As a perpetual people pleaser, I often find myself in situations or relationships wherein I am sacrificing my own happiness and denying my own desires in order to placate those around me and it’s fucking exhausting. And what’s worse, after silently holding back all the frustration, I sometimes explode with fiery, tearful and regrettable anger aimed at very person I have been desperately trying to please. The person to whom I have been clutching, afraid that I will be nothing without them. That I will be broken and empty without their love, attention, friendship and general presence in my life. And that, my friend, is recipe for a drama-filled, codependent relationship and will leave a bitch drained, deflated and desperately looking for the next human life raft.
Although we know, on an intellectual level, that the beliefs of us being “incomplete” without another person are false, it can still be difficult to navigate those emotions and figure out the smoothest, most gentle course of action that leaves both parties feeling satisfied, safe and (even if the solution is to end things) unconditionally loved. Unconditionally loved not only by the other party, but also by ourselves. The question is: how the fuck do we pull that off??
Sadly, I do not have a foolproof powerpoint for you. But I DO have some experience with successfully engaging in relationships that, from the very start, are designed specifically to exist in a constant state of limbo. Relationships in which the agreement is to surrender and completely open yourself (emotionally AND physically) to a person with whom you know there is almost no possibility for a stable, committed union wherein you will ever be more than a 4th tier priority at best.
It sounds tragic, I know. The life of a mistress can be lonely and gut wrenching at times, but it’s mostly fun and filled with passion, laughter and love. I have been lucky enough to have a few relationships that have lasted for years, and the success of those partnerships is due solely to each party laying out, and respecting, a set of clear cut boundaries. It may not sound overly romantic, but within those strict boundaries, I have experienced love more intense and boundless than I ever thought possible. So for me, it has been (and continues to be) worth the acute pain of knowing that my love exists only in the very moment I am experiencing it. But, if we’re being honest, everything only exists in the very moment we are having that specific experience, so it’s not as dramatic as it may sound. Okay, let me get back on track. What was I talking about…? Oh yeah. BOUNDARIES.
For most of my adult life, I was afraid to set boundaries with people in my life out of fear that they would leave. No matter how mean, abusive, or indifferent a friend, partner or family member behaved towards me, I would just take it and chalk it up to a sign that I needed to improve, do better. That, in order to receive love, I needed to be better. Unaddressed fear of abandonment can lead to lots of fun (<—-the ‘fun’ is sarcastic) surprise issues and codependency can be one of the most destructive. It was a cycle I never noticed in myself until I dipped my toes into sex work. Boundaries are a part of the play, part of the joy. The fact that the relationship is only happening the very moment you share the experience is what makes it so magical and so precious. Neither party is trying to “own” the other. Each person is free and safe to fully give and receive love within a set of strict boundaries. The very foundation of my somewhat clandestine relationships with these men is built on boundaries. One of the surprise benefits of being a secret girlfriend was learning that boundaries do not cut things off or limit us in anyway; it is, in fact, quite the opposite. Setting boundaries gives us the freedom to run wild within the bounds of fair play that we have set for ourselves and the people with whom we chose to engage and allow into our lives. The only people, behaviors or things we lose by setting healthy boundaries, are all things that do not play within our set of guidelines, so good riddance anyway!!
Sounds empowering, right? It is. However, I have found the practice of implementation to be difficult at times, especially when setting new boundaries with old friends or long time partners. There is always this nagging voice that tells me I’m worthless and nothing without… honestly, just fill in the blank with any of these: a romantic partner, loads of money, bigger tits, a friend that’s not your Danny DeVito cutout, etc. You get the point. Fear of being less than or losing “a piece of ourselves” when a relationship ends can be paralyzing. I used to be so terrified of the inevitable breakup, that I would start fights and act like a bitch in the BEGINNING of the relationship like “Let’s just get this shit over with bro.” Were it not for my experience in sex work, I might still be stuck in that behavior pattern on repeat until the bitter end.
Thankfully, the inherently volatile nature of my romantic life has also taught me a lot about myself the past few years. But mostly, those experiences instilled in me the knowledge and belief that I will be okay on my own. That I am always who I am whether I find myself in a 4-story Manhattan penthouse, lounging on the beach of a luxury resort in Turks, or tapping away on my laptop in a converted attic apartment in the Midwest. Knowing and believing that you are gonna be fine all by yourself is the first step to finding your ability to define and enforce a set of boundaries that you will not allow to be overstepped by yourself or anyone else.
The second step is to define your personal set of boundaries. How do we do that? Again, not totally sure, but I THINK a good place to start is by identifying what you like and what you do NOT like. What works for me is figure out which actions/behaviors lead to feelings of sorrow, guilt, depression, self-loathing, shame, feeling stuck, etc. Once those actions/behaviors are pin pointed, write them down (get that shit out of your head asap) then, make a list of all the things that make you feel GOOD. It could anything from dancing around to cheesy pop, to talking with a certain friend, to having a cleared out email inbox, to staring at out a window and letting your imagination run wild. Whatever pops into your head, write it down. THEN, make a plan to shift gears and move away from the thought/behavior patterns on the “SAD” list, and focus your energy on engaging in the thoughts and behaviors on the “GOOD” list. Full disclosure, this is a sometimes a moment-to-moment activity and takes practice, but it works. That fact that I am alive to write this essay is proof that it works. And it’s important work because, before we can set healthy boundaries with anyone else, we have to be able to do it with ourselves. If we don’t show ourselves the respect of setting and maintaining our own boundaries, how can we expect anyone else to do that for us? We teach people how to treat us by either accepting or not accepting certain behaviors. If we don’t know what we will and will not accept from ourselves, how can we even begin to set realistic boundaries with people and things outside of ourselves? Does that make sense? I hope so because we’re moving onto the third step…
Once we’ve identified the things we will and will not accept from ourselves, it becomes much easier to do that with outside sources and begin to set boundaries with people and things around us. Pay attention to the interactions that leave you feeling good and also to those that lead to feelings of sorrow, guilt, depression, self-loathing, shame, feeling stuck, etc. Then, in the same way we made the list for ourselves, let’s make a list of the “Good/Sad” interactions in our lives. Because this list involves a second party, there are a few extra gear shifts to move things over to the “Good” list. First, be honest with yourself about your part in the “Sad” interaction. What can YOU change about your thoughts or behaviors that will positively impact the situation? If we can simply ignore the thing that’s bothering us (an annoying co-worker, the long line at the grocery store, etc.) then let’s just ignore it. If we are actively contributing to the “Sad” situation, let’s figure out how to change our behavior to enact a change for the better. If we change, but the person with whom we are engaging does not change their behavior and continues down the same destructive path and we don’t want to immediately burn down that bridge, the best course of action is to be specific about what we want from them. If you have trouble defining those wants, refer back to the list of things that make YOU feel good (ex: “I feel good when people are nice to me”) and move forward from there. Then, present the other person with your concerns and let them know what you would like from them instead. If they are willing to respect your boundaries and work within them, that’s great! Mission accomplished. Even if there are bumps ahead (and there will be, we are all humans just trying our best), you have at least laid out the groundwork for open communication regarding that specific issue. However, if the other party is NOT willing to change and puts all the blame back on us, it is now our responsibility to maintain and respect our OWN boundaries by finding a way to loosen, if not completely release ourselves from that person. I know, it sounds scary, but you will be fine. Plus, it feels to good confidently say, “Nah, I’m good without this.”
The tricky part is walking away empty of anger and full of love for the person, the experience and, most importantly, love for yourself. For the third time, let me assure you that I am not completely sure about how to do this, but, from my experiences, not yelling is a good start. Yes, we may be filled with boiling and bubbling emotions, but we can still try and express those feelings in a calm, loving manner. Remember, everything eventually ends. Does that make the end of a relationship (romantic or platonic) any less shitty?? No. It still sucks. But, it will suck even harder if something that was so good in our lives, something that brought us so much love and joy, ends in an angry scream fight. In the same way that it feels bad to yell at yourself, unleashing anger onto another person can leave us feeling equally icky. Loving someone unconditionally means we want what is best for them, even if that means we have to walk away and give them, and ourselves, the freedom to feel good and find happiness and love elsewhere.
People change, things change, we change and it’s all still okay. The nice thing is that, to a certain extent, we have control over the ways in which we change. Do we want to change for better or worse or same? Do we want to continue engaging in our thoughts and behaviors from the “Sad” list, or do we want to make the jump over to do more things from the “Good” list? While we’re on the subject of change, it’s important to remember that we only have control over ourselves. The sooner we take full responsibility for our own actions and let go of trying to control the actions of others, the sooner we get out of the cycle of beating ourselves up and wearing ourselves down trying to change the way someone else thinks and behaves towards us and the world around them. It sounds like a lot and honestly, it sometimes feels like a lot. Navigating life can seem overwhelming and exasperating at times, but it can be done in a way that pushes us towards the things and life that we want. No matter how helpless we feel, we can always inch ourselves, ever so slowly, away from from the “Sad” and closer to the “Good”. And I have found the easiest way to start moving in the direction of the “Good” is to stop attempting to please everyone around me and figure out what I want, then lay out a clear set of boundaries for myself and move forward from there. Has that lead to the dissolution of unhealthy relationships? Yes. Did I completely lose my sense of self and get really, super sad for a period of time afterwards? Absolutely. Am I okay now? Not sure if I’m “okay” from the perspective of a licensed psychiatrist, but I am whole. I am still me and you will still be you without all the things and people you think you need, so let’s show ourselves the respect and love we are attempting to extract from outside sources.
We are already all that we need. Would we rather spend our lives frantically scrambling to keep everyone happy, or would our limited time here be better spent taking time to find out what WE want and then connecting with like-minded people that WANT to respect our boundaries and treat us with the unconditional kindness and love we all deserve?
Speaking of boundaries, I am gonna layer up and take my ass outside for a run. If you’re feeling extra emo and wanna stay on this mindfulness train, you can listen to my pod. And feel free to fast forward to the meditations if you just wanna chill out.
Thanks for taking time to read this.
Hope it was helpful.
Next one will be more upbeat and have at least THREE pussy puns…
Have a fun day!!