I hope this story will help you set boundaries and feel better connected to the people you love.
Standing in the dimly lit bowling alley, I knew I should be happy to be here but all I could think about was the shoes. If I have no intention of actually bowling… do I still have to wear bowling shoes? If I don’t, will everyone think there is something wrong with me?
I wish I knew how to set boundaries then
I was in Chicago for a business gathering with a bunch of creative entrepreneurs, around 30 people that I’d first met earlier that year. As an introvert, I sometimes get overwhelmed in bigger groups, but I was glad to be at a second meet-up; I get to know and let people in slowly. After a day spent studying the secrets of copywriting, we were going bowling or, in my case, pretending to bowl while hopefully getting to have some meaningful one-on-one conversations with my new friends. While I was excited, I was also starting to feel a creeping dread that had nothing to do with the shoes.
That morning, I had woken up in my hotel room with a sense of relief. It was my birthday but because I was traveling, for once I didn’t have to worry about birthday surprises; no special versions of the birthday song clapped out at a restaurant, candles that never go out while everyone stares at me for my shock and delight. Instead I enjoyed nice phone calls from my loved ones and the flowers my husband had sent. I knew I wouldn’t have to hear about my birthday for the rest of the day, which felt like a gift in itself.
But during the workshop that afternoon, one new friend called out, “Happy Birthday, Courtney!” As I thanked her, my stomach went into a tight knot. How did she know? I hadn’t told anyone. Now, walking towards the lanes of the bowling alley, I was on edge and on the lookout for surprises.
I hate being surprised. I don’t mean gentle surprises, like a text message or card in the mail. Those are lovely! But I can’t stand surprises that are loud, shocking or come with a song or candles … no thank you. It’s not that I hate my birthday. I’m grateful every year when it comes around, I just feel uncomfortable being the focus of birthday attention. So every year, I have to prepare myself for people singing to me. Every year I force a smile, make a wish and blow out the candles. Every year, the wish is the same: next year, please don’t sing happy birthday to me. Ultimately, it took me almost 50 years to speak this wish to anyone but the universe.
With the bowling shoes still in my hand, I looked up, got out of my thoughts and came back to the group, trying to find a conversation I could join. Suddenly, a hush came over the room. It was quickly followed by a collective inhale, the one I can feel in my bones every year before that song starts. I feel sick. Behind me, someone bursts into song, “Happy Birthday to you …” Nooooo. Seriously? In the bowling alley? Then everyone joins in. I don’t know most of my group very well. I don’t know the other strangers in the bowling alley at all! I am mortified. The whole entire world is staring at me. Or at least the whole entire bowling alley world is staring at me.
I slap a big smile on my face and try not to cry as the cake with candles approaches and all of my new friends ramp up their singing. Someone hands me a card and jokes about how since I’m a minimalist, I’ll probably throw it out. We all laugh (one of us is still trying not to cry). Logically, I know it all came from a place of love and celebration. Still, I want to run back to my hotel room, get under the covers and pretend I never got out of bed in the first place.
That wasn’t the first time I wanted to cry about my birthday
When I was 49, I heard whispers of a 50th birthday celebration. One that my husband was very excited to plan. One I desperately did not want. As I sat across from my therapist telling her about how I was dreading whatever this fun family-filled surprise was going to be, she said, “Why don’t you tell him you don’t want a surprise birthday party?” Um, what? Excuse me? I can just say that? I can just tell someone who is doing something thoughtful not to do it? Also, why did it take a therapist to give me permission to ask for what I want? It all sounded so simple. With this new possibility, I felt free.
When I told my husband, I realized how not simple it was. I did not want a surprise birthday party but he wanted to give me one. It took more than one gentle conversation, but we got there. On my 50th birthday, instead of fake smiling my way through another verse of Happy Birthday, I ran off a cliff in La Jolla (with a trained hang gliding professional), ate fish tacos from my favorite seaside spot with people I love and celebrated with waves, seals, and a sunset I’ll never forget. I got everything I wanted because, for once, I said out loud what I wanted and what I didn’t.
I know I’m not alone
Perhaps my aversion to being sung to and celebrated strikes you as odd, but from what I’ve learned, I’m not alone. In a survey I did with people who subscribe to my newsletter, I learned from thousands of participants that more than 75% of you don’t like being sung to either and 77% of the 75% have never told anyone. In this survey people also shared all of the other things they tolerate because they think they are supposed to, because they don’t know that they can ask for what they want, and what they don’t want. Or they know but they don’t want to face the discomfort of expressing themselves. Maybe you feel the same way.
I want to change that so we can all enjoy a more peaceful, connected existence. Instead of avoiding the people who annoy us by doing things we hate, what if we just told them it wasn’t ok? What if we expressed boundaries not just around the big things but the day-to-day things too? And, what if we did it in such a way that when we set boundaries it served as a bridge instead of a fence, or even better what if we could see our boundaries as a map … a map of each of us, of what’s important to us and what we enjoy and what we don’t.
Your boundaries are a map of you
Boundaries are how we show each other who we are. Your boundaries are a map of you. They show others who you are and how to love you. Set boundaries so you can tell people …
- I like this.
- I don’t like this.
- This makes me uncomfortable.
- This makes me feel loved.
- I won’t tolerate this.
- This matters to me.
- That sounds good.
- This is what I want.
- This is who I am.
Boundaries are a map of us. A map of who we are and the directions of how we can best connect and thrive with each other. That’s the poetic version, the version that has made me fall in love and feel all ooey and gooey about boundaries. It’s true and real and in total opposition to the story most of us tell ourselves what it means to set boundaries.
The way I see it, we’ve got our fence up long before we set boundaries. We are protecting ourselves from things we may not have to endure at all.
Knowing how sensitive I am about people singing happy birthday to me, I could have clearly stated a boundary when one person from the conference wished me a happy birthday. I could have thanked them and said “I appreciate your well wishes. I have to tell you, It makes me feel really uncomfortable when a big group sings to me or makes a big deal about me. Will you spread the word and let everyone know in case anyone has anything planned?” What’s the worst thing that would have happened? The person on the receiving end may have thought I was presumptuous, selfish, or too direct or maybe she’d think I was sensitive and trying to avoid feeling uncomfortable on my birthday. Or, she’d ignore me and everyone would sing anyway. And what’s the best thing that could have happened? I’d have felt closer to the person I shared my boundary with by sharing the map of me. I would have felt confident that no one would sing to me or make a big deal out of my birthday. Maybe I would have realized my anxiety wasn’t about bowling or shoes at all. It would have been worth the risk of showing people who I was by setting a boundary. And, by sharing myself perhaps I would have given others permission to share themselves.
I encourage you to share the map of you (set boundaries) or simply express what works best for you.
P.S. Thank you so much to my dear friend Marsha Shandur for helping me tell this story and others. She is the best storyteller and story teacher I know.