Healthy boundaries are typically established as you’re growing up. You learn to implement them by watching your parents and guardians. However, when your caregivers are dysfunctional, they tend to have no boundaries of their own, therefore setting the wrong example for you to follow. And if the role models in your life are personality disordered (narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, or psychopathic) they outright discourage you from having boundaries so you’ll be easy to control and manipulate.
Given that type of upbringing, it’s no surprise that you developed into an adult with weak, or non-existent, boundaries, and now you must learn to establish them in order to protect yourself from further abuse from the disordered. It may feel foreign and unpleasant at first, but you have to practice saying no. This is especially important if you always say yes to everything, without hesitation. Start responding to requests for assistance, invitations to events, and basically everything with, “I’ll have to check my calendar” or, “Let me think about it.” And then, think about it.
When forming a response, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Do you want to go/do/help out with whatever was asked of you? As you contemplate this question, set emotional worries aside – what will people think of you, how will it look, is it socially acceptable to decline, what expectations are placed on you, how will others judge your response, etc. If none of that mattered, would you say yes or no? Will you feel resentful if you say yes?
2. How important is it really? Are we talking about a funeral service for a close relative? Will it impact family relations if you don’t show up? Is it a work function that isn’t technically mandatory, but you’re expected to at least make an appearance? Maybe it could yield some networking connections for future prospects.
3. Does saying yes involve rearranging other plans? If you already have other plans that you were looking forward to, simply state that out loud and express your regrets. There is no need to go into detail about what your plans are. You do not need to explain yourself. Unless, as stated above, it’s a family emergency or something as urgent. For instance, say you made plans to go fishing over the weekend, but your nephew died, and now you must forego fishing in order to attend the wake. However, if you made plans to go fishing Saturday, but your sister’s babysitter canceled at the last minute, and she wants you to step in, so she can go get a manicure, “Sorry Sis, I have other plans.”
4. Do you feel like the person asking would give you a hard time about refusing? If the person asking is putting you on the spot, insisting on an answer right then and there, this is a good indication you should refuse. There are very few scenarios where this is not an appropriate response to emotional manipulation. Have they acted manipulatively toward you or others in the past? If this is the case, you need to say no unless you have a damn good reason for having to concede (funeral, mandatory overtime at work).
5. Are you saying yes for someone other than yourself as well? For example, a co-worker asks if you and your spouse want to attend their housewarming party in 2 days. When plans involve another person whom you shouldn’t presume to say yes for, this is a wonderful opportunity to exercise your assertiveness by responding with, “I’ll have to ask my spouse.” And then do so. In this case, it’s short notice, so you might want to send a text or call asap, but always check with the other person involved, as they may have other plans.
In time, your family, friends, and co-workers will get used to your boundaries, and the emotionally stable ones will gain respect for you. It’s possible that fluttery feeling of nervousness will always be present when you assert yourself, but it will be brief. On the other hand, you may discover that you truly enjoy establishing boundaries and being assertive.