Love and Boundaries: The good, the bad and the beautiful

It is Sunday. When I was little Sundays made me angsty. Sundays were the day before the day we had to go back to school. When I was little and going to school the kids were mean to me and so I hated school and I hated Sundays. I would lay on the ground on Monday mornings and tell my mom I had a stomachache and that there was no way I could go to school. I didn't have the heart to tell her that the kids were mean to me because I knew it would make her upset. I went to Catholic school and we went to church each morning at 8:05AM and it was dark and scary in that church. The Priests talked to us like we were sinners, actually as a matter of fact, from like the tenth row pew kneeling in my uniform as a ten year old, I distinctly remember my Priest straight calling me a sinner. It was a confusing time in my life. I was a good kid, I was nice to everyone and the kids that were mean to me seemed like the sinners but I wasn't a tattletale so I never told the Priest the truth. Sometimes because I didn't have anything to "confess", to appease the Priest, I would make up sins to repent and then I would say my Hail Mary and do The Rosary and go on my way. 

I've been walking around since 8:05 some weekday morning back in 1996 thinking that love was about making sure everyone was happy, making sure you didn't have anything to be forgiven for, and that if you did, repenting was the way to love. I thought love was about taking care, keeping the peace, letting people feel seen, all. of. the. time. I was without boundaries floating through a state of giving and never taking, excusing and never standing up against or for and feeling depleted. I would often excuse this behavior by naming the thousands of ways that people needed me. They often sounded like this: If I do not show up in this moment who do they really have? Won't they feel alone? Won't they doubt my love? If I am not always there, how will they get by? He doesn't do X because of y, and it is ok because I love him and love will make him come around. All the while, I was alone. I was sad. I was struggling. I thought my gifts were tangible. I was addicted to the "output", not only in my relationships but also in my work and my role in my family. I had to be doing and contributing in order to feel necessary, relevant and valued. Not only that, I measured my worth in how much people healed because of my love. If I am a child of God, if I am the walking light of Jesus than I must heal and never sin. I was running around fixing everyone wondering when God was finally going to say "OK ENOUGH". But she didn't. She let me run around like a crazy person until I finally collapsed on the ground from exhaustion. It was easier to give myself away all of the time than to sit with the silence that the stopping created. Silence was terrifying, it meant I might have to face what was inside of me. Perhaps inside of me was a girl who didn't want to be called a sinner and thought confession was a really great way to make people live their entire life with shame. 

So, there I was lying on the floor exhausted. And with no other choice than to slow down, I started exploring the silence. I dug deep inside and started looking around at what was there. I evaluated how I showed up in my relationships, and I mean all of them. My romantic relationships, my work relationships, my relationships with my family. I sat with the angst because once I started sitting in the silence the angst started showing up on other days. Suddenly I was resentful. I was resentful of all of the giving I had been doing without getting anything in return. I felt cheated and confused and uncertain of who I really was. I wanted to light fire to a lot of things in my life almost as revenge for the millions of times I had given and given and come up empty within myself. The little girl inside of me was ripping off the Catholic uniform and throwing it to the side and standing in front of me demanding we take up space. She wanted to dress differently-the way she wanted to dress, and she wanted to skip confession and tell those mean kids that what they were doing was wrong and she wanted to color outside the freaking lines. So I honored her. We colored. Literally and figuratively. And with each day of letting her run a little more free I have, for the most part, shaken the angst. 

And because of all this, I started showing up a little differently. I stopped fixing and enabling and repenting for taking up space and I started drawing lines. I started drawing lines and asking people to stay on their side and not take so much of me. At first I was terrified. Truly, somewhere inside of me, I believed that if I didn't give everything to everyone and behave and repent that I would be alone.

So at first I drew my lines with chalk. I said, "here is a line, please honor it. BUT, if you really really need to you can erase it and take more of me". And some people erased the lines and took too much, and that didn't feel very good. But most people honored my boundary and so I tried setting a more concrete one, like with a sharpie. And most people honored those. And then it became that when people would get close to crossing my boundary I could feel it in my bones and I could gently warn them, "Hey, I told you this was my boundary, can you kindly back it up?". And if they couldn't, then I had to reevaluate the relationship, because sharpie doesn't come off and now my boundaries were set in stone..but really sharpie. Then one day something clicked and I realized that I can actaully love and serve without compromising myself. That my worth is not tied to my output and trying not to be a sinner, but rather it is tied to me just simply showing up to the party. I, on my own, with my presence, am the gift, no repenting required.

Ok, but even as I write that last sentence I feel a bit arrogant. Who am I to think that my presence alone is enough for people? Who am I to think that my contribution is my heart and nothing else? That I don't need more repenting to be worthy? That I don't need to be a servant to be seen? I don't know. I can't really put it into words. What I have discovered since I started living my life through love, letting go of expectations, getting clear about my values and refusing to fix, is that I feel 1000 times better. The freedom I feel is unlike a freedom I have ever felt in the past.

So, then I realized, what if to love is to let go of our attachment to outcome while setting boundaries? Ah. Wow. That I could work with. 

Here is a secret. At first I was afraid. I started this process with divisive boundaries. I told myself ok I can totally love without attachment to outcome with my family. They are pretty much a sure thing. I can do this on the surface with friends and people I've trusted for years. But showing up at all when the outcome isn't clear? No thank you. That is dangerous. I saw opportunity for love laid out in front of me coupled with uncertainty and I said, "That is not safe, you cannot go there". And I thought good! Way to go! You are so good at this boundary thing. And then what I realized by stepping back and observing these divisive boundaries is that I was actually denying myself my truth. I love, love. I could keep out the bad with my divisive boundaries but by doing so I was also keeping out love. I had been burned by sharing my love in the past and the immediate lesson was that if I was going to have boundaries there could be no more sharing in uncertainty. To me, uncertainty was too dangerous, in order to protect my heart, I could share only in certainty.

As I slowed down, contemplated, stopped, listened, and honored what was coming up, I reflected on the heartache that love had caused me. Each time I had given my love and gotten denied love in return it had felt like something was wrong with me. I felt like that little girl on Sunday nights afraid to go to school because she wasn't accepted. But the truth was, it was never about me. Rejection came from how they saw themselves, their own fears and pain and suffering. They were not sending me messages that I was not good enough, their true message was that they did not feel good enough for my love. And when people show you that they are afraid, that they feel inadequate, that they feel unworthy of your love, they are actually asking you for more love. I know it sounds crazy, to flip all of the advice and societal rules out there about love and boundaries and protection, seems dangerous, because it is. It is harder to choose love when someone causes you pain. It is much easier to stand in righteousness and point fingers and make people say the Hail Mary.

But, if we are leaning on the definition of love as, letting go of our attachment to the outcome while setting boundaries, then that is a whole different ball game.

Showing up and choosing love are two very different things.

Let me repeat myself; showing up and choosing love are two very different things. Because you choose love does not mean you have to show up. Stick with me here. When we love we let go of the need for punishment, blame, shame, anger and fear, we let go of the need to repent. When we choose love, we can say, I honor where you are; I will not punish you for your choices, I will not shame you for your decision to hurt me, I love you. I forgive you. I accept you and I understand. 

When we meet people where they are we have ultimately let go of our attachment to outcome. We stop projecting what we need them to be and we accept who they are in this moment, at this time. We have said, I see you, I honor you, I love you and I accept you.

And then we have a choice. Does their behavior cause me to compromise my values and my love for myself? Do I want to keep showing up here? Does this person respect the boundaries I have set for my life? Just because we accept where they are and who they are and what they have done does NOT mean we have to engage. That is where our boundaries come in.

Boundaries allow us to disengage. Boundaries say, I love you and I honor that my values do not align with your behavior. I love you and my safety is important to me. I love you, and. 

I love you and is so different than I love you but. I love you and means I am not taking my love away just because you still have growing and evolving to do. I love you but, means I love you but I need you to be a certain way and unless you are this way, I don't love you because I am afraid I won't get what I want. 

I love you and, means I love you and I can protect myself. I love you and I can demand that my needs are met. I love you and I choose myself. And honestly, when we choose, "I love you, and" we open ourselves up for more love. We create space for our needs to be met because we stop holding onto punishment, blame, shame, anger and fear and we become free.

Ok so how do we really know the difference between love and showing up? When we choose to show up we are showing up because the other person is showing up too. When we choose to show up we are showing up because when we communicate our needs, they are seen and heard and majority of the time, they are met. When we choose to show up it is because it feels safe and stable and good. We can still love when these things aren't in place, but we do not have to show up. 

Don't get me wrong. I do this dance between love and safety, love and fear, love and righteousness. Right? Because sometimes it feels so good to enable. It feels so good to think ourselves powerful and wonderful enough to fix everything and everyone. It feels good to think we are above our needs or having our needs met. But that only works if the definition of love is giving up ourselves to save others. Meeting people where they are with love does not mean we abandon our standards and love for ourself. It just simply means we are without judgement and we do not withhold or give our love to try and affect an outcome. 

We can love without showing up. We can love without expectations. We can love from afar even if the people we love don't believe us. We can love fully and freely when we love without attachment to the outcome while setting beautiful sharpie drawn boundaries.

Teresa Sabatine2 Comments