It starts like the unraveling of a tattered sweater, one thread at a time. A little pull and some of the stitching comes undone. It’s so familiar and subtle you don’t even notice it, at first. Just a snag, you think. Not enough to affect the function of the sweater.
Eventually you become aware of a hole. You patch it. You do your best to sew together two separate pieces of cloth, even though the patterns don’t match up, and there’s a bulge where the materials overlap. You tell yourself, it’s fine. It’s still functional. No one will even notice. Until the sweater is a patchwork you no longer recognize.
When you look in the mirror, you don’t look at the sweater. It’s comfortable. You know by now that if you don’t look, you can’t see it. So you choose not to look. You let the unraveling continue to happen, string by string, section by section, until you’re standing cold and half-naked in tatters.
* * *
When you’re a people pleaser, you do whatever’s necessary to meet another person’s expectations. You go along. You bend, and stretch, and give.
When you have a great capacity for compassion, you can clearly see another person’s pain and suffering and you want to stop it, heal it. You want to make it better for them.
When you’re taught from a young age to put others before yourself, you relent. You over-accommodate. You sacrifice yourself completely.
And if you’re not careful, others will take advantage of you. Some won’t even realize they’re doing it. Most won’t realize they’re doing it. But they’ll take and take and take. And before you know it, you’ll allow yourself to be crucified for someone else’s sins… or wants, or needs.
* * *
In Buddhism, there are 5 precepts, guidelines for how to live ethically. The second one — the one right after abstaining from killing — is abstaining from taking that which is not freely given.
You’re used to men taking without asking. They take with their eyes. They take with their hands. They take with their thoughts and their words.
One of your earliest memories is of a boy in your preschool class lunging at you, pushing you over and pinning you down, trying to kiss you.
Maybe they’re taught from a young age that everything is for them, they just have to reach out and take it.
Maybe they’re taught to put themselves first, always. To bend for nobody. That bending is for the weak, long grasses, and women.
Maybe they’re taught by history that with enough force, you can get anything you want. You just have to take it.
And maybe you reinforce this belief by letting go and giving, giving, giving, until you’ve given it all away. Until there’s nothing left for them to take. Until there’s nothing left for you.
* * *
The one for me, one for you approach is not selfish. It is equitable. It acknowledges and respects each person’s needs.
The one for you, ten for you, fifty for you… all for you approach is unhealthy. It’s unfair. It acknowledges and respects only one person’s wishes.
When you have boundaries, you put limits on the taking. They need to be stronger than a backstitch to stop the fraying.
They should be like a seawall, pushing against the intrusive tide, holding it in its place. A seawall says gently but firmly, no further, please. This belongs to me.
Without this separation of sea and land, there would be no dry, safe place to nurture and sustain human life. There would be only a hostile and dominating ocean, like one of Jupiter’s distant, frozen moons.