Boundaries Part 2: Being True To You
"To thine own self be true."
The biggest plague of my life and relationships has been a lack of authenticity with myself and with others. When experiencing things that were displeasing to me, I mistakenly thought that the pain of confrontation was worse that the discomfort of saying "no", "I disagree", or other assertive statements. I would bend over backwards to stay out of difficult conversations, thinking I was making my life easier. However, in the meantime, discontent began to mount up in my life. Emotions would overcome me in sudden waves, and I couldn't explain why or where they came from. I came to a realization that this avoidance of difficulty was not improving my life, but making it worse.
In my daily work I get to meet with people at their lowest and most vulnerable, and more often than not, I can relate to their predicaments. An unsurprisingly common one is the struggle that comes with feeling as though you are unable to be your true self. Maybe you feel like if you do reveal yourself for who you truly are, you will be rejected or ridiculed. Maybe you literally cannot muster the courage to say those difficult but necessary words. Being true to myself was increasingly feeling like a life or death matter - I didn't know for sure if it would actually kill me if I didn't change something, but it sure felt like it would.
A simple term for being true to yourself is authenticity. Authenticity is defined as the quality of being "worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact." It is the state of being "not false or imitation," or "true to one's own personality, spirit, or character," according to Merriam-Webster. That last definition is the most powerful. We are being authentic when we are true to ourselves. Here are some obstacles that stand in the way of being true to ourselves:
Related: Guide Sheet - How To Be Authentic
Poor Self Awareness
A part of why I've been so passive is because I do not know myself; I am so out of touch with my thoughts and feelings, I can't even know them in order to express them honestly in the moment. This is true for many of us. We want to be true to our own personality, spirit, or character, but we don't even know who we are! How can we be true to something if we don't even know what it is? Step one to being true to yourself is learning who you really are. What is your personality? What are you like? What is your spirit? Are you introspective? Are you a social butterfly? Study yourself. Once you know who you are, you'll be able to differentiate between the true you and your imitation self. How do you feel?
Another scourge in my life has been that of obligation; doing things I may not want to do, but feel I am supposed to do. How would you feel if you found that your best friend, boyfriend or girlfriend revealed to you that everything they've ever done for you is out of obligation? What a heartbreak that would be! We experience a lot of obligations depending on our background; some come from culture, or from our religious background. Once again, the question is, what are you doing because you want to do it, and what are you doing out of obligation? Sometimes we accept this because we want to express love and care for others. Other times, these obligations were placed on us through the force of an authoritative role or by some kind of moral mandate or guilt trip.
Step two in being true to you, once again, involves study - what do you believe? What are your values? What is truly important to you at the end of the day, or better yet, what will continue to be important to you by the end of your life? If you are religious, learn your beliefs for yourselves. Those of us under the heavy weight of obligation often find that someone has misused our belief system to get what they want from us, whether it be our time, loyalty, or other things.
I have a major problem with guilt, and I have found it to be the largest source of toxicity in my life. Some of it has originated internally, simply in my personality as a perfectionist and a naturally compassionate person. Some of it has been externally applied by others, which my personality naturally makes worse. Guilt is a powerful emotion, and many of us can think of times when it has compelled us to do things we wouldn't otherwise do. Guilt is an emotion that should be respected as all the others, but in order to be true to ourselves, we need to recognize the root of our guilt when we are experiencing it. Ask yourself:
- Am I feeling guilty because my personality, character, or values were compromised?
- Is this something that is truly important to me?
- Has someone done or said something in order to make me feel guilty?
- What response are they expecting from me? Does my response benefit them truly, or does it promote an agenda that is not in line with my values?
Once you are able to sniff out and resist a strong guilt trip, you will feel able to act out of authenticity to yourself and not compromise!
Say what you mean and mean what you say
One of the most helpful ways to defend your boundaries is through expressing yourself authentically. Here are some of the most common ways we are often inauthentic with ourselves and others:
Saying "Sorry" When We Don't Mean It
I find myself being guilty of this a lot of the time. "Sorry" is a default statement that often flies from my mouth instinctively at every slight misunderstanding. I didn't realize this until someone asked me "Why are you apologizing so much?" There are two main issues with throwing "sorry" around indiscriminately:
- First, you are putting yourself in a subordinate position to the person. If I wronged someone, and I was asking for their forgiveness, I am placing myself at their mercy until they decide to forgive me or heal from their hurt. Am I "sorry" for passing them in the hallway, or for us walking towards the same door at the same time? Not really. I'm not waiting with bated breath for their forgiveness. In this case "excuse me" would much better suffice.
- Second, it cheapens the meaning of the word itself. The word "sorry" probably deserves its own article, but I found myself throwing out "sorry" after deeply hurting someone I love, expecting them to quickly forgive me. Being "sorry" should be a big deal, with regret implied and a desire to change my ways to avoid hurting the ones I love. Saying it 100 times on the subway does not carry that same weight.
You never want to apologize for claiming your rights. This sends the message to those around you that they somehow have claim to these personal parts of you which is not true and is harmful to you. This might seem like nitpicking, but what it truly represents is me throwing words around indiscriminately with little to no thought to what I am really trying to say. The whole idea is to stop living life mindlessly on autopilot, and a great way to start is with my words. I want to be much more intentional with them. The more purposeful I am with my words and communication, the more purposeful I will naturally become in my relationships. If my life is made up of my relationships, the better I communicate, the higher quality of life I will live.
"It's OK" and Other Lies We Tell
I am very guilty of this as well, and this has caused much harm to my life. When someone wrongs us, and we say "it's OK," immediately by default, we weaken our boundaries. What I've found is that when someone is a toxic person, "It's OK" becomes a license to them. Even if you say it uncertainly, or with a tone in your voice, or with an unclear body language, after much prodding, the person will simply fixate on the words you say, because it's what they want to hear. I have come to the end of relationships that were toxic, and when I stated to the person how they've hurt me or used me, they reply with major surprise because I didn't express my dissatisfaction sooner. If it's not OK, don't say so! Do not give poorly contained people license to run amok in your life, damaging you from the inside out like a human free radical.
Saying things like "It's OK" and "no problem" or "It's alright," when we don't mean it, makes our boundaries unclear. It opens doors that we want to keep closed. It gives others a green light where it should be red and as a result, a wreck ensues. We often do this because we feel like its our responsibility to make others feel comfortable around us. If you struggle with worry about hurting others like I do, stay silent or find something, anything else, to say or comment on, like try saying “Well, Thank you for trying to understand,” but for the love of God, don't say "it's OK" until it is actually OK. You will be amazed at how that silence or redirection will cause someone to pause and think about what they did and how it made you feel. It makes people take you and your truth seriously. If you hold a higher standard, you will be surprised at who then seeks to rise to it in order to remain in your life.
No Is A Complete Sentence.
You have the right to your rights! We often feel as though we can only say no when we have a good reason or excuse, when in actuality you don't need one at all! You can simply say "no", "I'm not able to do that", or "Gonna have to pass, but maybe another time." You don't owe them a reason at all. If your reason is that you plan on binge-watching Netflix, that is a good enough reason to say no to something if that is what you desire. We often force these obligations on ourselves, due to our upbringing, our culture, or our acceptance of social roles. But "just say no" was arguably an effective campaign against using drugs for a reason. We know these things are harmful to our bodies; therefore there is no need to explain ourselves or make excuses as to why we don't want to. Our emotional well being is no different.
Be true to you
Being true to yourself is a practice. It takes time. When I struggle to implement a positive thing in my life, my first obstacle is usually that I simply don't know how. Hopefully this article removes that first obstacle. May the road before you be clear, and the heart within you be brave. May the life around you be rich, and may the people around you grow ever more valuable.
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