This is a nice article about boundaries by Timber Hawkeye in his Buddhist Boot Camp blog.
As much as we hate to admit it, we all care what people think about us to some degree (even just a little bit). It’s why we wear or don’t wear certain clothes, fix our hair, refrain from certain behavior in public, etc.
Some consideration and awareness of our surrounding is imperative, but making other people’s opinion of us the driving force behind our decisions can become problematic.
You see, we protect what’s important to us, but we consider so many things important that it’s impossible to protect everything (our friendships and financial stability, our core values and family ties, and so on). At some point, something’s gotta give, so we prioritize a few aspects of our lives over others. As Gandhi said, “Your actions convey your priorities.”
Sadly, many people care most about how others perceive them, so protecting their image has become the number one priority (other people's possible opinion —good or bad— becomes the filter for their choices). For fear of being judged as something negative, we forget that we can be a kind person with a good heart and still say ‘no’ to people. This includes family members, friends, employers, neighbors, etc. Setting boundaries is crucial to ensure we don’t end up living our entire life just to impress the people we know (or complete strangers, for that matter).
Before we can draw boundaries, we need to define our priorities. If my priority on Sunday is to finish writing an essay when a friend asks me to help him move, it’s okay for me to say, “I can only come for an hour,” or even “I’d rather not come at all, but how about I have some pizza delivered to your house around noon while you pack?” The point is not to feel cornered, stuck, forced to lie, guilty, helpless, or fearful of what someone might think of us if we prioritize something else over what they think is more important.
We must take personal responsibility for our time, money, energy, space, schedule, and so on. Without those boundaries, people might drain you, but it wouldn’t even be their fault because how are they to know they have crossed a line if you didn’t set it in the first place? And if you did set a boundary but didn’t stick to it, remember that what you allow is what will continue; you teach people how to treat you.
There was a sign in my old office that read, “Your lack of planning is not my emergency.” Passive aggressive? Sure. But it got the message across. :)
I want to clarify that I’m not talking about the people-pleasing bug that’s going around, I’m talking about doing things we don’t want to do in order to protect our image (whether that image is of "the one who can do it all," or "the nicest neighbor on the block," or whatever your poison happens to be). That's not people-pleasing, that's ego-pleasing. I’m talking about the things we do because the answer to “What would people say?” scares us so much that we don’t even want to find out. It’s a nasty demon called insecurity (also known as self-doubt).
We don't need other people’s approval or acceptance in order to love ourselves. In fact, if the only way we receive other people’s approval is by doing something that is misaligned with our own values, then not only will we not love ourselves, we'd probably hate ourselves.
And this isn’t just about our priorities on any given Sunday, it’s really about our priorities in life. Don’t let fear of other people’s disapproval deter you from staying on a path that you deem of most importance (be it your spiritual path; sobriety; your relationship; your career or retirement; your refusal to have children or to have a dozen; and so on). "To thine own self be true."
You've heard me say this before: we are taught to be tolerant and accepting, but tolerance does not mean accepting what is harmful. So set some boundaries and stick to them. If anything costs you your my inner peace, it’s too expensive.
Courage is being yourself in a world that tells you to be someone else.
With much love from your brother, Timber Hawkeye