A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about self-respect. One theme running through that article was the concept of boundaries in relationships. Saying “no” when that’s what your heart is telling you, regardless of outside pressure to say “yes” and honoring your own needs as being equally important as those of the people around you. I mentioned that in many ways I often feel as if there are two “me’s”: the “outside me” that seeks to please and represent myself in a certain way to the world around me and the “inside me” that makes up my authentic feelings. These two are often in conflict but especially so when I’m asked to do something I don’t want to do, in which case “outside me” generally steamrolls “inside me” and agrees even when “inside me” is screaming no. In this way, misappropriated feelings of guilt or shame keep me from experiencing authentic freedom. Many months ago, my counselor and I had a conversation about this and he sent me home with a book entitled Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. This was the first time I began to understand that it was not only my right but also my responsibility to set boundaries in my relationships if I wanted those relationships to be healthy ones. But only recently have I begun to understand that one of the things boundaries do is enable us to take care of and honor our own souls.
After reading the book Boundaries, my eyes were opened to all the ways I’d allowed the lack of boundaries to affect my relationships and I struggled with anger for a long time. I understood that my anger was because I felt certain people in my life had been taking advantage of me, but I also knew there was more to the story, only I couldn’t quite see what it was. In addition to this, or maybe because of it, I also couldn’t understand how to stop being angry. But last night, I read the following words written by Oprah Winfrey in the introduction to a book entitled The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukov, and it suddenly became clear to me exactly why I was so angry. She writes:
“My favorite insight [of this book]: ‘When the personality comes fully to serve the energy of its soul, that is authentic empowerment.’ … Using [my personality] to serve my soul – and making sure the two were aligned – changed the way I did everything. I suddenly recognized all the times I’d gotten off track by letting my personality rule. I started to notice that the degree to which I ever felt unhappiness, discomfort, or despair was in direct proportion to how far I let myself stray from the seat of the soul.”
In other words, my unhappiness, discomfort, and despair (and in this case, anger) comes from allowing my personality (“outside me”) to speak a different truth than my soul (“inside me.”) This revelation helped me to realize that the reason I was so angry was because I was expecting other people to take care of me in the way that I am supposed to take care of myself.
Because I wasn’t taking responsibility for my OWN well-being, I was tasking OTHER PEOPLE with that responsibility. How dare my friend try to convince me to go, knowing (because I had sort-of, kind-of hinted) that I didn’t want to? How dare my family member repeatedly ask me to do something when I’d already tried (in a wishy-washy, unclear way,) to make it known that I didn’t want to do it? These people were not looking out for my best interests!!! And, well, if I wasn’t going to look out for my OWN best interests, then surely SOMEONE – especially my friends and family, without any real knowledge of how I actually felt – ought to! Because, you know, that makes perfect sense.
With this revelation came the realization that the solution to my anger is a simple one:
Speaking the truth. Speaking those truthful thoughts from the deepest parts of myself that too often scream the opposite of what my mouth actually says. Because not only has my refusal to give truthful answers been harming me, it’s also been harming my relationship with others.
Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here To Serve button has been eternally pinned. We’re expected to nurture and give by the very virtue of our femaleness, to consider other people’s feelings and needs before our own. I’m not opposed to those traits. The people I most admire are in fact nurturing and generous and considerate. Certainly, an ethical and evolved life entails a whole lot of doing things one doesn’t particularly want to do and not doing things one very much does, regardless of gender.
But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.
You can [say no] and still be a compassionate friend.
– Cheryl Strayed, The Truth that Lives There.