Giving & Taking: When to Draw Boundaries Around How Much of Ourselves We Feel We Need to Give

Knowing how to draw boundaries around how much of ourselves we feel we need to be giving is a loaded topic for many. This was one of the chief concerns in my family growing up and something that, thanks to the help of my therapist, I recently got a much needed new perspective on. In this post, I’ll be going into the different aspects of giving and receiving in relationship, especially with those who are closest to us, and how giving too much of ourselves can put a strain on all of our relationships. Also, I’ll be adding a few tips at the end to help forge some new boundaries. Hopefully, we can break some of our old patterns and start a new.

Guilt & Feeling a Burden for Simply Being

In my family, doing for others was something that brought up a lot of resentment. It seemed that anytime something was needed of another, there was usually an accompanying, cutting comment that came with the chore. Regardless of how small the task, or if it was even difficult, whomever was asking was made to feel a burden to the other. It was second nature to us. It was our way of acknowledging that the other had a need or needed support.

But what made this so insidious was, that these comments started immediately upon entry into our family. Imagine being 5 years old and hearing the resentment in your parent’s voice as they responded to you after you asking them for something as simple as a snack. I was barely old enough to open the fridge, let alone make something to eat for myself! But whatever the request was, the reactions were the same. The roll of the eyes and incredulously, indignant sigh while they begrudgingly lifted themselves up to attend to whatever task was being asked of them.

The term martyr was used liberally around our household to describe someone who thought they were doing too much. Usually said with venom. As if to say, “you think you’re doing a lot! Take a stroll in my shoes!” And most of the time, the “martyr” was only setting a boundary around what they were willing to do. Even as I’m typing this post, I felt guilty about typing the words “willing to do”, in stead of, capable of doing. Because in our family, if you were able to do what was asked, it was expected of you to do what was asked. Your will didn’t even enter the equation. And this mentality, breeds resentment around something as simple and possibly joy inducing as giving. So why were we so venomous towards one another? If all we wanted was to feel accepted and loved? Because our self worth hinged on how much we were doing for one another.

Self Worth & Value

In my family, we definitely had a lack of self esteem. We were always so uncertain of how we stood in each others regard. We seldom received positive feedback or reinforcement, so we were usually looking to gain some social capital in the family. One of the ways we did this was by doing things for one another. However, we were all so self-conscious about how we were perceived by the other. And with no one being brave enough to tip our hands, to show our true feelings, that even when we did something from a sincere place, we wouldn’t know because we were always so guarded.

With all of this uncertainty, it’s no wonder why we were so resentful of each other! We inevitably drifted further and further apart from the thousand tiny wounds we inflicted on one another. Our surroundings grew cold and void of affection, with fear and resentment residing in their stead. As Melba would say, it was “no easy”.

What is most difficult about how we ended up, is that we were once close. I can remember large family gatherings where children, me being among them, would run wild while the family humming in the background preparing meals and watching games. It was nice, comforting. We felt connected and vital. And all it took to rent our family apart was to hide our emotions from one another in an attempt to feel more needed and loved by the other. All because we didn’t feel we had self worth apart from somebody else’s opinion of us. Or what we were capable of doing for them. That and a fair amount of shared family trauma. So if we were so hurt by one another and all we wanted was to feel appreciated, why did we not just say what we needed from each other? Why hold our feelings so close in? I believe this was for fear of being seen as weak.

Fear of Exposing Our Weaknesses

It blows my mind to think how unforgiving we were in my family. To think about how we viewed our vulnerabilities as weaknesses to be routed out makes me wince a little. And in our family, giving was seen as a strength. But only because we made it known how much of a burden we were taking on by giving ourselves so “selflessly” for the other’s benefit. This was how we turned asking for help, into a weakness. Something to be ashamed of. Or, at least that’s how I felt.

And of course, this is something that is perpetuated in the culture. With role-models such as Rambo, The Terminator, Taylor Durden, John Wayne… the list goes on. But with role-models like these, it’s hard to escape the message that strength is the absence of vulnerability. However misguided that message is.

And just because we pretended that we don’t have our vulnerabilities, doesn’t mean that they are not there. But we pretended and covered them over whenever they would inevitably show themselves. And for what? To cover up the fact that we felt flawed because we didn’t feel accepted or acceptable. By ourselves or by the other. So how do we break this cycle? How do we find the strength that isn’t based in how much of a burden we can take on by giving ourselves to the point of emotional burnout? I think some of the answer lay in how we take care of ourselves.

Learning to Give & Set Boundaries Around how Much We are Giving After Not Knowing How to Give

Setting boundaries around what we’re willing to give is tricky business. Saying no to a task or a need is tough enough when you truly want to be helpful. Add guilt or feeling like your worth hinges on whether or not you say okay and it’s paralyzing. I used to be in the camp of not doing anything for anybody. Of course, I could barely take care of my own needs, let alone help someone with theirs. But I was also taught this sort of, lived helplessness by those who were constantly doing for me.

So it was a double edged sword. I didn’t know how to do for myself due to those who were taking care of me never showing me how. Maybe they did this for fear of feeling less valuable if I was independent. Though when I asked for something, a need to be met, they made me feel as though I was a burden for asking. So when I struck out on my on, I had no life skills or self esteem from feeling like a burden for so long. I didn’t even know how to ask for the help I needed, for the life skills I didn’t know I didn’t have. It was a difficult first few years for sure.

I don’t like to think how long I floated along in life before I realized I was lacking these essential skills. But regardless, I came to a place where I now understand and appreciate giving and what others give to me. But, like with all of the other areas in my life, I needed to set some boundaries around what I gave.

When is it too Much?

When I woke from the trance I had been under, things began to change rapidly for me. For the first time in my life, I understood and appreciated the sacrifice that those supporting me were making on my behalf. It felt good, knowing that I have this support, but also as though I needed to express my gratitude more often. And for me, acts of service is one of my main love languages. So giving for me can quickly turn into spreading myself too thin.

I need to keep an eye on how much of my time I’m giving, so I don’t over commit myself. Because this will lead to me burning out. I mainly do this by keeping a to-do list in my bullet journal, with a calendar for the next three weeks opposite my list. This way, I can allocate tasks to days on my calendar and check in on my progress.

Also, I need to keep an eye on whether the other person even wants what I’m offering or doing for them. I’ve often times found myself thinking that I’m “helping” someone with a great idea I’ve had, only to realize that they were just fine with the way things were. This is an embarrassing situation to find yourself in, so it’s best to read the room before you jump in!

Have a Conversation

This seems like a no brainer, but talking to those who are closest to you is what’s most helpful in finding out what they need. It’s also a way for you to set the tone of the relationship. As a child, I was sent the message that communication in all its forms, especially around my needs, was dangerous. Dangerous in that simply asking for something, however small, threatened my very belonging to those who cared for me.

But by asking those who you are close with what they need or what you can do to make life easier for them, you’re sending the message that, as a friend of mine used to say, “I’m here, I care.” And something so simple as having the coffee ready for your partner in the mornings because they told you they don’t feel as though they have enough time in the mornings, sets the tone for a more stress free environment. It’s these small gestures, done with love that cultivates feelings of acceptance and appreciation.

And talking about our needs also brings with it feeling heard. Something that is in short supply from my experience. I know this to be true for me, that sometimes I feel so focused on my goals, or the task in front of me, that I forget that one of the simplest gifts we can be giving one another is our time and attention. To really listen to what someone is telling us and respond in authentic and caring ways. Never underestimate the power of feeling heard and seen.

Healthy Give & Take

With the holidays around the corner, there’s no better time to jump in and practice setting some boundaries around what we’re capable of giving to each other. If you’re anything like me, you like to go all out in the gift giving department. Maybe this year, take a step back. Take a look at what you’ve done in the past and how it’s made you feel. Do you dread the holidays? Does it feel as though you’re the one who who is consistently giving directions and planning events? Maybe do some more delegating this year. Take a look at you’re budget and try to stick to it better when purchasing gifts.

And while you’re reigning in your spending and the time you’re spending on various projects, don’t forget to take some time for yourself. Treat yourself to a bath during the week. Or a special meal. Something that will bring you sense of ease and peace. Because there’s no point in fostering a healthy and happy relationship, if you’re making yourself miserable in the process. Peace : ) & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Give, take ‘n share” by Funchye is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Contempt & Pride: Relationship Destroyers

I’ve been thinking about the quality of my relationships lately and have come to the conclusion that they need some work. Actually, I don’t have many relationships. This realization left me feeling angry and sad. While I was thinking about what the root of the problem was, pertaining to my lack of relationships, I’ve finally decided that contempt, pride and hyper critical judgements were the foundation of most of my old relationships. From romantic to friendships to familial, most shared contempt as being their foundational element.

The Root

What sparked this for me was a dream I had recently. In the dream I was at work, which shifted to a bus stop, as is apt to happen in dreams. I was sitting next to a friend of mine, actually I believe he was my only friend, when I turned to my right and my ex was suddenly sitting next to me. We cried together, for what we shared in the past and when I looked up, there was a throng of people between us. I asked if they were going home. They looked confused as if they knew what to say, but didn’t want to reveal it to me. Then they vanished.

I knew in my dream what my old partner wanted to say, but was to proud to admit their feelings of vulnerability. I understand that this is only a dream. And most likely my subconscious processing some old emotions. But this interaction played out a thousand times in our relationship and in our daily interactions. Both of us too proud to show our true emotions to one another for fear of being vulnerable with one another.

As to where I learned to hide my vulnerabilities from those closest to me, this was the type of relationship that I had modeled for me by my family when I was a child. The same was also the case with my ex. We were just too proud to be open with our emotions in one another’s presence. And this type of holding back, from my experience, breeds contempt.

Contempt Ends Relationships

My family members are experts in this way of being in relationship. I especially was adept at using contempt to cover over my vulnerability and to distance myself emotionally from those closest to me. But to be fair, we were so mean to one another, that it felt crazy to want to get close to anybody else. Especially after the damage we had already caused. Why would we want to go back for more of the same?

The result? We lived isolated lives with few, if any, friends we could rely on for emotional support. We had been so emotionally damaged by one another, that we were unable and unwilling to connect. Or to even know what a healthy relationship looked like. In this climate, it is nearly impossible for a relationship to grow. In fact, our family is just now starting to reconnect after decades of our fields being left fallow. And that’s only after doing a tremendous amount of work on ourselves.

So the next question I asked myself was, if we are looking to be loved by our family and friends, why are we so mean to one another? I believe that most of us are looking to feel a sense of belonging to something larger than just ourselves. Usually that type of belonging comes from our immediate family. So if we want to feel loved by each other, then why are we pushing each other away? For me, I think it has to do with survival.

Surviving Our Closest Relationships

What I remember growing up, more than any other type of connection was, a hyper critical environment. No matter what I was doing, it was never good enough and there was always some cutting remark to be made at my expense. How did I respond to this? By raising the standard so high, that nobody would be able to achieve it. Especially those judging me.

This was how I learned to put distance between me and those who were looking to hurt me. This was my way of surviving in a loveless, hostile environment. My reasoning being, if you couldn’t meet my standard, I could look down on you with contempt. That way I could feel superior than those I was judging, while keeping my distance. However, this did not work.

What happened in reaction to what I was doing was more of the same. They would in turn raised the bar even higher than I had. And I in turn would raise it again. All the while all of us looking down on each other with contempt. This was a viscous cycle that continued until someone would have the strength to break free and change the course of our trajectory.

Changing Course

As I’ve said above, this isn’t easy. When I decided I no longer wanted to live a life where I was cutting people out, I realized I had already cut almost everybody out of my life. This is where it got tough. To look back at all the relationships I had and look for what was salvageable. And there was a lot of wreckage.

As a testament to how I was living, there are many people who, to this day, refuse to talk to me. These include almost everybody I would have considered my close friends and romantic partners. But I take solace in knowing that the relationships weren’t 100% my responsibility and there for not completely my fault.

Taking Your Half

This is something my father says often when talking about blame in relationships. Take your half. Half the blame, half the resentment, half the contempt… Whatever negative feelings you’re experiencing, know that it isn’t entirely your fault.

I came to this realization a little late in the game. The realization I came to recently was, that every loving relationship that I had with somebody close, that had ended in some big way, the number one take away for me was, it was my fault. I was so used to being abandoned by those closest to me, that I just began to think that it was me who was worth leaving. This however is not the case.

The more I thought about the disintegration and breakdown of my major relationships, the more I recognized that there was a pattern in the people who were doing the breaking up. Sure, I played my part, but the other halves in my relationships were unwilling to take responsibility for their part in our breakdown.

We were unforgiving and intolerant of each other due to the thousand tiny cuts we endured, which breed contempt for one another. So when it came down to whether we were able to forgive each other, the answer was a resounding no. Or at least that’s what it seems like from my perspective. Because it was never my intention to leave any of these relationships. I was the one being left.

Forgiveness & Mending the Pain

Forgiveness is something that I am recently coming to understand as a virtue. Historically, forgiveness has not been something that I’ve ever practiced. I would hold people to their actions and misdeeds and use it against them to apply pain or make someone feel guilty. I did this because it was what was modeled for me, but also because, it’s all I knew.

All of my friends, family and partners had a zero tolerance policy when it came to making mistakes. We were expected to be more than human in our relationships. I think this has to do with how high we were setting the standards, in order to feel superior to those trying to get close to us. This left no margin for error and anything short of perfection was unacceptable.

This was most prevalent in my family growing up, but it also translated to my romantic relationships as well. In one relationship, something had happened to wake me from my emotional cocoon. From the numbness I was living under for two decades. While I was waking to these new emotions, I had no idea what was happening. For scope, imagine being 32 years old and feeling accepted and understood for the first time since you were 8 years old, after experiencing a life’s time worth of traumatic events.

Putting Forgiveness into Practice

I was terrified. Realizing I was living life in a state of numbness and waking into the full spectrum of my emotional world was overwhelming. This is where I had began to make some bad decisions. But when it came down to making a choice, when I confronted my then partner with what was happening to me and what she wanted to do, she chose to leave. Like everybody else before her. She chose to avoid confronting the real work that needed to be done. Later I would try to run to Maine to start a blueberry farm for her, but that’s another story all together.

And it’s important to note that this isn’t a soapbox for me to hop on some high moral ground. I made my share of mistakes, that’s for certain. And I’m not trying to say that my ex didn’t have a difficult decision to make. But when it came to practicing forgiveness, something she would say we needed to do often, she was unwilling to.

And again, I know that this isn’t easy work. It’s one thing to look back on what we have done and criticize ourselves for not doing the right thing with the luxury of time and perspective. But when we’re caught in the moment and the emotions are so big that we can’t see our way out of them, it’s not so easy to see things rationally. So how do we get to a place where we can practice forgiveness? Even if it’s been something we’ve been avoiding for a very long time? Practice.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I know what’s true for me, is that contempt came easy because it was what I practiced. Everyday, while I was interacting in my relationships, I was practicing distancing myself from others by feeling contempt for them. So the antidote to that? Practice forgiveness.

For me, I started by getting in touch with the people that I had lost contact with. This was no easy task. And I should say that I didn’t go into the reconnection with an air of needing to forgive the other. That in itself can be arrogant. My main intention was to open up to the other. To let them know that, as a friend of mine used to say, “I’m here, I care.” And also because we were friends once. I genuinely want my friends to be happy and successful.

Though my intentions are good, they weren’t always met with warm regards. One person that hurt me particularly badly responded with, “blow it out your ass.” Something I can laugh about now, but it still doesn’t stop me from worrying about them from time to time. Which brings me to another facet of practicing forgiveness, humility.

Being Humble

This wasn’t so easy for me to practice. I was over the top with my machismo attitude and posturing. I wanted to be seen as in charge and beyond reproach. This goes hand in hand with me setting the bar too high to be questioned about my own actions. This was also my way of distancing myself from others. But it did little in the way of making me a strong individual.

My past self would hold on to the smallest insults. Blowing them way out of proportion and find ways to retaliate to make the other person feel small. But this made me aggressive and petty. Also unable to truly withstand the little blows that life dealt me.

What practicing humility means for me is, sitting inside of the discomfort of somebody else’s hurtful comments without reacting emotionally. It’s here that I’m able to release these emotions and let them pass without looking for some way to bolster my hurt ego. From this calm place, it is easier to find forgiveness.

So my friends, here is where I leave you. If you’re like me and have more than a few relationships in critical condition, know that it’s not too late. You can still work to reconnect and salvage some of those friendships. You won’t save them all, but that’s okay too. Take what you can from the experience and know that there are more likeminded people out there to meet still. Good luck, peace & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Broken heart” by bored-now is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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