This Quote is SO Me

Why is this Socrates quote SO me?

Because on a regular basis, I learn I know nothing about so many things.

If I had a dollar for every time I said, “I didn’t know that,” I’d be rich.

So I listen and watch and read and learn, and recently I learned something huge in what may seem an unlikely place:

An advice column.

Though some people sneer at the idea of reading advice columns – “What do they know?” – I don’t.

I’m a faithful reader of Carolyn Hax’s (pictured) advice column in my Sunday newspaper.

I like her because she’s smart, and tactful, and sympathetic, but doesn’t pull her punches.  She tells it like she sees it, and I think she sees things pretty clearly.

So I was especially glad when I read a recent column of hers, because a light bulb went on.  It wasn’t only good advice.

It was advice I needed.

The topic was setting boundaries, something I’ve always struggled with. 

Struggled with?

Hell, I didn’t even know I could set boundaries until I was an adult, and that was an adult with plenty of years, and plenty of bad experiences due to boundaries not set.

Online articles abound about why women struggle setting boundaries.  I believe it all comes down to this:

  1. I was raised to be a good girl, and expected – because I’m female – to be polite, please others, look a certain way, play by the rules, and never complain.
  2. A good girl sacrifices her own needs and well-being for others, otherwise, you’re selfish.  
  3. A good girl never hurts anyone’s feelings because that would not be nice.
  4. A good girl doesn’t set boundaries.

So a good girl can be taken advantage of, and disrespected, and left wondering, “Why do people treat me this way?”

First, I had to discover that there was such a thing as boundaries:

“Boundaries can be described as how emotionally close you let people get to you.  They are also where you draw the line within a relationship.  They say how much you are willing to give or take before requiring that things change or deciding to call it quits.”

Simple to define, but so difficult to enact.

Second, I had to learn how to set boundaries.

Third, I had to set a boundary.

And the first time I did, I was amazed.

The sky didn’t fall in.  The earth didn’t split apart.  There was a consequence – the relationship ended – but I was OK with that.

The person who’d been disrespecting me was no longer in my life.

I haven’t set many boundaries since, but now I knew I could do it.

Then I read Hax’s advice column, and found out I was doing it all wrong.

The person who wrote to Hax talked about her sister:

“I have repeatedly asked my sister not to discuss certain topics with me [such as my parenting] because I find her approach offensive and insulting.”

I could identify – most of us have a family member, friend, neighbor, coworker, someone in our lives who does the same or similar thing.

“When I try to establish boundaries, she blows them off, and tells me I have to accept the way she likes to talk about everything.”

Yup.  Sounds familiar.

Hax’s response went right to my heart:

“Your boundaries aren’t working because you’re setting them for your sister, when they need to be for you.”

“This is a common misconception.  It’s natural to think of boundaries as a kind of fence we put up to keep people out.  ‘Here is my new fence,’ we tell people.  ‘Do not go over it!’  You want to keep your sister out of certain topics, so you built your fence and told her to stay on her side of it.”

“The thing is, we can’t make people stop saying what they want to say.”

Effective boundaries, says Hax, aren’t about their behavior – they’re about our behavior.

Instead of telling the person to stop saying or doing something, Hax suggested saying:

“‘I will not discuss my parenting with you.’  It’s a tiny rephrase with a massive effect.  I will not discuss.”

Because that – what you say or do – is what you can control.

“She can criticize you as usual, every day, all day, and in response you can:  change the subject, ignore her text, delete her email, hang up the phone, leave the room, put in earbuds, crank the TV, practice your kazoo, start speaking in tongues.  You can employ whatever means you have available to ensure she’s talking to herself.”

This, said Hax, is disrespect-proof.

“Who cares if she ‘ignores any terms I have’ because your terms are for you and you will live by them no matter how badly she takes it when you leave her in the kitchen, talking to herself.  You can be available to her again, to have a relationship again, sure.  You just won’t be there to listen to her [stuff].”

After I read this, I started reflecting on the boundaries I’d set and how I could have done it differently. 

And I will do it differently next time, if I’m in another situation where I need to set boundaries.

They’ll be boundaries for me, not for her or him.

I started this post with the quote from Socrates, but that was only a partial quote – here it is in full.

It’s a comforting thought:

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