DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I was wondering if I could get some general advice about boundaries.
I’m pretty bad at setting boundaries with people. I’ve gotten better over the years, but when it’s anything other than the easiest of situations, I go into a total freeze response.
I think a lot of this has to do with my past. I grew up with a mom who would scream at me, push me, or threaten me if I tried to speak up for myself. She would also gaslight me and tell me that what I needed was wrong or stupid, or mock me and call me names. This led to me learning to either keep my mouth shut to avoid her notice, or trying to blow up at her too which honestly never worked, and I ultimately gave up using this as a tactic.
I set the ultimate boundary with my mom a year ago and now she is no longer a part of my life (ironic I know) but I still carry my old responses inside me, which is to shut down and be unable to speak. I am also autistic and so autistic shutdown can happen to me when I’m stressed.
This affects me in my personal relationships. I am afraid that people will either scream at me or leave me if I try to speak up for myself, even though intellectually I know that’s not true. At this point I don’t keep people like my mom in my life anymore. My friends are all very kind people and emotionally intelligent. So the issue is entirely within me.
I’ve caught myself on occasion becoming controlling and passive aggressive trying to get my needs met, and that’s the last thing I want to do to my loved ones. I also tend to shut down communication completely with people, leading to loss of friendship when it might not be necessary. And I know I give off an air of “don’t mess with me” in public which doesn’t reflect my inner personality but feels safer. I know these patterns aren’t helping me – they are all extremes when I want moderation – but I’m at a loss for how to change them.
I have a therapist who specializes in trauma counseling, however the work I am doing with her is slow and tedious (we’ve been at it for almost a decade now, and we’ve even talked about me trying another therapist since my current counselor doesn’t specialize in autism and that might make a difference). I would really appreciate some practical advice about things I can do on a day to day basis to increase my ability to speak up for myself and set boundaries. Are there exercises I can do when I’m alone? Do I need to be around others to get better at this?
Situations that I’m afraid of include having to say no to a guy I don’t want to date or have sex with (I am heteroflexible and cis-female), telling someone I can’t give them a particular amount of my time or energy on a given day, telling someone I don’t appreciate something they said (whether insulting or insensitive, or even just disagreeing with someone on an opinion), or even something as simple as asking someone to turn down music that’s too loud. Like, who am I to ask someone to alter their behavior or preferences on my behalf? (I also have self-esteem issues that definitely contribute to this).
Just writing this letter makes me realize how unnecessarily tentative and scared I am in the face of something that would seem so simple, but I’m at a loss right now and could use help figuring out some practical solutions as well as what my blind spots might be. I really appreciate your grounded and balanced perspective with these things, so thank you in advance.
Need ‘Nother No
DEAR NEED ‘NOTHER NO: I’m so sorry you went through all that abuse with your mother, N3. It says a lot about your strength and courage that you were able to take care of yourself and get her out of your life, and I think you don’t give yourself enough credit for how hard that must have been. Even when you know they’re harming you, it can be incredibly difficult to draw the line with family and say “I won’t let you hurt me like this any longer”. I think it’s important that you acknowledge that you have this strength and that you’re capable of incredible bravery. It doesn’t matter that the idea of standing up for yourself is still terrifying; the fact that you can do it at all is a sign of the courage you have. As a certain general once said: “Be afraid, but do it anyway”.
So let’s get into how you can shift some of those old patterns that no longer serve you and build new ones.
First and foremost: I think you’re making the right call with trying another therapist. Therapy is a lot like dating in a lot of ways; you want a therapist you have chemistry (of a sort) with, who you feel understands you and who listens and gives you help that actually meets your needs. If things aren’t working out, you feel like you aren’t making progress with them or you simply don’t click with them, then not only are you well within your rights to break up with them, but it’s frequently a good idea. You don’t want to stay in a relationship that doesn’t work for you, just because you’ve been in it for a length of time; the same applies to doctors, therapists and other professionals. And, in a real way, this is great practice for enforcing your boundaries. After all, having boundaries is ultimately about advocating for your needs. Drawing a boundary is about saying “this is bad for me, I won’t put up with this.” You are choosing to prioritize your own emotional safety and needs over someone else’s comfort or convenience; you recognize that this is something you need to do for yourself and you are unapologetic for doing so.
But the next step, I think, would be about learning to be comfortable with saying “no” or otherwise advocating for yourself. It sounds to me like part of what’s bothering you is that you feel as though you’re stuck at extremes: a fawn or freeze response or shutting folks down hardcore, with little in between. To be fair: this is entirely understandable. You spent your formative years with someone who not only ran roughshod over your boundaries but who would punish you for trying to have them. It makes complete sense that you would feel like your only option would be to go straight to a 10; after all, you were in an abusive relationship and going to an 11 was how you ultimately had to protect yourself. When it feels like nothing but the extremes will actually help, it’s hard to fault someone who feels like those are her only options.
I think being able to practice saying “no” or asking for what you need in a safe space would go a long way towards helping you feel comfortable achieving that moderation you’re looking for. Knowing that you are not only capable of a softer response but that your softer response would be listened to and respected would help you feel empowered to give them.
As cheesy as it may sound, practicing just saying “no” or expressing yourself (“could you please not say that?” “Would you mind turning down the volume?” “No, thank you, I’m not interested in a date”) on your own might be a good start. Whether you’re practicing saying it to a mirror, to your webcam, to a silent video of someone else just listening or even a rubber duck, actually saying the words out loud can help. Think of it like doing drills for sports or a kata in martial arts; you’re practicing the motions so that they become part of your muscle memory. That way, you don’t have to think about how to shape the words, how to intone things… you just do it.
Similarly, your friends may be able to help as well. First, they may be willing to help you practice — think of it as going from doing drills to a practice scrimmage. Saying “no, thank you” to someone in the flesh — even when that’s literally all you’re doing — can help you get used to actually doing it. If you trust them — and it sounds like they’re trustworthy — you might ask about doing some structured role-plays of situations you’re afraid of encountering. You would want to make sure that you plan things out in advance so they don’t accidentally end up triggering your trauma, but being able to practice facing those scenarios could help you feel confident enough and empowered to face them when it “counts”.
You can also ask your friends to reassure you that yes, you’re allowed to say no or to draw a line and they aren’t going to get mad at you for it. You may know that you can do that intellectually, but having your friends say so explicitly may make it easier for you to actually believe it and internalize it.
It may also help to have a two strikes policy when it comes to enforcing a boundary at first. Instead of feeling like you have only “total permission” and “scorched earth” settings, having a policy of escalation could give you some guidelines towards how firmly to push back against someone. The first no is gentle and polite, the second no is firmer, and the third is “I SAID NO,” possibly with flames and a “motherfucker” for emphasis. Knowing you have this policy may also help you feel confident enough to lower that “FUCK OFF” energy that you feel like you need to carry around to protect yourself. Not all the way… but enough that you feel like the self that you’re presenting to the world is more in line with who you are inside.
And while I wouldn’t say you should go looking for times to say “no, thank you” or draw a line, making a point of doing so, gently, when the opportunity arises, would also be good practice. At the very least, it may help you calibrate yourself, so that you won’t feel like you need to play an ace when a two will do.
But more than anything else, the thing you should realize is that you are fully capable of doing this. You’ve already shown just how brave and capable you are and how strong you can be. You’ve been through the nightmare scenario already and you were able to reach within yourself, find your strength and you were able to light your darkest hour. You can do it again when you need to, and to the level that you need.
So TL;DR: find a therapist who’s right for you, practice on your own and with friends and set some guidelines for yourself while you get used to being able to speak up when you need to, at the level you need to.
You’ve got this.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org