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.

Moving Past The Past and Into Forgiveness

Moving past the past and into forgiveness. I’ve spoken a lot about the situations and circumstances of my past on this blog. But what I’ve come to realize is, that for all the work I’ve done on coming to terms with what happened in the past, I haven’t really forgiven the major players in the story of what has happened to me. I suppose I needed the time to understand how their actions effected me. But what I’m coming to realize is, that the more I focus on what has happened, the more I stay trapped in my past feelings and patterns .

So with this in mind, I’d like to move past the past and look towards the future, by forgiving those involved in my past story. I want to start by taking a look at the circumstances of my past, those involved and try to use what I’ve been practicing in this blog and extend a little forgiveness to those who’ve wronged me. So let’s see if we can’t move past these road blocks that’ve been holding me back and I imagine others in my situation as well : )

Respecting What Has Happened, Not Forgetting It

For me, forgiveness wasn’t something that was taught, well ever really. I can’t recall one instance in my family where a person admitted that they were wrong. Let alone us forgiving someone for doing something hurtful. This sent me the message that, admitting you’re wrong, as well as apologizing to and forgiving others, is a sign of weakness. And in my family, we used mistakes against one another to feel superior, by making the person who erred look foolish and feel small.

So it was in this environment that I learned to navigate the landmine filled maze of my family members emotional spaces. It was confusing. I was constantly being hit with verbal shrapnel, exploding from one of my family members mouths, all the while nursing one wound or another aimed to maim. And I learned to use the same tactics they were employing, to protect myself from what they were doing to me. It was a frightening environment to grow up in to say the least.

But Dragging Your Past With You Will Weigh You Down

So it was with these lessons that I forged a future for myself. Using the same tools I had learned to use to survive my family in my youth. But this lead to an unhealthy way of living. I couldn’t let my guard down for long enough to build trust with anyone in order to form lasting, healthy relationships. And those that I did call my friends, didn’t stick around when things got difficult. Because we were all using the same lessons to hold our relationships together, there wasn’t much of a substantial connection between us to begin with.

And those bonds we thought we had with one another, were really chains keeping us connected to our past ways of staying “connected”, though not necessarily with each other. We were constantly demeaning one another to look and feel superior while drinking, with the occasional drug use thrown in for some added avoidance of how we were being hurtful to one another.

What we were really doing was avoiding the tender parts of our relationships. The parts where we may have felt insecure about how we looked to each other. Or whether or not we felt a sense of belonging and basic support at all. God knows that we didn’t get it from our families. So we were left on our own to sort out how to feel a part of something larger while being held down by the chains of our past.

So The Past Was Difficult, How Do We Move Past It and Into Forgiveness?

This was/is the tricky part for me. Getting through the feelings of, “I should have gotten what I needed from those raising me”, wasn’t easy. Looking back at what I experienced and where I am now, there was a lot to process, but also a lot to be grateful for. And that’s definitely a great place to start. In realizing that it wasn’t all bad.

Moving Past the Negative Experiences to Look Toward the Positive Ones

I’ve been lucky enough to have had some unique and wonderful experiences along with the difficult ones. I find that when you’re in the middle of remembering the difficult past, it’s hard to see those that were involved as anything but a bad person, or some sort of monster. And there are some monstrous deeds that sometimes are too difficult to process on our own, for sure. But that doesn’t mean that we should allow those deeds to dictate how we live out the rest of our lives.

Or to make wise choices on who we allow to be a part of our future experiences. But it’s important to recognize that there will be good times again, and that if we set some boundaries and choose carefully who we allow access into our lives, we can look forward to happy and fulfilling times : )

Boundary Setting

An example from my life, in trying to rebuild some of the past connections with those who’ve hurt me is, that I’ve been making a habit of trying to stay in touch via text or group chat more frequently. This may seem like a small step and something that most of us do on the daily anyways. But for me and my family, we seldom talk to one another. And when we do, we use words as our preferred weapon, to keep the other at arms length.

This was something I hadn’t realized how bad it had been until only a few years ago. I had asked a family member to meet me at a local whole foods, so we could get lunch and catch up on what was happening in our lives. They agreed and we met in the cafĂ© area on a day we both had free. We were a little nervous at first, having not seen each other in a long time. But things started out fairly normal.

We asked one another about how things were going, what we’d been up too and how other family members were doing. It all seemed to be going fairly well until they started belittling and making fun of me in the same judgmental fashion that we would poke and prod one another in the past. This was most likely to see where my boundaries were and what they could get away with. It left me feeling confused, a little hurt and sad that we weren’t able to meet without trying to wound the other.

This was something that we used to do, especially when we would drink together. We would be a few drinks in when inevitably the anger that had been seething just beneath the surface, of all the years of neglect and abuse, would come spewing out of our mouths in the form of resentments, judgements and insults, aimed to tear the other person down. And nobody was safe once we got going.

I’m not sure how we got to this place, of feeling that it was okay to be so free with our resentments towards one another in the cruelest ways we could muster. But we had been practicing that way of being for a long time. Now, for me and my safety, I’m choosing how much of the conversation I’m allowing into my life by being a part of it, though only on my terms.

I text on a semi-frequent basis, but also know that I’m able to put down the conversation if it takes a turn for the abusive. Now that I am no longer practicing that type of connection, I see how corrosive that type of resentment can be in relationships. I’m choosing to keep myself safe by setting the boundaries of being able to pick up and put down the conversation on my own terms.

There will be times in the future where I’ll be more flexible in how someone wants to direct the conversation, for sure. But until we can prove that we’re going to treat each other with respect first and foremost, I feel good about taking care of myself in this way. Respecting myself by respecting my boundaries. For more on setting healthy boundaries, this article written by John Amodeo on “Psychology Today” does a beautiful job of explaining what boundaries look like and how to maintain them. Good read, highly recommended.

When To Relax Your Boundaries

While forging these new relationships, it’s important to remember that the end goal is to have a mutually respectful, but also enjoyable experience with one another. This is unlikely to happen if our boundaries are turned all the way up to ten on the dial. Though this maybe necessary when you’re first forging these bonds as I am.

So if you’re rebuilding these bonds, go slow. Give it some time to see how the other person responds. A few questions to ask yourself while you are trying to create new connections may be; are they listening to me when I ask them to change or stop the direction of the conversation? Are some old patterns of connection resurfacing and are you both able to recognize them without getting wrapped up in them? Does the other person acknowledge that the old ways of connecting are unhealthy and do they want something different?

These can be difficult areas to explore, but if the answer is yes to these question, then after a little bit of time and practice, maybe you can begin to relax some of these boundaries and feel a little more free and open in the relationship. Maybe allowing a playful gest into the fold without taking it as insult. These interactions will hopefully come more and more naturally to those in a relationship that is mutually respectful. Then you may be able to enjoy each others company without feeling so guarded. Or as though you have to protect yourself and your emotions.

Relaxing Our Judgements

Judgements aren’t all bad. We make judgement calls all the time that effect our day to days regularly. I think where we get hung up on being judgmental is, when we substitute another’s negative judgement of our character as the truth of who we are. This was something that we did on a consistent basis in my family.

One of the ways we tried to control each other was through our constant and cutting judgements of one another. However, this only leads to resentment, which is corrosive to relationship building. So how do we take care of ourselves in the face of other’s critical judgements of us? Well I think it starts with us feeling solid in ourselves and our belonging, while setting aside the harsh judgements we’ve dispensed in the past.

I jumped on the judgement train at first to keep myself safe. I was being judged so often and feeling subsequently so small for it, while simultaneously watching my judgers hold a smug and superior air about them, that I felt the only way to get some power back was through judging others in the ways I was being judged. This, however, did not work as planned.

My judgements lead me to feel judged in my relationships. And in my experience, this type of judgement leads to resentment. But now that I recognize how I was feeling while I was being judged, and why I chose to pick up that tool and use it as a way to keep myself safe, I can now understand and recognize that what was really happening with those who were critically judging me was actually a deep sense of them not feeling belonging in our relationship.

For example, if a family member chose to make fun of me for my weight, say they called me a human garbage disposal as they often would. My caregiver was often made fun of for their weight growing up as well. And it’s then I’m able to see that they were insecure about their weight and how they were treated because of it. In a way, they were trying to shame me into making a positive change, however backward their attempt may have been. So now that I see where they are coming from, it’s easier to be more forgiving of their ridicule. Seeing how it stemmed from them feeling a lack of belonging.

Finding Belonging Through Forgiveness by Giving Up The Ghosts of Our Pasts

And for the most part, that’s what it really comes down to. Finding a sense of belonging. In a strange way, we were just trying to belong to one another. Through all the harsh judgements, the resentment and anger, we just wanted to feel like somebody wanted to be around us. That we were worth being around. And this is why I’m choosing to forgive those who’ve hurt me in the past.

I know that they want to belong just as badly as I want to belong. And nobody is going to feel like they belong if we keep holding our acceptance of one another just out of reach while we’re trying to buy ourselves some time to find a way to feel loved and belonging. And we know that we can’t live up to some of the impossible standards we’ve set for others. The ones we use to pretend that we are better than others because, by virtue of having that standard, we are better than the other just for having it.

Instead, I’m choosing to accept that I’m not perfect and that nobody is. So why hold it over somebody else’s head as prerequisite for belonging? For me, it’s just not worth it. So if you’ve found yourself in a place where you’ve been reliving some of the patterns of your past, know that you have it in you to move past it. Be a new you, forge a new path. As Rumi said, “be melting snow, wash yourself of yourself”. Wash yourself of the bonds holding you to the past and let your past, be in the past. You’ve got your life to live, go and live it. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Forgiveness” by Neshika Bell is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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