One evening my husband and I were driving home from a concert and we were talking about something that triggered a memory: I must have been nine or ten years old and my family went to New Hampshire to visit my great-grandparents (my mother’s mother’s parents). My mother and stepfather had adopted a boy who was nine months younger than I, and I believe this was his first visit.

My great-grandmother was a teeny-tiny woman who was also tough and physically strong. She liked to read palms. She asked my brother and me to present our palms.

He reached his hand out, with his fingers spread open. I reached my hand out with my my fingers closed together.

She took our hands in hers and said, “This shows that Billy has a generous nature and Karen has a selfish nature.”*

I’ve been trying to prove that I am not selfish ever since.

And it’s why one of the worst things my mother ever said to me was…

“Don’t be a selfish, spoiled brat!”

I’m guessing you have a similar story. One you may not remember, but one that, nonetheless, had the same result. 

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We tend to struggle with establishing, articulating, and maintaining boundaries because we don’t want to be seen as selfish.

“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognises infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. … A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses.” ~ Oscar Wilde

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You were told to “just be yourself” (your red rose self), but you were taught to be like everyone else. Conform. Standardize. Comply. Obey. And most of all, don’t be selfish.

Think about it for a second. Throughout history, men have punished and killed women for being their true selves, for expressing their true selves. Especially when that self was deemed to be too ___________. 

So our mothers (and grandmothers and great-grandmothers), without realizing it, scolded us for being anything that might make us unattractive, in a twisted but effective way of protecting us.

This explains why the two primary emotions you feel when simply THINKING about setting boundaries are anxiety and guilt.

Anxiety because you bought the lie that if you have boundaries no one will love you, you will no longer belong, and as a result, you might even die (says the ancient part of your brain).

And guilt because you bought the lie that being a red rose with boundaries is selfish.