How many times have you uttered the words, “I’m sorry”, in response to someone’s reaction? How many times have you been made to feel wrong, blamed—shamed, when you’ve shown an appropriate expression of emotion or articulated your needs? That’s right, people, you guessed it! You know exactly what I’m talking about, sweet angels. I’m talking about the infamous “b” word, or dare I say it, BOUNDARIES.
I’m talking about the way we apologize reflexively when we start crying, revealing a glimpse peek at the person behind the mask worn in public, as our best kept secrets expose us for what we really are: human. I’m talking about the way we feel bad for saying, “no” or “I’m not able to today, but maybe tomorrow”, or “these are my needs”. I’m talking about the way we say, “it’s okay!”, in response to someone apologizing when they’ve made a mistake or hurt our feelings.
But why, why are we doing this? Because if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wondered if you’re truly sorry. In fact, you might even know that deep down, in the depths of your soul, you are likely right. So, why is it then, that we are still made to feel this way if we aren’t doing anything wrong? And, if we’re not doing anything wrong, are we actually sorry?
Well, my loves, the answer goes back to that big scary word mentioned in the beginning: boundaries. You’ve presumably heard your friends, family, teachers, and therapist (guilty) throw this word around. It carries weight and It’s important, this much you know. But what does it really mean, and why are maintaining healthy boundaries so damn hard?
Here’s the thing—boundaries are challenging because people are challenging; we are delightfully complex beings on our own, so drop us into a few situations and relationships, and no wonder this sh*t is difficult.
In the mental health world, we, therapists, refer to this as homeostasis, or our internal stability. We get stuck within certain relational and behavioral patterns, all of which contribute to our homeostasis. So, when we decide to live life on the edge and do something different, such as rebel and set boundaries (how risky!), it throws the whole system into overdrive, threatening to disrupt our homeostasis. This is where the discomfort of change stems from, because it is perceived as an actual threat to our internal organisms, both physiological and emotional. We are, after all, habitual creatures.
This is why when you set healthy boundaries, the other persons or systems often lash out, because you’re shaking up their (and your) homeostasis, and sometimes, that shake up is painful—even when it’s needed. And, it can make us feel as though we’re the ones who are in the wrong, when in reality, we’re not actually sorry.
I’m not sorry that I cry when talking about my daughter who passed away. This is sad and not only is it appropriate, but necessary to cry when we’re sad. When we cry, our body releases endorphins that help us with emotional regulation.
I’m not sorry that in response to your, “I hope you are well!” after you know what I’ve been through is, “actually, I’m having a hard time!”.
I’m not sorry that I answer honestly when you ask how I am and I share what I’m going through. If you’re not in a place to hear it, then that’s fair, but that’s a boundary that you need to set with me.
I’m not sorry when I tell you that I don’t feel up for visitors. Sometimes I need space (don’t we all?), and I shouldn’t feel guilty about that.
I’m not sorry when I use I-statements to reflect my needs (I feel frustrated when you look at your phone while we’re talking, because it makes me feel as though what I have to say doesn’t matter. It’s important to me that we maintain eye contact when we’re speaking).
And it’s definitely not okay that you were just a jacka** (eyeroll). Instead, I might say something like: “thank you so much for acknowledging that. I know your intent wasn’t malicious, and I appreciate your ability to talk about it with me. I accept your apology”.
News flash, darlings, you’re going to have quarrels with the people you love. There is no escaping this, but don’t worry, it’s completely normative. The disagreements are not so much the issue, but rather, the way in which they are handled. This is where communication and boundaries take the center stage, leading to what we call rupture and repair, which helps to build resilient relationships.
So, we get it, boundaries are tough. But tough as they may be, they’re not impossible. In fact, they are much like anything else that we are successful at; they require constant reflection, work, and modification. If you’re having a hard time setting boundaries, good—that means they’re working. It will get harder before it gets easier, so please, hang in there, dear ones.
The good news? The more you set them, the easier they get and the closer you are to achieving that quadruple R status (rupture-repair leads to resilient relationships), score! Because the thing about homeostasis is, it evolves, just as we do. Whatever your current baseline is, that can be changed as you (and those around you) put in the work to grow and make those changes.
So, run wild, my insurgents! Set those boundaries, say those emphatic noes. Kindly tell your friends and family that you need space, let them know your needs. Thank them for saying sorry and cry when you’re upset. And, for the love of G-d, Jesus, Moses, Allah (or whoever/whatever you pray to or believe in), stop saying you’re sorry when you haven’t made a mistake (and own it when you do)! After all, we’re not always truly sorry, are we?
by: Tracy Gilmour-Nimoy, M.S., LMFT, PMH-C