It’s a cliché because it’s true.
While it might mean different things for different people, for me it’s meant learning some important (albeit painful) lessons about five concepts that are usually associated with a friendship or romantic relationship:
- (self-) pride,
- (self-) loyalty,
- (self-) forgiveness,
- (self-) reliance, and
- (self-) trust.
In June this year I landed my dream job. Filled with excitement after receiving the news, I also felt a strange and unexpected pit in my stomach.
I remember it well — it was late on a Friday night (too late to call my parents). It was also in the midst of a hardcore nationwide lockdown which meant that there was no option to celebrate with friends — I wasn’t allowed to leave my apartment for anything other than groceries, and nobody was allowed to visit me, either.
After uprooting my life in another country to come home for lockdown, I found myself alone in a new apartment, in a new city, with a strange mix of emotions.
I decided not to call anyone. Instead, I poured a glass of wine and said to myself (out loud), “Well done, Julia. I am proud of you. You worked hard and you deserve this.”
This might not be a big deal for others, but for me it was huge.
Usually, I would only give myself permission to celebrate my achievements once they were validated by someone else: a significant other, a parent, or a friend.
Of course, there is nothing better than celebrating these things with the people we love, and even better, to hear the words, “I’m so proud of you.”
But this new-found ability to celebrate and validate my own achievements — to feel proud of myself without needing someone else to say “well done” first — was like giving myself a gift that I didn’t know I needed.
When I got my first car, a Ford Figo, I suddenly noticed how many other Ford Figos were on the road. I had hardly noticed them before, but now it felt like they were everywhere I looked.
Perhaps it’s not the strongest analogy, but I feel the same way about the phrase “personal boundaries.”
Before this year, I hadn’t really given the term much thought. But all of a sudden, the concept of having, maintaining, and communicating my personal boundaries was glaring me in the face at every turn.
Here’s what I learnt: When we allow people to continually shift and cross our boundaries, it’s because, on some level, we think their needs are more important than our own.
To paraphrase my favourite quote by my favourite poet: “The way people treat you is a reflection of what they think of you. What you allow is a reflection of what you think of yourself.”
For a long time I equated love with sacrifice: “I will sacrifice this thing I want / need because love requires sacrifice”.
But what I’ve learnt, is that when unwavering loyalty to other people requires us to cross or shift our personal boundaries, it comes at the cost of being disloyal to ourselves.
Of course, all relationships require a healthy dose of compromise. And being loyal to the people you love, who are also loyal to you, is important. But just as important is being loyal to yourself.
Like all things, it’s easier said than done. I still struggle with this. Even on a really small scale. I had an interaction with someone in which they spoke to me in a disrespectful way.
What I should have said: “I don’t like the way you spoke to me just now. I would appreciate it if you don’t speak to me like that again because it makes me feel [emotion].”
What I actually said: Nothing.
I couldn’t even get the words out.
I berated myself for ages: Why was this so hard? Why couldn’t I stand up for myself the way that I would for someone else?
When I was honest with myself, it came down to this thought: But what if this person doesn’t want to be with me / be my friend anymore if I set up this boundary?
Then I realized: If someone only wants me if they can speak to me like shit, do I really want this person in my life anyway?
It’s a no from me.
Setting up a healthy boundary with someone and observing how they react to it is a very effective way of filtering out people who aren’t good for you.
In the words of Arian Grande: “Thank u, next”
When a friendship or relationship is causing you hurt again and again, it’s easy to put the blame on the other person. It’s far easier to accept that something bad was done to you, than it is to accept that you continually allowed that thing to happen.
Of course this is not to be confused with some kind of victim blaming. That’s not what I am talking about.
What I am talking about echoes another cliché (again, it’s a cliché because it’s true): We teach people how to treat us.
When someone treats you in a way you don’t like, and you don’t say anything, what you’re teaching them is, “It’s okay to treat me like that.”
When I came to the realization that much of the pain I had experienced in the past was a direct result of me not standing up for myself, I was left with a lot of anger and resentment towards myself.
I had betrayed myself. Again and again.
In the words of Jessica Mauboy, I had set myself on fire to keep other people warm.
So what now? How should I react towards someone who has betrayed me and left me feeling hurt, angry, and resentful?
I decided to react the same way I would towards my best friend:
Me: “I am sorry that I didn’t stand up for you. That was my responsibility and I didn’t do it.”
Also me: “Thank you for saying that. It’s okay, you didn’t know better at the time.”
Me: “I won’t do that again.”
Also me: “Thank you. I forgive you”
You’ll have noticed by now that I talk to myself a lot. I lived alone for 6 months during a global pandemic. Give me a break.
In many ways, I’ve always been really self-reliant and independent. For as long as I can remember I have never needed anyone to motivate me to study, or to encourage me to work harder at my job.
I think my first ever report card read: “Julia is very conscientious.”
I’ve never struggled to pay my own way and to get shit done. By all accounts I’ve been able to rely on myself. All except one, that is.
I’ve always relied on other people completely for emotional support.
And why not? At the end of the day, we’re all human, and the best part about the human experience is that we have other humans to help us weather the emotional shit storms that life inevitably brings.
But I was so afraid of not having emotional support from other people, that I was crippled by it. The thought of going through something painful or difficult by myself was almost too much to bear.
“What if something bad happens and I don’t have anyone by my side to help me get through it?”
And then something bad did happen, and (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, stop me if I have) I was alone. In a global pandemic.
Don’t get me wrong, virtually I had all the love and emotional support in the world (s/o Zoom) from my friends, family, and psychologist (s/o David), but there were nights where I was painfully alone.
I had no choice but to be there for myself. I had to tell myself that it was okay to feel the way I was feeling and remind myself that this horrible feeling won’t last forever. “Feel the emotion, but don’t become it.” I said to myself.
Now, I take a lot of comfort in knowing that I’ll be able to get myself through the hard times in life, and you can bet that there will be harder things to endure than what I already have.
And of course all these things will be made more bearable with the support of others. But there is great power in being able to say to yourself, “I gotchu, boo.”
It’s true for all relationships: Once we learn that we can rely on someone, we start to trust them.
For a long time I struggled to trust myself — to trust my decisions and my convictions.
Recently, someone who I have great trust in and respect for gave me some career advice. The advice they gave me didn’t really align with the decision I had already made.
Usually, this would cause me to have a lot of self-doubt. Was I sure that I had made the right decision? This person really knows what they’re talking about when it comes to this topic, maybe I should change my mind…
I thought about it for a while. Sure, this person had some good points, but in the end I felt that I was best-positioned to make the decision. I backed myself and I stayed the course of my original conviction.
Only time will tell if I was right, and there’s every possibility that I wasn’t. But the realization that I’ve got myself this far in life (relatively unscathed), through a series of good decisions that I made for and by myself, was empowering.
The most important relationship you will have is with yourself.
I’ve been in an exclusive relationship with myself for a couple months now, and, sure, it’s had its ups and downs.
Sometimes I think to myself, “God, this woman is high maintenance.”
And then I think to myself, “And so you should be.”
For a very long time I made the mistake of convincing myself that being low maintenance was the goal. A low maintenance friend, partner, sister, daughter — that’s me.
But being low maintenance is not the goal. Not in your relationship with yourself, and not in your relationships with other people.
Sure, there’s a balance — nobody likes a diva and you should only expect people to treat you as well as you’re willing to treat them in return.
But if someone finds your (high, but reasonable) expectations of how you wish to be treated too “high maintenance”, and makes you feel like you’re asking too much, remember; you’re not asking too much, you’re just asking the wrong person.
And you should have the same high expectations of the way you treat yourself.
Investing in my relationship with myself has been truly transformative (can you tell I lived in Bali for a year?)
It’s not perfect. We’re still courting and getting to know each other. But there are a few things I can say to myself now, that I would have struggled to say before:
“I’m proud of you”
“I forgive you”
“I’m here for you”
“I trust you”