by Richard Diebenkorn
It’s said all the time that boundaries are essential to self-esteem and emotional health. What’s not said as often is that constructing good boundaries requires sufficient knowledge of self: who you are, what you want, and what you’re willing or not willing to tolerate. From what I can tell, most people’s sense of self is incredibly situational and dependent on external feedback. But even if you don’t pay attention to it or have trouble accessing it, you probably do have a deeper self. I find it helps to think of it as preferences over time: not aspirational, but consistently demonstrated. Qualities that have outlasted your last relationship or current obsessive hobby. Here are some of mine:
I don’t like being told what to do and I can’t change to please someone else. I’m resourceful and I pick up new skills quickly. I like loopholes, secret knowledge, cutting corners. I prefer asking questions to answering them. I take my own desire seriously—I can be self-centered and uncompromising. The dreamy, idealistic side of me coexists comfortably with the pragmatic side. I’m comfortable with large amounts of risk. I’m experimental, creative, open to new experiences.
These qualities, good and bad, have been constant in me for a long time. I can modify my behavior and edit all sorts of things about my everyday routine—improve how I handle conflict, try and become a morning person, work out five times a week instead of two—but my deepest traits are linked to my beliefs about the world and how I want to operate within it. To the extent to which I believe we have individual selves, they constitute my self and point to my values. Values create boundaries: they help us make decisions, decide what to prioritize, accept and reject feedback. They help us hold on to our integrity.
When I was a teenager, I was pretty vulnerable to criticism from people close to me—if you told me to change, my first reaction would’ve been oh man, I don’t want to let this person down. There must be something wrong with me, I’ll try to fix it. Which is so the stereotype of the “good girlfriend”: she’s so accommodating, so willing to be okay with whatever. We are culturally ingrained with the desire to please, to have porous boundaries in the name of love. Which becomes this weird ouroburos where you don’t ask for what you want and the other person can sense your resentment anyway. Sometimes I see people compromise in ways that clearly crush their soul in an attempt to hold onto a person or an ideal and I just want to shake them: don’t you know who you are? Don’t you think there are things in the world more important than the desire to please?
We become real when we’re willing to acknowledge the parts of ourselves that are optically inconvenient. When we realize that the narrative dissolves and so do the feelings, but we’re always left with ourselves. I know now that I can’t create a life I like if I emotionally sell myself out. I don’t want to close my eyes to what is happening around me in order to feel better. I think I’m very flawed, but also: I think I can become a better person on my own terms, while maintaining self-respect. When there’s no one around—no one to praise me, validate me, criticize me, insult me—I hope I’ll still know who I am.