labor for them.
As an example, if you have work in the morning, but your best friend just broke up with her fiancee, you don’t have to stay up until 3 AM with her to be a good friend. You can talk to her for an hour, say, “Listen, I really need to get to sleep so I can go to work in the morning, can we meet for dinner tomorrow and we can talk all you want then?” and keep going. Sure, she might say, “That bitch wasn’t there for me in my time of need,” but you can’t take that on yourself. Because you are there for her, but the world doesn’t stop turning. You aren’t telling her “Suck it up, buttercup” – you’re just setting a boundary. And if it really does hurt her that you’re not staying up until 3 AM on a work night, hopefully you can talk about that too. Hopefully, she can say something like, “I really felt abandoned when you said that,” and you can talk it out.
Communication is very important, but it is often misinterpreted. Again, nobody is a mind reader. Moreover, nobody is a perfect communicator.
I think I’ve told this story before, but when I was in the midst of a bad depressive spell several years ago, I was having one of those days where I was certain nobody liked me, everyone secretly hated me, and I didn’t have any friends. So I did what I thought at the time was a good communicator thing – and sent a text to three people who I had hoped were my closest friends that basically boiled down to “I’m having a panic attack and want to make sure you’re still my friends.” I didn’t exactly get the response I was looking for for the most part. While one of them said, “yes, we are friends and I’m not great at being in touch but that’s okay,” the other two basically said, “you’re being emotionally manipulative and basically just sent us a message demanding we reassure you that we’re friends, which gives us no room for other answers.” After those interactions, we set up a time to talk in person, where we sort of talked things out, but I feel like nothing really got resolved. One of them told me during that conversation that if I was going to cry, she would have to leave. Which, I have no idea if that was a fair boundary or not, because it was an emotionally charged conversation in the first place, I’m an emotional person in the second place and cry at everything, and in the third place, I was in the midst of an emotionally turbulent period and she knew that. I ended up crying in spite of my best efforts. She didn’t end up leaving, but was clearly uncomfortable. We’re all still friends, but for a while our friendship was severely strained.
Even with the advantage of hindsight now, I have no idea what to make of that series of interactions. I have no idea what kind of boundaries that we could have set, or how we could have communicated better in the first place to ensure that sort of breakdown didn’t happen.
Sometimes, it’s hard. Communication and interpersonal effectiveness is one of the things I’ve been actively working on and learning in my mental health recovery. But this is not something that everyone works on. People are just expected to know how to communicate with other people, and it’s not that easy.
The thing that I am most afraid of in the whole world is abandonment, and being alone. And as far as I can tell, this is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that many people with mental illness fear and live with. I’m afraid of pushing people away because of my mental illness, so I don’t talk to them about it, so they don’t see me, and think I’m pulling away, and then I see that as proof that I’m pushing them away which causes me to isolate more, et cetera. Or I cling too hard, forcing people to overstep their boundaries which causes them to burnout, causing them to feel the need to leave in order to keep themselves healthy, causing me to feel abandoned and cling harder to the people who are around…et cetera again. Communication and boundaries can fix some of this, at least, but you need to be honest, and know how to have the conversation.
One thing that also scares me, I think, is the fact that I scare other people. I have had two completely different people pull away from me because they were scared of what happened and they had to take me to the hospital so I wouldn’t kill myself. On two separate occasions it has happened that I have been in such a bad place I wanted to die, a friend took me to the hospital, and then pulled away from me because she couldn’t support me anymore. It sounds unfair when I phrase it like that, and yeah, I am that person I mentioned above who is a little bitter about it, but that’s mostly because they didn’t talk to me about it. I found out from other people this is why they pulled away. And because I’m sick, because I’m afraid of abandonment, and blahblahblah, that just makes me want to die more. Because if people can’t talk to me, can’t tell me, “I can’t be that support for you right now,” but instead just try to be and then can’t do it? That’s just going to make everything worse. Because I’m going to keep on reaching out for support from a place where there’s no support to be had, and both of us are going to break.
I’m afraid now. Afraid to even talk to most of my friends when I’m even remotely sad, because so many of them have been there, and then haven’t that I am constantly feeling rejected and abandoned. I’ve been trying so hard to communicate my needs and boundaries…but I think they’re walking on eggshells around me. I think they feel like they need to be there for me, and so they try, but they can’t do it, and then they pull away. And that is 100% worse.
Sometimes setting boundaries hurts. But I’d rather you set the boundary once you realize you need it than keep trying when I step over it not knowing it’s there, and then have you pull away.
Communication. It’s important.