My youngest daughter turned ten on Saturday.
I have been in awe of the privilege, joy, and honor I have been given to raise my beautiful, spirited, brilliant, and incredibly loving kids.
One of the most unexpected, amusing, and honestly humbling things I experience with my kids comes from my work as a personal and executive coach, facilitator, speaker, and teacher for mission-driven and heart-centered physicians and helping professionals. Because they know key concepts from my work — boundaries, empathy, self-compassion, trust, accountability, etc. — I often get called out when I drift out of alignment.
From the moment they could speak, it was not unusual to hear them say the following, especially when I am a strict parent or a tired and not-so-present parent:
“Mommy, you are not being very empathetic right now.” ” You are not communicating any emotions. Don’t you have anything to say?” “You said this was important to you, mommy. I am holding you accountable.” “I think you could practice some self-compassion right now. You need to get some rest, mommy.” “I am angry at you right now, mommy.” “You said you would do it, and now you are going back on your words. Doesn’t my trust matter to you?”
Lately, my little one has been coming to my room at night with her list of grievances. She would sit on the edge of my bed and calmly express the ways in which I have unwittingly violated her boundaries and how she would like me to respect them.
“Mommy, it really hurts my feelings when you interrupt what I am saying. Can you please let me finish? Please listen to me more.”
“Mommy, I really don’t like it when you tease me in public while saying you don’t get out much. I know you are joking, but I feel embarrassed.”
I have spent years teaching, coaching, facilitating, writing, and speaking about boundaries. Yet it is still an ongoing practice for me. The deeper I go, the more subtle the resistance and misalignment appear. I constantly have to practice being aware of my own background and upbringing.
I grew up in a world where kids were seen and not heard.
I can hear the gremlin voices of my childhood in response to my kids’ current boundary expressions.
“What? Are you mad? How dare you? After all, I have sacrificed to raise you, this is how you thank me? Boundaries? I’ll show you boundaries. You are lucky I did not raise you in Africa, where you would have no rights at all. Boundaries? The disrespect!”
But I feel so proud of my kids for being able to articulate their needs and boundaries. Being able to clarify what’s OK and what’s not OK, what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. I know they are more equipped than I was at their ages, and I feel deeply grateful.
Growing up in a patriarchal society, not only was I supposed to be seen and not heard, I was expected to be “a nice girl who made my family proud.”
This meant not only was I not expressing any needs or desires. I also had to be nice. I had to smile in the face of my needs or desires being unmet, neglected, thwarted, or mocked. It was insult upon injury. Some of us struggle with Stockholm syndrome, where we actually show even more compassion to those who abuse us.
Many of us grew up this way.
And then, our medical training and corporate medical culture build on this codependent behavior where everyone else’s needs are more important than our own.
The thing is, with such ingrained training and lifelong indoctrination in abandoning ourselves, we can’t just snap out of this behavior as adults.
We find our needs, wants, expectations, and desires being trampled left and right. We lack the skills or the willingness to express our boundaries, and then we smile (or snarl) to pretend like everything is OK.
Anger, frustration, resentment, and grief turn to overwhelm, loneliness, burnout, illness, apathy, numbness, and hopelessness.
You can’t just snap out of a lifetime of unexpressed boundaries and accountability.
This is an issue that has shown up with every client I have worked with in the past decade. And clarifying boundaries and implementing them is a lifesaver.
You will need to retrain yourself. Learn the skills. Practice. Practice. Practice.
You deserve it.
In light of your values or what is important to you, can you make a list of your boundaries and needs? Can you express what’s ok or acceptable? And what’s not okay or acceptable?
Will it cost you? Yes. Not everyone will like it when you set a boundary.
But it will cost you more if you don’t do it.
Last week, I sent a quick fall check-in. It was a simple email, but it was definitely a line in the sand. It is not OK for my people to be treated as martyrs, robots, or workhorses. I was clear that you are worthy of thriving as you positively impact the world.
Apparently, it was my most offensive email ever because I got the highest number of unsubscribes ever from that email. I went back and read through it. I felt even more passionate about what I said than the first time. And I also received a message from someone thanking me profusely for my words.
The line was clear.
I am reminded again by my daughter: Boundaries clarify. When someone expresses a boundary, you know where they stand. And you get to decide whether to stand with them or not.
Those I am for, I am for in a major way. That is a hard boundary, and I make no apologies for it.
You are worthy of your own boundaries. You are worthy of protecting what matters to you. Get clear about them.
The time to start is now.
You deserve it.
Yvonne Ator is a physician and personal and executive coach for physicians.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com