At lunch this week I walked past one of my favorite spots near where I work, this little oasis of a pink iron fence, pink and teal lamppost, courtyard, and overhead trellis, all in front of a gorgeous building with pink and teal accents. The charming pink fence in particular reminded me how beautiful and important boundaries can be, relevant to two recent conversations I had with study participants in my job coordinating investigational treatments for social anxiety and depression. (As always, names and life details are changed to preserve anonymity).
One young man with social anxiety – let’s call him Ben – came in for a study visit and started talking to me about his younger cousins, around 11 and 13, who have recently been entering his room without knocking, and then talking endlessly to him. (He lives with his uncle.) He thinks this is just starting to be a problem because, as part of his quest to overcome social anxiety, he’s been spending more time out of his room and with his cousins. He guesses that this change makes his cousins think it’s okay to talk to him almost ALL the time, even when he’s in his room. I asked Ben if he could ask his cousins to respect his alone time while he’s in his room, or at least to ask them to knock before entering. He said he’s afraid that would be rude!
What’s really rude (in my opinion) is the fact that his cousins enter without knocking! Of course, they are still relatively young, but all the more reason to kindly talk to them about respecting other people’s boundaries. Understandably, Ben didn’t see it this way until I shared my thoughts, but he seemed to quickly agree with me. The tricky part is that, as hard as it was for Ben to expose himself to social situations (one of the keys to overcoming social anxiety) by spending more time out of his room and with his cousins, it will be even harder for him to expose himself by expressing disagreement/disapproval (the clinical term, haha) to his cousins.
This discomfort with expressing disagreement/disapproval to others is a) a symptom of social anxiety, b) something a lot of people, even those without social anxiety, experience, and c) a barrier to setting healthy boundaries. When I say boundaries, I mean “guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits” (Wikipedia- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_boundaries). Even I have trouble with this! However, one helpful way I mentally approach setting boundaries is comparing short-term to long-term outcomes. Not speaking up and just going along when your roommate doesn’t do the dishes, your friend keeps inviting you out to bars/clubs and you’re getting tired, your cousins keep barging into your room, etc, may be easier and less uncomfortable in the short term, but speaking up in a kind, firm way will almost definitely improve your quality of life in the long term. Also, practicing setting boundaries now will make it easier to do so in the future, when the stakes might be higher!
However, boundaries can definitely be flexible, as long as you know where your firm lines are. Sometimes it’s okay to inconvenience yourself and go to your friend’s show on a weekday night just to support them, and sometimes it’s okay to pass on an invitation and show you care for your friend in another way/at another time. Everything in moderation. But when you start burning out, getting irritated, or experiencing any of the many ways your body tells you enough is enough, here are two good resources with phrases to help you set boundaries and say no:
Just as your relationship with others can improve by setting boundaries, so too can your relationship with yourself. Another social anxiety study participant, Jessie, recently came to my office for exposure therapy (giving a speech in front of an audience and watching video playback of herself). After the video playback, Jessie started listing all these negative thoughts she had about her speech: “I could’ve phrased that better, I don’t look smart enough, I’m not convincing anyone about my position, I forgot the name of that town, etc.” I realized that I used to have a lot of those same self-criticisms, for one simple reason: I didn’t think I would ever get better at anything without harsh self-criticism. As time goes by, however, I’m starting to realize that self-kindness is the smoothest, most effective, and happiest path to self-improvement. When you find yourself filled with self-criticism, maybe it’s time to set boundaries within yourself, fencing out the negative voice that is no expression of your truest, deepest, worthiest self. This article has 3 unique, actionable tips for dealing with that negative voice: https://psychcentral.com/blog/3-unique-techniques-for-navigating-a-negative-inner-voice/.
How are you setting boundaries with yourself and with others? Let us know in the comments!
I’ve always had trouble with my different worlds colliding, ever since I was in elementary school and I didn’t want my friends who were in band to hang out with my friends who were in Girl Scouts. Looking back, it was definitely a coping mechanism for a girl who was a bit of a people pleaser to not have to reconcile how differently she acted around different groups of people. Now, at 23, I’m much more solid in myself but there is still one significant area where I can’t seem to get my worlds to mesh. My husband, newly married for about 7 months now, still doesn’t really hang out with my family. Part of this is probably my fault, as when I met my husband I carefully kept him apart from my family because I was scared of how they would react about my asserting my own identity. We spend time with his family all the time (usually helping out with difficult situations or holiday obligation), but any suggestion of going over to my mom’s house for dinner or joining her for some event is like pulling teeth.
I think part of the problem is that my husband has a pretty exhausting family where new crises pop up pretty much every week. I’m worried that he thinks getting closer to my family will add even more people that will drain on his energy. How do I help reassure him that my family really does just want to chill? Is there a way I can approach this without entering the “Your family is exhausting and mine is great” territory? Or do you think it’s best to let my husband stay a bit separate if that’s what he wants and just spend time with my family on my own?
Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!
I think that meshing the world of your parents and the world of your partner is a big challenge in many people’s lives. And, as my wise mother said today, the first year of marriage is also especially difficult for many people. From what I can tell, you and your husband are doing a great job, but bumps along the road are perfectly natural. Let me try to address each of your questions - pulling from our phone convo also - and then address other concerns you didn’t phrase as questions.
You say you want to reassure your husband that your family really does just want to chill. On the phone, however, you made it sound like the issue is more that, no matter how chill your family is, your husband is such an introvert that a dinner or event will definitely drain him. I think that whether your family is chill or not is not the point. Your family could be the biggest pot of drama in the world, but you still get to ask him to spend time with your family for YOU.. This also touches on the second question - comparing families - and makes it kind of irrelevant. I understand that, as an independent adult, being around the family you’re born into can be exhausting. That’s why boundaries sound like a good idea in terms of both your family and your husband’s. It’s good to want to be there for family during a crisis,, but it’s also ok to say when it’s too much. Telling everyone that a scheduled dinner once a week, or once every other week, is all you guys can do each month might give you more time to focus on yourselves..
I don’t think dinner once a month is too much to ask - thereby answering your last question - and here’s why. I understand that your husband is an introvert and may not actually enjoy the dinner, no matter how chill your family is. You said you’re afraid you might feel like a nag for pushing him to go, for not meeting his needs halfway. Well, at this point you’re going 90% of the way, and he’s barely compromising! It is not your job to make him 100% comfortable 100% of the time, and protect him from any inconveniences. It is an inconvenience to YOU to feel the emotional pain of him not spending time with your family. On the phone you said it matters more to your parents than to you, but based on the fact that youwrote me, the fact that it matters to your parents means it matters to you. SO, you are being inconvenienced every time your parents ask to see him and you have to disappoint them (which sounds like it happens more than once a month), and he has been inconvenienced maybe twice in the past 7 months. I get that, based on his personality, seeing your family might be more of an inconvenience to him than it would be to most people. But that’s what loving someone means! It means sometimes (SOMETIMES) inconveniencing yourself to give the other person what they need, and expecting the same in return. That’s why dinner once a month might be a good idea - it makes sure that “sometimes” stays sometimes and doesn’t devolve into “too often”.
Regarding the fact that you think this might be your fault - I know your tendency is to blame yourself. But I don’t think this comes into play here. I know you both grew up in the same town, and you live there now, and both sets of in-laws still do too. That’s a lot of history to blame current habits on. But marriage is a whole new world. It is perfectly natural to ask for things now that you didn’t ask for - in fact actively avoided - in high school. However, if you think the conversation would be smoother if you discussed what the family visits were like in high school, and how that might impact expectations now, by all means, go for it.
On that note... the question now is what concrete advice can I give you for broaching the topic of monthly dinners with your parents, if indeed that’s what you decide to do. You mentioned on the phone you might bring it up in terms of a New Year’s Resolution - or maybe a New Year’s Tradition, since he likes that word better. That’s a good idea! I might start the conversation saying something like, “Because the holidays are a time for family, I’ve been thinking more about what we’ve already talked about - trying to spend more time with my parents. I know that you really value your alone time, but it’s also really important to my parents to see you a bit more than they have these past 7 months. Is there any way we could compromise and start a new tradition of monthly dinners with my parents? We wouldn’t have to stay for hours or anything, but maybe putting it in the calendar and committing to it would make the boundaries comfortable for both parties - not too much socializing for us, and more socializing for my parents than they’ve had with both of us, together, in the past.”
Obviously that’s just a rough sketch of a proposition. But hopefully it gives you ideas for talking with your husband! I think early in a marriage is the best time to practice speaking up about your own needs, even when they might conflict with your partner’s. “Compromise is key” is a cliche for a reason! And your husband might even pleasantly surprise you; after all, you married him for a reason. ;) Good luck!
I wish I knew what to write you about. I wish I had one concrete problem with a bunch of concrete examples that you could tackle. I could write about the guy at work that I’m friends with and slightly tempted to date, but I know I won’t end up dating him. I could write about how I’m dreaming about my ex-boyfriend several nights a week now when I barely have in the past year, but I’m too embarrassed to talk about that. I could write about how all I have left to do now - other than work 40 hours a week and try to have a reasonably meaningful social life in Chicago - is wait for decisions from poetry MFA programs, but I’m terribly impatient and, as my mother would say, “discombobulated” about it almost constantly. But maybe there’s nothing I can do about that. Maybe it’s just my nature. Actually, maybe there is something I can do about that, but that would involve tackling the worst parts of my nature, and I’m tempted to say I’m too embarrassed to talk about that.
So, regarding the MFA thing, here’s what I’m embarrassed to talk about. If I don’t get in this year, I will need to draw on a lot of resilience to re-apply, or build and work towards other plans, or do any number of things. And the thing is, I know I COULD do that, but I don’t want to. I feel like I’ve already used up a lot of resilience in my life, and like I deserve for one thing I really want to manifest now (read: this spring) without having to wait or work any more. BUT that’s not true! I have had a relatively easy life, and I am so privileged, and so many people everywhere have their resilience and spirits depleted in more numerous and terrible ways every day, and DESERVE doesn’t even come into it. People get what they don’t deserve - either more or less - every day! But even putting that aside, I DON’T deserve a break from drawing on my resilience. Like I said, my life’s been relatively easy! But still, if I look deep inside myself, what I feel is a terrible entitlement to get what I want this spring, and if I don’t, I will have to do a lot of emotional work to rewire my thinking. Maybe I should start doing some of that work now, but the problem is, I don’t know where to start.
Thanks so much for any of your thoughts, B. I know I look like a jerk, but thank you. :)
All my love,
First of all, you don’t look like a jerk. You look like someone who is in a very uncertain time of her life who would like very very much to be certain. This in itself is not a bad thing and not something you should be embarrassed about. You are allowed to want what you want. That’s literally what people do. We’re human, and we have dreams and goals and we put a lot of effort into achieving those. So of course you are dreading having to do that all over again - especially right now when you have just finished that big push. Honestly, I would be sincerely worried about you if you came away from writing MFA apps and you were just dying to be rejected so that you could do that all over again. It’s totally, one hundred percent, ok to hope for things to go your way, and to be disappointed if they don’t.
I think sometimes we fall into this trap where we start thinking that it is OUR fault for being disappointed by things for DARING to wish that a certain outcome would be possible. When really, circumstances can just be disappointing. Especially with something as personal and vulnerable as writing, I think you realize that you have put a lot of yourself into this app, and any rejection of the application is going to feel like a rejection of your self. I’m sure you know the fickle nature of acceptances, and how exactly the same application might seem different depending on whether the reader has eaten lunch or not. So I won’t try to explain away the why of possibly getting rejected, because I think it’s more important to address how you might feel should that happen.
I wonder if somewhere in the back of your head, you’re building a little protective cocoon around yourself so that just in case you don’t get in, you will have already done a lot of the mourning. In rushing to “draw on your resilience...and do any number of things,” I see you trying to go straight to the “I’m ok and I’m working toward a new goal and this setback was just a) a challenge on my road to MFA success, b) a blessing in disguise, c) a sign that this dream is not for me, or d) any other number of things”. Especially in Western, conflict-driven culture, there’s the temptation to frame everything as a narrative toward an eventual happy ending (whatever happy might look like for you). But that is not necessarily how life works. Sometimes sad things happen and we are just there, feeling sad about them for a while. And maybe you learn something from the sadness, and maybe you don’t, but it’s far far easier on yourself to just let the sadness happen than to try to paper over it with new dreams or reassurances that you can’t possibly feel sad because other people in the world have felt worse and ignoring their sadness is the sign of entitled privilege.
The thing about sadness, or any emotion really, is that we can only really feel how those things happen in our own bodies. Yes, empathy is an amazing, wonderful thing, but the worst pain you, personally, have ever felt is still going to be the worst pain that you have ever felt. Refusing to let yourself acknowledge that this is painful and hard FOR YOU - no matter how much other people may or may not be suffering - is like refusing to let yourself be happy over finding 5 dollars in your coat (for a delicious latte?) because someone somewhere in the world has just won the lottery. For better or worse, sometimes we have to narrow our focus down to just our own selfish lizard brain so that we don’t explode.
So. If (and that’s a big if!!! You might get in, you know!) you don’t happen to be accepted to any of the MFA programs, I officially give you permission to be sad about it. To wallow, if wallowing is your style. To take extra nice care of yourself for a couple weeks. To call your Mom/friends as many times as you need even if it’s just to say, “I got another rejection letter and I’m really sad.” People who are truly in your tribe will get that, and will genuinely want to be there for you in this hard time. I give you permission to just write for yourself for a year, or two years, without the pressure of new applications. I give you permission to apply again immediately if that is what feels right and healthy for you.
Your own guilt about being upset about something that is upsetting to you is not doing anything positive for you, or for these other people who deal with what you define as truly upsetting things. Is there some way that you could act on those feelings? Is there an organization you believe in that you could volunteer with? Is there a place near your home where you could join (or start!) a writer’s workshop that specifically looks to include the voices of marginalized or oppressed people? Is there a way you could use your talent for writing to improve a charity or other group that is actively working to relieve some of the circumstances that force other people to use more resilience in their lives than you have had to?
You see, there is nothing wrong with feeling and owning your own emotions. There is nothing wrong with asking for support from your people when you go through one of life’s setbacks. But endlessly denying your own emotions in the name of recognizing that other people have capital P pain is martyrdom to a non-existent cause. I’m not saying that you should force everyone to treat you with kid gloves because you have the sads, but there is something helpful in letting yourself have the sads and not adding a whole bunch of guilt and anger on top of that. Anyone who does bring up THE SUFFERING OF THE WORLD when you tell them about your own small sadness is not part of your tribe and should be quietly crossed off your list of friends that you go to for support.
Whether you get in or not, don’t forget to congratulate yourself for the hard work you have done to get to this point at all. You have done something big, and that something will reverberate through the next season of your life even if you don’t end up attending an MFA program. Take a break if that is what you need, or do something totally unrelated to any future or career aspirations. Give yourself space to breathe and grieve, then keep writing through it all.
As an enthusiastic believer in the merits, if not the truth, of astrology, I often take the advice of astrologists and set aside a half hour or so for reflection every two weeks, on the full and new moon. One thing that astrology does well is encourage time for reflection, which the modern Western world often does not. A couple months ago, an astrologist I subscribe to recommended a reflection focused on your relationships with your body and money. As I sat down to journal on aspects of those relationships I wish to improve, I hit a roadblock when it came to brainstorming concrete action steps with money. In contrast, I have done a lot of work with my body, beginning in eighth grade when I developed anorexia and continuing throughout the next four or five years. Thanks to this work - as well as to outside support, and also to sheer luck - when I brainstormed concrete action steps regarding my relationship with my body, the biggest problem I came up with was having too many pairs of socks and underwear with holes. I decided my body deserved better, so I bought new underwear and socks. Simple as that! However, I had never actively worked on my relationship with money, and I felt lost.
I knew it would benefit me to work on that relationship, because ever since I graduated and became financially independent in June, I have experienced undue anxiety about money. Although I work at a job that I like, and that will probably lead to a good career, I am not paid as much as many of my friends are paid. While I do not make much above minimum wage and am trying to live an active, single, social life in a major city, I still find that I have enough money to take care of necessities, have some fun, and build my savings. Yet despite having what is objectively enough money, I have gone to Walgreens and stood in the toothpaste aisle, almost hyperventilating due to the anxiety I felt about choosing the PERFECT toothpaste at the BEST price. I have also come close to hyperventilating at “normal” grocery stores, overwhelmed by all the choices and afraid I will overspend and/or not pick what I most want and need. (I am too accustomed to the limited-choice model of places like Trader Joe’s, and I don’t often step outside that comfort zone.) While I have bought my own toothpaste and groceries (and many other things) for years, this summer was the first time that everything I bought came solely out of the money I made, not from a combination of my money and my parents’ money. This new reality upped the stakes for me, bringing out the worst aspects of my perfectionism: my indecisiveness, especially in the face of the glut of choices in our capitalist society; my discomfort with anything other than a huge cushion of savings; my maximizing tendencies (e.g., if I don’t absolutely love this toothpaste/latte/you-name-it, it’s a waste of money; read more on maximizers vs. satisficers here); and many others.
I didn’t know with whom I can talk to about this, partly because I felt too much shame around a) making less money than my friends, and b) having these feelings when I have what is objectively enough money, and when so many others lived in abject poverty. So I was stuck. I felt too much shame to talk to friends; I didn’t want to pay for a therapist (surprise, surprise); and whenever I brought the issue up with my mother, she either got frustrated at my irrationality or upset at herself for raising me in the lower-middle class home that bred some of my anxiety in the first place. On the other hand, the situation wasn’t dire; I did not hyperventilate every time I spent money, and I could feel my anxiety lessen as the weeks went on and I became more accustomed to financial independence.
Transition periods have always been hard for me. Funnily enough, though, I expected this transition to wreak havoc on my relationship with food and my body, which is what most transition periods have done in the past. But that’s the wild thing about mental health; you cannot always foresee the challenges on the horizon. Luckily for me, even a couple months ago, this transition period was close to ending; I was close to fully being in a new era of my life, and my anxiety around money was less crippling than ever. But I still thought I should seek advice and put some work into my relationship with money, and I still didn’t want to talk to any person, over the phone or in person, about this. (That’s the great thing about advice blogs!) Alas, I did not write to an advice blog. Instead, I thought about the last time I wanted advice without talking to someone. What came to mind was a time near the end of high school when I had made some progress in my relationship with my body but wanted to do more work. Through my obsessive habit of internet stalking all manner of body-positive gurus, I stumbled upon a woman named Geneen Roth and went to the library to check out her book Women Food and God. This book ended up really helping me in high school, and now, as a college graduate, I thought I would try to find a similar book about money.
After reading reviews of various books, I checked out Emotional Currency: A Woman’s Guide to Building a Healthy Relationship with Money, by Kate Levinson. A quick search for this book, or for Women Food and God, shows that I am obviously more interested in psychological and spiritual work than in anything like Weight Watchers or a practical personal finance program. With my body, my goal is not to lose weight, and with money, my finances are fine on the surface; it is just my underlying relationship with them that is fraught.
The thing with any self-help book is that you cannot just read it; you actually have to do the suggested exercises and/or your own active reflections (e.g., journal entries) as you read. For me, truly experiencing a self-help book requires doing anything that requires more work on your part that just consuming ideas. I have to say that I have not persisted far in active work with Emotional Currency, partly because I’m juggling many things and partly because I’m resistant to tackling the topic of money. But, in the spirit of commending myself for consciously seeking advice when I felt I needed it, I will say this: I have done several exercises in the book that have helped me rinse out some of the murkier feelings I associate with money, and I am proud of myself for going from a place where I was completely clueless about how to handle this relationship, to reflecting on what I had done in past, similar situations and effectively applying that strategy to the issue at hand. I think that more often than not, a little mental push is all we need to see the situation in a new light and apply some of the wisdom we already have inside us.
Both entering and leaving college were huge times of transition for me, not only because of the obvious reasons like moving across the country and leaving my family and starting a rigorous course of study, but also because I felt this huge loss of community when I left my hometown. I grew up in a tiny town - small enough that the one time I tried to rent an R rated movie before I was 17, my mother heard about it in a matter of hours. Small enough that we have one McDonald’s and literally no other fast food. Small enough that any actual shopping trip involves driving at least half an hour. My high school graduating class was considered somewhat large at 120 students and I had been with the same classmates since kindergarten. SMall enough that I felt close to people from a huge range of age and life experiences and had a wealth of life-knowledge at my fingertips.
As a teenager, I both loved and hated this closeness. It meant that I sometimes felt stifled by the lack of big city culture and what I saw as close-mindedness among my peers and fellow residents. But it also meant that I always felt like I had someone to turn to, someone to ask advice of about any difficulty I was facing. In my small town, I knew my neighbors and was on a first-name basis with most of the community leaders. Most of the elderly people acted like surrogate grandparents for all of us teenagers - to our benefit and chagrin. There was a sense that I could look to the people older than me for their wisdom and that they would really care about helping me find answers to my questions.
In college, I missed the multi-generational feel that had always surrounded me. Outside of professors, who felt so distant to me when I first arrived, I was surrounded entirely by people about my same age. While I definitely found friends who often gave me advice, there were moments when I felt like we were all in a sinking ship and no one knew quite how to use the bucket meant to bail us out. Simple things, like filling out tax forms or learning how to use a laundromat, or even how to refuse a date I really didn’t want, seemed like insurmountable obstacles. Always a private person, I didn’t want to explain my lack of any clue to just anyone. Though I have a very close relationship with my mother, and am grateful for that every day, there were questions I just couldn’t ask her in a cross-country phone call. And there were some things that I just didn’t want to tell her as I asserted my independence.
Being naturally inclined towards research, I often turned to the internet to ask advice and figure things out. I googled things constantly, from inane things like “how to I ask for a friend’s phone number without making it awkward?” to potentially life-threatening choices like “Is it really safe to microwave chicken?” On the more serious side, I desperately looked for ways to help a friend suffering from depression. As you can imagine, I found all sorts of information and eventually learned to sort through the good and the bad.
Yet relationships remained a messy area that I couldn’t seem to find any advice on. There were thousands of magazine articles about Not Scaring Boys Away, and other sources of wisdom about the importance of clear, honest communication. But I saw very little advice about how to actually achieve that lofty goal when being clear and honest felt like the most vulnerable thing I ever had to do. I felt that my situation was different and I could see how to apply generic knowledge to my own life.
My freshman year consisted of a long-distance relationships that collapsed catastrophically into a very very rushed summer romance with a boy I hardly knew. I was unhappy but in denial; it all seemed like my own stupid fault and I couldn’t see how to get out. I thought of who I could ask for advice and came up empty. My mother, more conservative than I, didn’t know all the details and I couldn’t bring myself to fill her in. My friends, though supportive, were also busy with their own issues and decisions and I wanted to preserve my own image of having it all together. In the midst of this confusion, I stayed in a relationship that was wrong for me in so many ways and punished myself for feeling miserable in it.
Then, I stumbled along an internet advice blog. I won’t name names to protect the innocent, but I pored over every single letter this kind soul had answered. Still too scared to submit my own question, I read between the lines of other people’s stories of indecision and uncertainty. I felt validated, both that other people had these issues and that it was possible to ask for help without being blamed for getting into this mess in the first place. Finally, cobbling together my own path from these answers, I had a very tough conversation with Summer Boy and felt freer than I had in a year and a half.
Thus began a life-long love of advice columns. I still read the one that saved my sanity, though it has gone through several versions and no longer seems to give quite the same advice as it did 5 years ago. I’ve also added several other columns and blogs to my reading list, all of which remind me that it’s ok to ask for advice and that it’s ok to want to remain anonymous while doing it.