You've finally revved yourself up enough to tell the person you've been seeing that you want more from them, when they come back and tell you they aren't on the same page. What do you do? Continue seeing them even though you know you want more, or keep looking out for your well-being, gracefully give a kiss on the cheek and say adios?
I was the girl who said one thing and did another. It wasn't only in romantic relationships but also friendships, agreeing to go to dinner or to a party when I really didn't want to, or saying I would ask for a raise and then never doing it. Talking about boundaries is easy, but actually drawing them is off-the-charts hard because it falls on us to do it; it's our responsibility.
Through a lot of trial and error, here's what I've learned about sticking to your boundaries:
1. Take yourself seriously.
A big part of why I wasn't able to stick to my boundaries was because I didn't take what I was saying seriously. I had let myself down time and time again, by going back on my word. I didn't believe anything would be different the next time around. I didn't believe in what I was saying because I didn't believe in who I was. The times when I went back to an ex-boyfriend, or agreed to take on more work than I could handle were times when I didn't like myself. And in a way, breaking a boundary made it easier to continue seeing myself as not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, worthy enough, or anything. Breaking a boundary made it somewhat OK to be down on myself.
How you shift from not being OK with who you are to being OK with who you are is by letting yourself simply be as you are. Maybe you raise your voice at someone out of frustration. Afterward you may say things like, "Why did I just do that?" "What kind of friend am I?" or "I'm so stupid for saying what I did." But instead of judging yourself in that way, what if you simply felt the feeling the action brought up and accept that you feel bad for what you said?
What that means is allowing yourself to experience whatever it is that you are feeling without judging that feeling: to see yourself apart from the emotions so that you can observe without evaluation but with understanding.
The more you accept yourself as you are, the more you'll take who you are seriously and thus believe you deserve boundaries.
2. Stand up for yourself.
After I started to like myself I was able to assert myself, because I knew that what I felt and had to say was important. It wasn't only with saying what I needed to, but it was also with my time. When I would get emails, instead of responding right away, I would wait until I was ready to answer. By doing this, I started setting others' expectations and my own boundaries.
If I wanted more time to figure something out, I started saying things like, "I don't know the answer right now; I'll have to get back to you on that." Or sometimes, I'd just say, "No, I can't do that right now." Saying no started becoming easier because I no longer felt the need to do things I didn't want to do. The more I started paying attention to what I wanted and needed, the more I wanted to take care of myself, which meant I didn't want to lie anymore.
3. Repeat the process.
It's more than likely that at some point you will break a boundary, but the key is not to get upset with yourself after the fact. Again, it comes back to being able to see yourself without judgment. If you go back on your word, just recognize that you've done so, and try to understand why you did it. Then after you understand it, let yourself off the hook, and go back to the beginning.
Maybe it means you need to do more work on caring for yourself, maybe it means you need to be more assertive, but know that setting boundaries is a daily practice and maintaining them is all about where you fall on the spectrum of self-esteem.
Cynthia Kane is a certified meditation and mindfulness instructor dedicated to helping men and women change their communication routines so they feel in control of their words and understood at home and at work. She received her B.A. from Bard College and her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Yoga Journal, Self Magazine, and Woman’s Day Magazine. She is the bestselling author of How to Communicate Like a Buddhist and Talk to Yourself Like a Buddhist, and founder of the Intentional Communication Institute. Kane has helped thousands of people change their way of communicating through her online courses, workshops, and certification program. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband and son.