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I’ve spent so much of my life trying to convince people to like me.
If I’d been twins, you could have named one “Over” and the other “Eager” because I’ve been so desperate to win over all my naysayers.
The parents who blamed me, the teacher, for their student’s poor grades.
The relative who replaced my plans with their own.
The friend who was “just trying to help” me be a better mother.
I tried to improve each of these strained relationships by talking honestly, sharing my heart, and inviting reciprocity. Over the years, my vulnerability helped one or two relationships improve. Most, however, got worse, not better.
I’m starting to understand why:
I never learned how to set boundaries.
Safe and Unsafe Relationships
As I think back through all the negative relationships I tried so hard to “fix,” I’m dismayed by the energy I poured into people who didn’t care.
In many cases, they weren’t just apathetic: they were unsafe.
I tried to build bridges by sharing authentically and vulnerably. But they twisted my words against me.
If I could have a do-over of my life, I would take all the time I spent on people who don’t care about me and invest it in people who actually do.
Sharing my heart with people who do care is fuel for friendship. With those who don’t, it’s ammo for injury.
How Much to Share
I give other people too much power. Much of the time, they don’t actually take control—I hand it right over on a silver platter. Often, they don’t even realize they have so much influence; I just react to them as if they do.
As much as I hate to admit it, most of this has been simple manipulation: trying to get others to behave the way I want so I can feel the way I want.
In Setting Boundaries for Women, Allison Bottke says,
Remember that setting boundaries isn’t about convincing others to behave the way we think they should. It’s about being very clear about our own limits, what we will and will not accept in our lives, and being able to back up these standards. It’s about us behaving in a manner that protects our hearts, brings glory and honor to God, and builds our self-respect. It’s not about not relying on other people to give us approval or validate our feelings. It’s about claiming our God-given spiritual authority.” (page 15)
The Safety Sorter
I developed The Safety Sorter to help me better discern what kind of energy to invest in which relationships.
It’s become my go-too tool for helping me learn how to set boundaries.
Click on the image below to download a printable PDF.
The Bottom Half of the Safety Sorter
On the bottom half of the Safety Sorter are bullies and unsafe people. Those who blame, shame, and punish you for being who you are. Those who presume, dismiss, and neglect.
I’ve poured way too much time and energy into bullies and unsafe people, trying to transform them into friends. I’d lead with vulnerability: “I’ll share a weakness of mine, then you can share a weakness of yours, and we’ll bond over our shared weaknesses!”
When they used my weakness against me, I thought, “Oh, I shared the wrong one. Let me share a different one.” It sounds crazy now, but at the time I didn’t recognize them as unsafe people. I believed them. I thought the primary problem in each relationship was me.
I now recognize that because I didn’t know how to set boundaries, I gave bullies and unsafe people so much authority that I allowed them to teach me how to treat myself. They punished me, so I punished myself. They neglected me, so I neglected myself. Ultimately, I became my most unsafe person and biggest bully.
Now that I’ve learned how to set boundaries, I don’t have time for any of the destructive nonsense in the bottom half of the Safety Sorter. When someone doesn’t like me for who I am, I don’t have to give them information they can use to hurt me. I can keep my mouth shut around them.
I can be Lizzy Bennet telling Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, “I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship. You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer.’’
In fact, I’ve discovered the power of a mysterious smile, which some bullies find downright maddening (a fact I enjoy far too much).
The Top Half of the Safety Sorter
The top half of the Safety Sorter is where you find healthy relationships with safe people who understand you, listen to you, and accept you, and cheerleaders who inspire, encourage, and notice you.
This is who you want to share with, take risks with, be vulnerable with. They’ll take good care of the precious parts of your heart you share with them. And they’ll reciprocate by sharing their hearts with you.
When we quit hanging out in the bottom half of the Safety Sorter, something wonderful happens. Not only do we have more safe people in our own lives, but we have the time and energy and attention to become cheerleaders for others.
Instead of spending our lives defending ourselves from the bullies and trying to make unsafe people behave, we can focus on the people God brings into our lives for us to notice, encourage, and inspire.
(excerpted from Overwhelmed: How to Quiet the Chaos and Restore Your Sanity, co-authored with Kathi Lipp, pages 197-200.)