How to Set Boundaries in a Relationship so You're Not a Doormat

Updated on October 18, 2019
letstalkabouteduc profile image

After suffering from depression for decades, Ms. Meyers found that setting boundaries lifted her spirit more than a prescription ever could.

Many of us get depressed because we don't stand up for ourselves, set boundaries, and take control of our lives.
Many of us get depressed because we don't stand up for ourselves, set boundaries, and take control of our lives. | Source

When Did You Become Disempowered and Scared of Life?

Recently I recalled an incident that occurred decades ago and realized what an enormous impact it had on making me scared of life and unsure of myself. 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 student to read, Sister Mary Virginia 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. Worst of all, she was 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 she finally released her grip. She left deep impression marks on my skin and even deeper ones on my developing psyche. Her out-of-control fury created in me a lifelong fear of authority figures. I developed a penchant for not making waves, keeping my head down, pleasing others, and avoiding conflict at all cost. While the details of my story are unique, the experience of being disempowered and losing confidence because of it is all-too-familiar for many of us.

How Does a Lack of Control in Your Life Lead to Depression?

From an adult perspective, I see that situation so clearly now: A cowardly, out-of-control teacher manhandled an innocent child who couldn't stand up for herself. If that happened to one of my sons today, I would be beyond livid and demand that the teacher be fired.

As a 6-year-old, though, I interpreted that event very differently than a grownup would. As kids are apt to do, I put all the blame on myself. I was convinced that I had been a bad girl and got exactly what I deserved for disobeying my teacher. I felt so much shame that I never told my parents about the ordeal. My mom and dad were devoted Catholics and, in my 6-year-old brain, I was sure they would side with Sister Mary Virginia and not me.

That incident was the beginning of my decades-long commitment to compliance at all cost. The expression, Go along to get along, pretty well summed up my existence until depression and anxiety overtook me a few years ago. One day my husband said, “I hope to live until I'm 100” while I thought to myself: I'd be relieved if I die today because I'm exhausted and there's no joy in my life.

I was tired of living in a 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, create healthy boundaries, and finally demand the respect I've earned, I looked for advice from three extremely successful women that I admire.

I was manhandled by a nun when I was 6. That experience left me feeling frightened, powerless, and always wanting to please.
I was manhandled by a nun when I was 6. That experience left me feeling frightened, powerless, and always wanting to please. | 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 about setting boundaries and respecting yourself.

'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 powerful 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. I was told to put others first—to sacrifice and to 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 eye-opening clip changed how I think about God and religion and radically altered how I live my life.

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.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      2 years ago

      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 

      2 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      2 years ago

      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


      2 years 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.


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