Happiness Project: Setting boundaries or letting go

This particular commandment is especially difficult because I constantly struggle with it across most, if not all, of my relationships. When I was younger, it manifested itself mainly in romantic situations, but now, not being able to let go has become deeply entrenched in me.

By “letting go,” I don’t mean that I’m a toxic person that will not allow others to leave my side or grow, nor that I have difficulty letting go of toxic relationships (not anymore anyways). But rather, I heavily lack the ability to know when to step back and set boundaries– and my mental bandwidth is strained more each time. For example, I’m sure we all have loved ones that seek us to ask for help or advice. In fact, it’s normal and healthy to ask for advice or mentorship from others we believe have our best interest in mind. Now, we also have been or know people who decide to not take our advice and continue living with the issue. Enter Isabelle, offering countless options on how to improve, always based on my experience, literature, science, or anecdotes. One of two things usually occurs… they:

  1. Come back with the same problems a few weeks or months later or
  2. Don’t listen

And this is where I lack the strength to step back and let people figure it out. Why? Because it breaks my heart to watch my loved ones suffer when I may be able to do something to stop it. But truly, if this is something that happens to me often, maybe the real question I should be asking is, how do I protect my mental health and still remain an emphatic friend, lover, or family member?

After a particularly heated discussion with a friend, in which I caught myself going down the winding road of advising and receiving backlash, I realized how pointless my words were. I had, through persistence on my end and defensiveness on their end, reached a point in the discussion where it became increasingly frustrating and far from constructive or helpful. I hit the breaks and instead began to look for answers. How can I better guide them and many others to reconsider and weigh their options?

I stumbled upon many psychological studies that offered concrete evidence as to why people (including myself of course, I am not an exception) essentially detested *slight exaggeration here* listening to advice and find it easier to push back.

The most provoking for me: defensiveness. Research shows that by using the reactance theory, when we are told what to do or how to do it, we respond with a defensive defiance because “we want to maximize our personal freedom and decision-making.” And according to an article on PsychCentral other irritating forms of push back include:

1. Truth

You take a position that you are right and the other person is wrong. Dualism supports a worry with proving your point of view.

2. Blame

You believe that the issue is the other person’s fault. “Owning” your problem (also called problem ownership, which means to take responsibility for it), based on the identification of your needs, is a functional alternative to a “blame-game” (e.g., to attribute to others what may not reflect their personal reality).

3. Need to be a Victim

You feel sorry for yourself and think that other people are treating you unfairly because they are insensitive and selfish. 

The most effective solution proposed is to show the person rather than tell them. If our positive behaviors begin to speak for themselves, then those watching will notice their effectiveness and potentially apply them.

I also recognize that my advice is not always necessarily correct. I have a helping addiction, where I immediately jump in to offer my input, which isn’t always warranted. Oftentimes, when people complain, they aren’t necessarily asking for help, they simply want a listening ear to hear them vent and let off steam. They may go back to their cycle, even if it’s harmful. Their cycle can be an addiction, a codependency, or a habit; in which case, I may simply be exhausting my mental capacity. I can’t continue to assume that people who vent, are ready to hear my advice and apply it. In fact, my insistence could be pushing them away.

Therefore, I commit to the following: Although I appreciate their trust in me, I need to learn to set boundaries and know when to back off. The problems of others shouldn’t always be mine and many times the best ways to learn is to make mistakes.

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