Setting Healthy Boundaries Without Shutting People Out Entirely Is Like Helping Someone Study But Not Letting Them Plagiarize

a black and white photo of a bunch of kids sitting in a classroom

Hi Page, 

I hear a lot of talk about how it’s important to set healthy boundaries. And while I was initially very skeptical of this idea, the longer I’ve been polyamorous, the more I’m realizing that I do need a few boundaries for the sake of my own sanity. 

Unfortunately, a lot of the resources on boundaries I’ve found tend to tackle the topic from a very monogamous perspective. Even writings by a lot of polyamorous writers don’t really dig into the meat of how complicated boundary setting can become when you’re romantically involved with multiple people. And then I stumbled on a few of your posts when I was backreading your blog that really hit the nail on the head. 

I particularly enjoyed your writing on how boundaries can be more complicated in polyamorous relationship systems depending on their”degree” as well as the followup to that one where you talked about remembering which degree you’re working in and being mindful of the fact that you don’t always get a choice whether another relationship affects yours. 

I wanted to write to you because I’m struggling with something that I haven’t seen discussed very much. Since you’re a fellow “recovering people pleaser,” I thought maybe you’d understand.

I’m running into a bit of trouble as I’ve started setting boundaries with other people. This isn’t happening with everyone, just with certain people. They tell me I’m turning selfish and that I’m not setting boundaries but putting up walls that will shut other people out. 

I suspect this is just because they’re used to the old me, who would bend over backwards for them, even when it wasn’t healthy for me. Especially since other people in my life seem to be really supportive of this change in me.

But I’m struggling with old people pleasing tendencies, and part of me wonders if the people who are complaining are right. And if I’ve overcorrected somehow. If I’m becoming a hardhearted person. 

So I wanted to ask you a few things. Did you go through this? If so, did you ever get to a place where you felt confident setting boundaries and weren’t always second guessing whether you were being selfish or standoffish? Any words of wisdom?

Thank you so much for your blog and your books. I’m really looking forward to the one coming out on metamours.

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To answer your first question, I have absolutely gone through this.

You’re right. People do talk an awful lot about boundaries when it comes to social relationships (and especially romantic ones). But I find that even though most people have heard of boundaries, they don’t have a clear sense of what they really are exactly, let alone how to set them. Nor do they seem to understand that it’s possible to honor and respect ones that another person sets with you and still manage to be close to that person.

Sometimes people think if you’re a person who is good at setting boundaries that it means that you never help anyone else. Or that you’re incapable of compromise.

And that’s simply not true.

It’s important for me to be there for the ones I love. But I’m not going to let them exploit me. It’s taken a long time for me to figure out the difference, but now that I have, I’ll never forget.

While I was terrible at understanding the difference between letting someone in and letting them exploit me when it came to romantic relationships, I came to realize that I actually did have a good social model to reference where the distinction was a bit more clear. And that was when it came to schoolwork.

Schoolwork Was the One Place Where I Was Terrific at Boundary-Setting

In first grade, another girl in class said to me, “Give me your paper.”

“What?”

“Give me your paper.”

“Why?”

“I want to see it,” she said.

And like a fool, I trusted her intentions and handed it to her. She started to copy the answers on it onto her own worksheet.

“Hey!” I said. “What are you doing? That’s my work! Do your own paper!”

“Sshhh…” she said. “The teacher will hear you.”

But it was too late. I turned to the teacher and told her quickly. “She was copying my answers.”

The teacher scolded her. Separated us. But not before the other little girl took a dig at me. “Tattletale,” she said. “Nobody likes a tattletale.”

She mocked me for days, whenever she had the opportunity. Tried to spin her attempt at cheating into a character flaw of my own. She repeated the story to anyone who would hear her — although her version of events was peppered with major falsehoods (for example, the claim that it had been my idea for her to copy off me).

Most of the other kids rolled their eyes. But a few did believe her. They thought I was stuck up. A smart aleck. Someone who thought her shit didn’t stink. So they were primed to accept what this other little girl said, having been waiting for me to do something that showed I was flawed. Imperfect. And so they descended on the opportunity to tease me for something.

And in the wake of this, bolstered by the cries of support from other classmates, this same little girl approached me again, trying once again to copy off me. But this time, I was even more firm in my denial. Louder.

I wasn’t going to be intimidated.

“You’re such a tattletale!” she squealed, every time.

“If you want her to stop tattling,” our teacher said, fed up from having to deal with yet another incident, “you should stop giving her things to tattle about.”

Eventually, she did stop. And it was several years before I ran into another situation where a classmate was trying to cheat off a test or insist I should write their papers for them. Various forms of academic exploitation.

But I did. It would happen many more times, in elementary school, middle school, high school — even college. And each time my response was to refuse. Say no to someone who wanted to copy my homework. To hide my paper from the wandering eyes of the test taker next to me.

I didn’t yell for the teacher anymore. Because growing up taught me that no one likes a tattletale, even when they’re right. (The reasons why whistleblowers are reviled, even in adulthood, are complicated, but here’s one overview.) But I made sure to protect myself.

When it came to my schoolwork, I was good at setting boundaries.

Does that mean I was closed to the idea of helping other people with their schoolwork? Nope. That’s not at all what it meant. I went on to tutor my peers, to help them figure out concepts when they were struggling. I even ran study groups. And I was willing to discuss tough problems with my friends and puzzle over their solutions together.

But I wasn’t about to let anyone cheat off my paper. Or pass off my work as though it were their own.

I Eventually Learned to Understand Boundaries Clearly in Other Contexts, and I Bet You Can, Too

I was naturally good at setting boundaries when it came to school life. But terrible with romance. However, with time, persistence, and patience, I was able to tease apart what in my romantic life was more like helping a friend study (appropriate assistance) and what was more like writing their paper for them and letting them hand it in under their own name (inappropriate exploitation).

A lot of that came from listening to my gut, even when it was telling me something that was inconvenient, something that might piss other people off. But, frankly, in the beginning, I had to rely more on explicit analysis — because I’d sunk so far down into a spiral of people pleasing at any cost that my gut often led me astray.

Now, I don’t know you at all, but I suspect you, too, have a place in your life where you’re good at setting clear boundaries (most people do). Where you know the difference between helping someone and letting them exploit you. For you, it might be schoolwork, too — or it might be something else.

Whatever it is, I recommend looking to that model for guidance.

You’re likely to be better at setting boundaries than you realize.

Interestingly, I’ve Found that Selfish People Are the Most Likely to Call Others “Selfish” When They’re Told No

But yes, I’ve been through what you’ve been through. And it ain’t easy. I, too, was called “selfish” by certain people as I learned to advocate for myself instead of being the doormat that thanked you for stepping on it.  It was a really painful process, discovering who could handle a polite no and who really couldn’t. But I don’t regret doing it. As I wrote in an earlier piece, saying no reveals people’s true natures:

The reason I don’t regret setting boundaries? It’s because it is NO and not YES that reveals people’s true natures.

Truly kind and caring people can deal with a reasonable no. Sure, they might be disappointed. But they understand the need for you to protect and take care of yourself, even if it isn’t always convenient for them.

But selfish people? They lose their shit when they’re told no. This could be lashing out with attacks on your character. Or a guilt trip. Or any other number of ways.

It can be confusing, too, because maybe this person has always been kind to you. Never said a harsh word. And you say no once, and suddenly you’re selfish. It can give you pause since it’s so out of character for them.

But the thing is? People tend to look alike so long as you are saying yes to everything they want from you.

When we tell people no is when we really get to know them.

I found this process to be very stressful and even a bit heartbreaking, to discover that some people only had my back when it was easy for them. And yes, I, too, worried when I was called “selfish” (because it wasn’t how I saw myself and certainly not something I wanted to be). But I came to later realize that those accusations of selfishness often had more to do with the person accusing me than with me.

Because as I wrote in another post, How to Know If You’re Selfish, there will come times when we must place ourselves first. Placing yourself first on occasion doesn’t make a person selfish. But what is truly selfish is not understanding that other people will occasionally need to do the same.

And I could easily look back on myriad times when I had honored those people’s no’s. Even when it was inconvenient or disappointing for me to do so. And yet, when they were in that position, they couldn’t handle it.

So keep that in mind as you learn to set your own appropriate boundaries — it doesn’t give you license to ignore the boundaries of others. But so long as you reciprocate the consideration that others are showing you, you’re probably doing just fine.

If you’re worried about being selfish, I would advise paying careful attention to how you deal with it when others in your life set boundaries with you. Making sure you can handle a reasonable no.

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Have a question about a post? Maybe need some advice about a relationship or situation? Write me. I love getting messages from you.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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