This year has been an especially humbling time for me. After I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease - an experience I wrote about last time - I committed myself to prioritizing my health above all. I was going to live, finally, the healthy lifestyle that I’ve been putting off for years. First it was “I’ll be healthy in my 30s,” but that became “I’ll be healthy in my 40s…” But now, the Graves’ Disease diagnosis felt like a wake up call to quit drinking, eat well, and exercise regularly. stick to a good sleep routine, and do all the other things (meditation, etc) that I know are so important for overall health.
Fast-forward five months, and I’ve backslid into a lot of my old habits. I was so hungover yesterday I didn’t get off the couch except to get food or go to the bathroom. How had this happened after doing so well the first few months of the year? I thought I’d finally changed my lifestyle for good. I was still going out with friends, and having just as much fun, without drinking. But, little by little, I started making exceptions and suddenly I found myself drinking as much as in years past.
Each week in therapy I’ve reflected on this backslide and tried to recommit to the healthy way I started the year. The question that I keep asking is: why is it so hard for me to set and enforce healthy boundaries in my life? For example, why is it hard to stick to 2 drinks or less a day? Or to get to sleep at the same reasonable time (i.e. before 2am) every night? I’ve done a little research on boundaries and considered my own experience, and I’ve learned the following.
Saying no — whether in relationships or personal life — usually doesn’t feel good…but it can
Because we are fundamentally social creatures, we are always influenced by how our choices affect others. Setting a boundary requires saying no, not only to ourselves, but also to others. Setting boundaries around my drinking, for example, means that my friends lose the drinking buddy that I’ve always been. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula, “People feel guilty setting a line, and are afraid of hurting feelings. We’re also reluctant to set boundaries for fear of being disliked or rejected.” This is why, too, it feels easier to make excuses or exceptions to our boundaries and just ‘go with the flow’ instead.
Nonetheless, it can feel good to say no. When I’m able to pause and reflect on a situation before making a decision to stick to a boundary — stopping after two drinks, let’s say — I feel a sense of pride and fulfillment. In that moment, I feel I’ve asserted myself in a positive way and that people (usually) welcome and support it. There’s a feeling of relief that I can be myself in the way I want to be, without losing anything, and that my fears were overblown. Over time, these positive experiences will reinforce the boundaries and make them a natural part of life.
Old habits die hard
We’ve all heard this expression, and we’ve probably all felt its truth from experience. Setting a boundary usually directly conflicts with old, unhealthy habits we want to change. In the moment, however, the old habit asserts itself and we feel the strong pull of inertia guiding us through the old, familiar motions. All the context cues, the bodily memory, and our auto-pilot mind are already calling for the old habit. We have to interrupt all of that and then choose to replace it with a new (i.e., scary) behavior — this is no easy task.
Self-forgiveness is part of the process
I started this article by noting how humbling these past few weeks have been. Seeing myself going through old, unhealthy habits leaves me feeling weak and disappointed with myself. I’ve had to work first on forgiving myself and accepting that this backsliding is part of the process of learning something new. Once I’ve forgiven myself and practiced some self-love and compassion I feel a renewed strength that motivates me to try again. We don’t want to be so hard on ourselves that we ruminate on our failures and generate depression and anxiety. Rather, we should see it not as a failure but as a normal part of a learning process that doesn’t ever go in a straight line towards the goal.
People will support you more than you think
So many of us want to be healthier. We think setting healthy boundaries in life risks disrupting our relationships, but many times I find my friends are inspired by my example to make similar changes in their lives, changes they’ve also put off for a long time. The new bonds we form around healthy behaviors replace the old ones and act to strengthen them. In a way, we become protectors of each other’s boundaries by seeing them as something shared, something we both want for ourselves and each other. In this way, healthy boundaries support healthy relationships (and vice versa) and ultimately lead to a healthy community that we can draw upon for inspiration, motivation and support. It will take time, it might not be easy, and there might be a good amount of backsliding along the way, but every positive change we make, every new healthy boundary we set and stick to, makes the whole process worth it.
About the author: Recovering lawyer, training to be a meditation teacher. Anxiety used to define me. Now I am devoted to bringing peace to the people and communities that continue to suffer from it.