I have had numerous conversations with clients in past weeks about the “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” place we inevitably find ourselves in.

Some examples:

  • A friendship that is one-sided and sucking the very life out of you.
  • A marriage or partner-relationship that you’ve waited-and-wished-and-hoped-and-prayed would get better…but doesn’t.
  • A job that you’re good at, where people rely on you, and you’re miserable.
  • A parent who can’t (or won’t) see/accept you for who you are.
  • A community of faith that you’ve been part of forever that would be deeply hurt if you left…and you know you can’t stay.
  • Fill in the blank.

No matter which way you turn, there is a price to pay. You feel forced to choose between your needs or the needs/demands/requirements of others. And unless you just blatantly ignore every signal within, every bit of your internal wisdom, every whisper of that know-that-you-know-that-you-know voice within, there is no sidestepping it, waiting it out, or wishing it away. It sounds cliché, but no less true: the only way “out” is through.


If you’re there, I’m sorry. I know it well. It’s hard and messy and painful. It feels endless — and completely impossible.

I find it too simplistic to talk about circumstances like these only through the lens of “boundaries.” Yes, they’re in play — whether their violation, enforcement, or complete absence; but I think there’s more going on, more to consider and acknowledge when we feel like we’re straightjacketed and stuck.

For the sake of level-setting though, lets define the term itself:

Boundaries are a conceptual limit between you and the other person. Simply put, it’s about knowing where you end and others begin. Knowing what’s yours and what’s not. Acknowledging that every adult is responsible for themselves. Having a functional boundary (one that works) means taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, and NOT taking responsible for the actions and emotions of others. Source

If you had asked me to read this definition 30 years ago, it would have sounded like another language, one I could not begin to understand. You could NOT have convinced me that it was NOT my job to take responsibility for the actions and emotions of others! What in the world??!!

As a result, and as you might imagine,

I’ve learned about boundaries by not having any; by painfully and arduously wrenching myself out of habits, deeply-ingrained patterns, and relationships multiple times. Or not…and then living with that pain, as well.

To draw a line between someone else’s actions and emotions and our own, then stay on our side of it, can feel insensitive, uncompassionate, and harsh. We wrestle with who we are, at core, when forced into choices that make others uncomfortable or worse, actually hurt them. And so, lots of times, we don’t do any of it: draw the line, stay on our side, or make a choice.

(If I’m being completely honest, I should rewrite the whole paragraph above in first person…)

With hindsight’s wisdom, I can see that there is another way, multiple ways, far better ways to put boundaries in place and feel like a decent human being at the same time. So what is the alternative?

How are we to make hard choices, do hard things, establish healthy boundaries and/or extricate ourselves from situations, people, and institutions that make us miserable?

I’ve probably told you the story before: my beginning attempts at all of this in my former marriage; how I wandered through Every. Single. Day. silently repeating the same words over and over and over again: I am not a bitch. I am not a bitch. I am not a bitch. I needed the constant reminder. I HAD to believe that being honest and breaking our/my deeply-entrenched patterns, was NOT a reflection of some character flaw. I HAD to believe that what I knew was true: I am a good person. I am a loving person. I am kind and generous and compassionate. I am not vindictive or mean. I do not have ulterior motives. I do not intend harm. I am not a bitch. I am not a bitch. I am not a bitch.

Brené Brown wasn’t prolific back then or I would have leaned heavily into her family’s motto: “Clear is kind.” It sounds way better than my repeated mantra…

Here’s my point and hoped-encouragement for you:

Learning to believe in, trust, and value ourselves is what creates the benchmark for everything and everyone else.

  • The more I believe I am worthy of love and respect, any and everything less becomes clear.
  • The more I trust I am kind and generous and compassionate, then the thought that I am being mean or selfish or insensitive is probably about them, not me.
  • The more I value my time, my body, my beliefs, and then some, their compromise — in any context or relationship — is all the evidence I need that change is required.

A few more?

  • When I am disappointed, it’s NOT because my expectations were too high; rather, I have not been treated, talked to, or related with in a way that was equal to what I deserve. I’ve had to allow that this is not about me being “better than” or demanding or narcissistic; it’s about acknowledging that my expectations are actually consistent with how I value myself. (Just the opposite is also true: the lower my value of myself, the lower my expectations of others…) And on days when I can’t quite get there, I ask myself how I would respond if the same thing happened to one of my daughters…
  • When I fear upsetting the apple cart, I (now) realize that this is all the data I need. Fear is almost always the flashing neon sign that says “you’re on the right track; keep moving in this direction; don’t sidestep…”
  • The longer the list of how others might feel if I do or say X, Y, or Z, the more evidence I have that I’m wandering into compromise and compliance.

NONE of what I’ve named above alleviates the other side of this: all the emotions and heartache and grief we feel when faced with others’ pain or misunderstanding or reaction.

What if you saw your emotions as unequivocal confirmation that you are, in fact, kind and generous and compassionate? What if you allowed all your feelings to affirm, instead of deny, that what you long for and desire (for yourself and others) is goodness and grace and hope? Always hope.

So that I can (hopefully) finish this up, let’s go back to where we started: the damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t place…

Maybe it’s not quite the bind it seems. Maybe it’s far more expansive with possibility than you’ve seen or known. Maybe it’s invitation to honor yourself — in palpable and powerful ways. Maybe it’s not an either/or, a choice between you and someone else, but the capacity to hold and allow both…what you feel AND what others feel (without needing them to be the same). It’s definitely a clarion call to acknowledge and allow your sovereignty, your truest and most authentic self, that know-that-you-know-that-you-know voice within, to lead.

Yes, the “hard and messy and painful” remains. But that’s the way of it, the complexity and expansiveness of what it means to embrace all of life vs. holding on to a happily ever after.

This is what it looks like to be a woman who is wise and yes, kind and generous and compassionate; a woman who is beautiful and amazing, tender and strong; a woman who is, well, you!


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