When You Want To Set A Boundary But Just Can’t

By Krista Resnick-Master LifeCoach & Boundary Expert.

I believe that many of us deep down actually know our boundaries.  We know how we want to be treated, talked to, and intellectually, we know the things that we want (or should) say no to. 

Looking back on my own personal journey, I always knew intellectually the things that needed to be said or what I wanted to say yes to.  However, when it came time to DO something different, or say what I wanted….I FROZE.  

For years, I thought there was something wrong with me.  I can remember a time specifically when I was having a confrontation with a family member.  It was clear they were being a bully and trying to get me to subside by puffing up and getting big.  And sadly, it worked.  When other people got big….I got small.  

I couldn’t for the life of me understand why this was happening.  I thought there was something wrong with me.  But later, as I began to learn about the nervous system-it all became clear.  If you’re a freezer like me, and many of my clients, I hope this article can provide you with the understanding that there is nothing indeed wrong with you.  You’re normal AND simply having a nervous system response to threat and feeling unsafe.  

My brain (and my guess is yours too), played by the rule that saying no was unsafe.  My brain totally endorsed the concept of ‘going along to get along,’ or ‘appease and please-just do what you gotta do to NOT upset the apple cart.’  The hard part is that when our brain makes up its mind about these rules, dang it can be hard to DO anything different.  It’s literally a fight for survival.  As a matter of fact, we often don’t even know that we believe these ‘good girl’ rules.  They are tucked away deep in our subconscious and so normal to us that we believe “this is just who I am.’  

But it’s not just who you are.  It’s a survival response that is hard wired into all of us. 

Think about what life experience or circumstance may have started your response to boundaries:  

Do you have a stand-out memory of how a particular adult responded when you did something wrong or thought you did something wrong as a child?

Did you get screamed at when you interrupted adults having a conversation or a backhand slap?  Were there certain comments made that humiliated you or undermined your character?

These early life experiences teach us about how people respond if you appear, assertive or meek, aggressive or passive, present or absent.  

During our early years of development, the foundation or boundary blueprint of how we understand the world and people in it are formed.  

If we learn that people will become big and puffed up (aggressive) if we assert ourselves and we depend on them for our caregiving and sustenance, then we soon learn to adopt a more pleasing, palpable and meek attitude to give in to the aggressor.  We freeze rather than respond because in the moment, it feels safer.  

As a child, I wanted to feel a healthy attachment to my mother.  Life is all about creating healthy attachments so we can  experience  true connection and belonging.  However, my mother wasn’t available for warm and loving connection.  She controlled the emotional temperature of the home, often infusing it with cold,  judgmental and harsh reactions.  I often felt like a burden or ashamed of myself if I was too loud, too bright, too needy, too much.  The lack of connection and harshness that I received from my mother triggered a freeze response in me-it was instinctual and involuntary.  I would momentarily space out and feel a disconnection from my body.  However, I also felt a lot of charge-like I wanted to fight back and speak my truth, but I couldn’t.

What’s important to note is that the ultimate goal of the freeze response is to avoid feeling painful emotions.  Therefore, as I started to get older I noticed that it felt as if I had the dimmer switch on my life, feelings, sensations, and relationships turned down. My body was deciding that the best thing it could do for my survival was to disconnect and forget about what’s happening. And remember, my brain believed that I had to go along to get along, that I needed to just be a good, nice girl.  

Later, I would feel angry and resentful and resentment is something that has taken me years to work through.  Not only does resentment destroy relationships  but truthfully, it just plain feels awful.  I often say resentment is simply stale anger.  It’s anger that we’ve shoved down and been unwilling to look at and release in a healthy way to get it out of our system.  

Unfortunately, I carried out this freeze response in other relationships in my life.  Anytime I was faced with an ounce of conflict, I would freeze.  And often, that is exactly what boundaries do, they bring up internal conflict (and sometimes then external conflict).  Setting boundaries triggers our fight, flight and freeze response.  We may fear blow ups, shut downs, gaslighting, and stonewalling in response to our boundaries. We might even fear losing a relationship all together. Plus remember-our mind quite literally believes that setting boundaries is not healthy.  All of these situations can be terribly painful, so of course, we will avoid them if possible.  

Luckily, there are ways to make this process a little less difficult. Let’s explore 6 of them that I am going to share with you now.

1)  LOTS OF SELF COMPASSION-boundaries are difficult.  Be kind, tender and loving toward yourself as you are riding the waves of all the emotions and responses that arise during boundary setting.

2) PRACTICE-we can’t just talk about these things.  We have to be taking action and practicing these things.  An essential boundary skill is the ability to say no when something doesn’t feel right to you. Watch for a tendency to say yes without thinking things through. Practice upholding your limits in small ways like returning your salmon or steak at a restaurant if it isn’t cooked right or declining an invitation when you would rather spend an evening at home. Recognize that others may be disappointed with your choices, but this does not necessitate you giving in.

3) BODY AWARENESS- Strengthen your boundary awareness by exploring the cues in the body that give you feedback about your needs or limits. Setting clear but flexible boundaries involves listening to and respecting your somatic cues. Strong sensations often serve as important signals that can help you recognize when your boundary has been crossed.

4) MINDFULNESS- Mindfulness of your beliefs, rules you’ve been living by and  behaviors can help you to slow down the automatic reactions you have in the world. See if you can increase your self-awareness about what is motivating your actions. Become curious about your habits in relationships. Notice the thoughts and beliefs that you hold about yourself. Most importantly, remember to come from a foundation of self-compassion and non-judgment.  You are learning and growing!  You are building a new boundary muscle slowly over time.  

5) HONOR YOUR “YES”– Healing involves your commitment to self-care and a willingness to turn toward your Yes. This process requires that you acknowledge your own needs and recognize that others can and want to provide for you. You are worthy of respect and love. It can be vulnerable to tune into your own needs and this can feel uncomfortable at first. Practice self-care in small ways like you would giving yourself permission to try on several pairs of new running sneakers at the store before committing to and purchasing one.  

6) ASK FOR WHAT YOU NEED- Practice making requests. This process requires tolerating your own disappointment when requests are denied. Moreover, if your request is honored, you may need to challenge yourself to receive someone giving and caring for you.   Advocating for your needs is a way of acknowledging that you are worth being cared for.

I hope you will keep this list at hand and practice them until you have built your boundary muscle.  Remember, it takes time and there is no such thing as perfect.  I still screw up my boundaries and I still freeze from time to time.  But being aware and in the game is so much better than going through life on autopilot-freezing at every sign of conflict and feeling powerless to do anything about it.  

Krista Resnick is a Master Coach who helps women break free from the toxic patterns of people pleasing, overwhelm and self neglect. Join her upcoming 5 day experienece BOLD to stop people pleasing, start speaking your mind and own your strength. https://kristaresnick.lpages.co/bold-experience-2023/

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