I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to define my personal limits and boundaries. For example, how much I can take from others and pile on top of myself before I blow. Hint: I tend to blow internally or externally when I’m way past my limits, but the problem is I typically don’t know there’s a problem until it’s too late.
I used to think I was limitless. This must’ve started around grad school when I was getting my Master’s degree in Journalism and at any given time had at least two to three part time jobs (waitress, Teaching Assistant, barista) in addition to being a full-time student. I remember feeling a power in piling more and more on top of myself and found I could do it all really well. My family and friends marveled at what I was able to accomplish, as if I was some sort of mythic, magical beast. Because of the success and encouragement of piling more and more on myself, pushing past boundaries became a habit.
Setting Personal Boundaries
This habit of course continued past grad school into the start of my career. Somewhere along the way, in addition to having no boundaries on the amount of work I took on, I also developed issues with setting personal boundaries with co-workers. Most notably, I didn’t stick up for myself when I was treated poorly by a series of supervisors, which caused a ton of inner turmoil and suffering. I was taught by my family and my Midwestern counterparts to muscle through tough situations at work and hang in there when things got hard. The idea seemed to be that if you stick out pain and problems in the workplace with a smile, eventually things get better. I mean, one of my grandfathers worked at the same job his entire life and he absolutely hated it. He was bitter and miserable because of it, but either didn’t feel he had other options or was just too stubborn to find something different.
Here’s the problem with this approach (and I’m sure an enlightened version of my grandfather would agree) what if these problems at work you’re muscling through with a smile never get better? What if you stretch yourself past your boundaries with a short-term goal, waiting for things to get “better” and then your short-term stretch becomes your normal and being miserable in your job becomes your life? You forget this was only supposed to be temporary until things got “better.” This wasn’t supposed to be your life.
A Series of Short-Term Stretches
Sometimes it feels like my life has been a series of “temporary,” short-term stretches beyond my boundaries that then eventually became my new normal. After each short-term stretch became normal, I’d add on another short-term stretch, and so on. This has gone on for so long now that I don’t even know where my boundaries are anymore. I’ve pushed myself so hard for so long, that I don’t know what I want outside of pushing my psychological boundaries.
I find physical boundaries easier to define, specifically with exercise. I’m a cardio junkie and the thing about physical boundaries is that I can only go so far until my body pushes back and makes me stop (can’t breathe, sore muscles, etc.) But my emotions don’t have a “can’t breathe” or “sore muscle” that I am at all dialed into until I have a complete meltdown. I suppose at one point, general anxiety and eventual depression was a “can’t breathe” or “sore muscle” indicator emotionally. But I pushed beyond both of them for so long and got so used to living with anxiety and depression that they stopped being alarm bells and just became my life.
I learned by example and through encouragement from my family that pushing past emotional alarm bells is equivalent to strength; that the pain is always just temporary and then things get better. But guess what? In my experience, circumstances don’t “get better,” you typically just get used to them. And human beings are miraculously adaptive animals. We can actually get used to circumstances that are soul-crushing (see Stockholm Syndrome), but that doesn’t mean those circumstances aren’t slowly killing us in the background. We’ve just learned to temporarily ignore the pain.
Avoiding Emotional Pain
No one likes to be uncomfortable and when we are in emotional pain, we desperately just want to feel better or normal again. In that desperation, we have the ability to tell ourselves anything to get back to feeling normal or better. We can tell ourselves that we don’t actually feel pain anymore. That we love someone we hate. We can justify that if we can just hang on a bit longer, our situation will change. But really, we’re just deadening our senses so we can stop feeling uncomfortable.
So, if we reach the point where our senses have deadened, we’re in quite the conundrum. Once we don’t know our boundaries by feeling, how do we know whether we are in a healthy situation or whether we’re slowly dying emotionally in the background? A lot of people think they’re in a “healthy situation” when they’re getting a rush from short-term surface desires. Those surface desires can take many forms – money, attention from someone we’re attracted to, buying something new, using drugs, sleeping, not moving, exercising, etc. But if we use the surface desires to avoid emotional pain, eventually, they just become short-term distractions that must continually be fed in order to stave off that emotional pain. And you guessed it, eventually none of these distractions work the same way anymore. Cue rush of massive emotional pain and meltdown.
A Wildly Swinging Pendulum
One of my therapists (there have been many over the years) explained to me that when you engage in extreme behavior, your emotional response eventually becomes like a wildly swinging pendulum. For example, if you deprive yourself of food for a long period of time, you’ll eventually binge on food to try and get your body back to equilibrium. If you push down your feelings and emotions without acknowledgement for too long, you’ll eventually rage and explode with emotion. Can you see a pendulum swinging wildly back and forth, never resting in the middle at equilibrium?
The reality is, our bodies and minds are not made to be pendulums. They need to be in balance or stasis at regular intervals to maintain a healthy state of being. I’ve been emotionally out of stasis for so long (hint: most of my life) that I’m not even sure what being balanced feels like. For now, it feels like completely insulating myself from the world and making the stimulus very minimal. But I know that isn’t healthy long-term either. In the meantime, I think I need to get used to what peacefulness and equilibrium feels like so I can remember how to come back here when I’m inevitably pulled out of it.