I am going to ramble a bit…
“Don’t be a selfish, spoiled brat!”
That was pretty much the worst thing my mother could say to me.
The other evening my husband and I were driving home from a concert and we were talking about something (which neither of us can remember now) 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 that Karen has a selfish nature.”*
I’ve been trying to prove that I am not selfish ever since.
We tend to struggle with establishing, articulating, and maintaining boundaries because we don’t want to be seen as selfish. Here’s where Oscar Wilde comes in.
In his book The Soul of Man and Prison Writings he writes:
“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 man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him.
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.”
We’re told to be ourselves (our red rose selves), but we’re taught to be like everyone else. Conform. Standardize. Comply. Obey.
By Wilde’s estimation, it’s not we who are selfish, but those who demand that we live as they do.
Think about it for a second. For pretty much as long as we’ve been recording history, women were burnt at the stake (literally and metaphorically) for being their true selves, for expressing their true selves. Especially when that self was deemed (by men, and then eventually also by other women) to be evil, magic, wild, intuitive, inappropriate, too sexual, too thin, too fat, too much, too smart…you get the picture.
So our mothers (and grandmothers and great-grandmothers), without realizing it, scolded us for being anything that might make us unattractive or ineligible for marriage, because for most of history women could not survive on their own.
This explains why the top three emotions y’all say you feel when you think about setting boundaries are fear, anxiety, and guilt.
Fear and anxiety because we’ve bought the lie that if we have boundaries no one will love us, we will no longer belong, and as a result, we might even die.
And guilt because we’ve bought the lie that being a red rose with boundaries is selfish.
*It’s important to note that this was the only time my great-grandmother ever said anything negative to me, about me, that I remember. She was the epitome of fairness and kindness…that’s how I mostly remember her. She died on January 1, 1981, when I was 18.