How to Set Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship So Your Needs Are Met and You Don't Feel Like a Doormat

Updated on December 19, 2017
letstalkabouteduc profile image

After struggling with depression and anxiety most of my life, I'm now dedicated to becoming a stronger person who lives life to the fullest.


How I Became So Wimpy

Recently I recalled an incident that occurred decades ago and instantly realized what an enormous impact it had on making me a wimp. I was in first grade and my teacher, Sister Mary Virginia, called on me to read aloud. Feeling shy and unprepared, I refused. Instead of simply choosing another child, she became enraged. Her face turned blood-red as she grabbed me tightly by my upper arm and yanked me out of my miniature chair. She dragged me across the classroom, all the while commanding me to read the book she still held in her hand. She pulled my uniform sweater and Snoopy lunchbox from the lockers and dragged me to the door, threatening to send me to the principal's office where the secretary would call my mom to take me home. Scared beyond belief, I whispered a few sentences from the book and finally she released her grip, leaving deep impression marks on my skin and creating a lifelong fear of authority figures in my psyche.

From an adult perspective, I see that event so clearly now: A cowardly, out-of-control teacher manhandled an innocent child who couldn't stand up for herself. She should have been reprimanded and fired. But, as a 6-year-old kid at the time, I interpreted that event so differently, putting all the blame on myself as youngsters often do: I'm a bad kid because I wouldn't do what the teacher told me to do. I got what I deserved. I need to obey.

I'm sorry to say it wasn't the only incident of mistreatment that befell me at that inner-city Catholic school I attended for eight years. It was a different time—the 1970s—and parents like mine put priests and nuns on pedestals, never questioning their absolute authority. My mom and dad knew the teachers were often rough with me and my three siblings, but it never crossed their minds to intervene. My parents were the most dangerous kind of religious people: mindlessly devout. While their stated reason for sending us to Catholic school was “to instill morals in us,” there was an unspoken agenda that overrode that one: They wanted four compliant kids who were quiet, respectful, and fearful of adults. From a young age, I knew my parents didn't have my back and that their blind faith in their religion and its leaders always came before me.

Those were the beginnings of my lifelong commitment to compliance at all cost. The expression, Go along to get along, pretty well summed up by existence until depression and anxiety overtook me a few years ago. One day my husband said, “I hope to live until I'm 100” and I thought: I'd be more than fine if I died today. I was that tired of this world where I felt powerless, where people walked all over me, and where my self-worth got eroded. I needed to move on from that helpless 6-year-old girl who was dragged across the classroom and emerge a confident woman. As I began my journey to become a stronger person, stand up for myself, and finally demand the respect I've earned, I looked for advice from fearless women I admire.

As a Child, I Was Manhandled by a Nun, Leaving Me Feeling Scared and Powerless

In the 1970s, many Catholic parents like mine didn't question the authority of priests and nuns. They were put on a pedestal and we obeyed.
In the 1970s, many Catholic parents like mine didn't question the authority of priests and nuns. They were put on a pedestal and we obeyed. | Source

There's a place in you that you must keep inviolate. You must keep it pristine, clean so that nobody has the right to treat you badly...You need to have a place where you can say 'stop it!'

— Dr. Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou

If only I had known Dr. Angelou when I was a kid, my life would have turned out so much better. I'd be a totally different person—stronger, happier, and more capable of protecting myself. But, thank goodness, I now have her words reverberating through my brain even though she's passed. When people invade my personal space, use profane language, or disrespect me, I think of her and calmly say: stop, back off, or not me, you don't! I keep my emotions in check and my voice under control so they know I mean business.

I remember what Dr. Angelou said: I'm a child of God and nobody has the right to treat me as though I'm anything less. I know Dr. Angelou's words would not have prevented me from getting violated by that nun; I was too little to protect myself from that assault. But, if I had known her wise words at that time, I never would have blamed myself and I never would have become a perpetual victim.

This Brief Clip Is Choke-Full of Good Advice and Never Fails to Inspire Me

'No' is a complete sentence.

— Shonda Rhimes

2. Shonda Rhimes

I've gotten a lot better at saying no by living in a male-dominated household and hearing the guys utter it without a trace of guilt or inner turmoil. Like so many women of my generation and of generations before me, I was brought up to be a people pleaser, always helping and sacrificing. My mother convinced me it was “the Christian thing to do” and it would bring a lot of happiness to my life. But, in truth, it often made me feel used, unappreciated, and foolish.

When I was a stay-at-home mom with two young boys (one with autism), I wanted to make connections with other women. I invited kids to our home for play dates, hoping to build friendships for both me and my sons. Soon moms were asking me to watch their children (for free) so they could go to medical appointments, get their hair done, and attend meetings. Thinking I didn't have a valid reason to say no and feeling rather unimportant as a stay-at-home mom, I let this happen again and again. It quickly became apparent that these women had no interest in getting to know me better. They just wanted to dump their kids and make a hasty retreat.

Shonda Rhimes, the highly successful television producer and writer, says women like me need to have this simple response at their disposal, “No. I'm sorry. I'm not able to do that.” We don't need to have a laundry list of excuses or even one excuse. We can say no without feeling a twinge of guilt because we're doing what's best for ourselves and showing others our true worth. Others won't value us if we're doormats; they'll just walk on us.

This Clip Shows Us the Value of Setting Boundaries So We Can Help Others But Not Diminish Ourselves.

How you treat yourself is how you treat God...You are the representative of God in your life...It's not selfish to put yourself first. It's self-full.

— Iyanla Vanzant

3. Iyanla Vanzant

My parents were religious people who followed the doctrine of their Catholic faith without asking questions. When I was a child, I saw their lives as joyless as they rarely laughed, joked, and embraced the craziness of life with four kids. While attending Catholic schools for 12 years, I saw priests who were heavy drinkers and smokers and nuns who were over-worked and over-stressed. From an early age, I saw religion as something that made life less fun and more burdensome. I thought the world was tough enough so I didn't understand why anyone would want to weigh themselves down with even more hardship.

As a youngster, I was told to put others first—to sacrifice and act unselfishly. As an adult, I taught kindergarten at an inner-city Catholic school until I became depleted and disillusioned. I was running on empty with nothing left to give—tired and burned out and only in my thirties! That's when I started to open up and listen to what other people had to say about religion and how they found it joyful and enriching—just the opposite of how I'd experienced it.

Author and motivational speaker, Iyanla Vanzant, gave me a perspective that changed my life. She believes we're honoring God when we put ourselves before others. We represent Him here on earth and, when we care for ourselves, we show love and respect for Him. This is something I never heard as a child—not even close—but it made total sense to me. It gave me the strength to finally make myself a priority by exercising, eating right, writing in a journal, meditating, spending time in nature, gardening, reading, and having fantastic sex with my husband. Joy returned to my life. I had the time, patience, and energy to respond to my family and friends with enthusiasm and support, and I was no longer dragging through each day just to get to the end.

This Clip Changed My Life and How I Think of God and Religion

If You Feel Powerless in Your Life, You May Have Difficulty Setting Boundaries and This Book Is a Fantastic Place to Start

Setting Boundaries® for Women
Setting Boundaries® for Women

From an early age, I felt powerless and let others walk all over me. This led to feelings of hopelessness and struggles with depression and anxiety. Let many women, I had difficulties setting boundaries because I wanted to be liked and I didn't know how to stand up for myself without looking bitchy. This book, written specifically for women, changed all of that. The author explains six concrete steps

to set clear boundaries in your life (both personal and professional) that others will understand and respect. I highly recommend this book for those of us who feel guilty saying no and wind up feel used and abused. It's inspiring and empowering.


Questions & Answers

    © 2017 McKenna Meyers


      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • letstalkabouteduc profile image

        McKenna Meyers 7 months ago from Bend, OR

        I think I could try to the end of my days to be popular and never get there. I just don't have the "secret sauce" for that. I recently talked with a mom who has twin daughters I taught in preschool. They just started middle school and came home after the first week and announced: "We're not in the popular group." I just wished that I could hug them and tell them how little that matters. But, you're right, Bill. It takes many years to get there.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 7 months ago from Olympia, WA

        Truthfully this took me years to accomplish. I wanted to be popular, so I agreed to do many things I had no desire to do, an I ignored behavior I never should have ignored. Today I love myself too much to fall for unacceptable behavior and demands.

      • letstalkabouteduc profile image

        McKenna Meyers 8 months ago from Bend, OR

        I'm inspired by these women because you know they've lived a life - hardship, joy, and everything in between. I listen to Oprah's podcast, SuperSoul Sunday, and learn so much. It's probably the best use of my time during the entire week. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • sybol profile image

        sybol 8 months ago

        You have chosen some great women of wisdom for those of us who for one reason or another allow others to overtake, over rule, and/or over step our boundaries. I too have been inspired by these women and my life too has grown. Thank you for sharing.