Are You Stumped? How Are Your Boundaries?


July 15, 2020

A couple months ago while we all sheltered in place I was rummaging through one of my many bookshelves to weed out and donate to make room for new books. I don’t Kindle. I came across two copies of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. I’ve received 4 copies of this book as gifts over the course of my life. One copy I received as a baby gift 24 years ago. Most recently I received the 50th Anniversary edition that came with a narrated audio CD from a no longer “friend” who was a line pusher. I was in HS when I received this book the first time. I pulled a copy off the shelf and began to read it.

The story begins with a boy climbing a “she” tree.

He swings from her branches and eats her apples, then there’s the refrain, “And the tree was happy”. As the boy grows he forgets about the tree which the tree doesn’t seem “happy” but she doesn’t say anything. The boy returns when he needs money, a boat to sail away on for adventure, and a house. The tree offers her apples to sell for money he needs. “And the tree is happy.” Likewise she’s “happy” giving him her branches, then her trunk until there is nothing left of her but a stark looking stump. The boy returns as an old man. The tree says she has nothing but offers the stump of what is left of her as a seat for him. “And the tree was happy.” What?!

It’s a terrible message of self-abnegation, selfish entitlement, and giving everything and getting nothing in return. Was the tree really happy becoming an old stump with a hunched over old man sitting on her as he stares off into space forlornly? Many of us were conditioned to think of others first give because it’s expected, you’ve got the “disease to please” or you’re “supposed to”. Unchecked putting others before yourself can lead to self–neglect, a loss of connection with yourself, loss of vitality, and feeling like a burnout stump.

There’s many ways a lot of us get stumped by not setting healthy boundaries.

Setting boundaries is an important part of establishing a sense of self and identity. It’s also a crucial aspect of one’s mental health, self-care/love, and well-being. Boundaries communicate our limits related to safety, personal space, body, emotions, time and energy, as well as identity, and rights as human beings. When we don’t set boundaries we can end up feeling resentful, used, unworthy, and burnt out. Poor boundary setting exacerbates mood disorders because when we don’t set boundaries we are telling ourselves that our needs don’t matter.

It can be challenging to set boundaries, but like any unfamiliar endeavor it gets easier with practice. It’s helpful to recall, understand and command your basic human rights. Saying no, and not taking on others’ expectations or falling into people pleasing generates greater self-respect. Here’s a couple useful tips to jump start setting healthy boundaries.

Saying No to Others Can be Saying Yes to Yourself.

For many saying no is intimidating and daunting. You might feel hesitant to say no without offering and explanation or excuse for fear of disappointing others. This is especially difficult for people pleasers. The willingness to be uncomfortable is as important as being assertive. Try saying no without a made-up excuse.

Being Assertive.

Assertiveness is a communication skill that hinges on clear communication. It can be improved with practice and experience. Assertive people clearly communicate their wants, needs, and boundaries to others. Assertive communication feels firm but is kind. It’s not pushy, harsh, blaming, or critical. I statements are a good place to start.

Recently, boundaries was discussed with a client. I recalled The Giving Tree in my conversation with them. About a week later they sent me this meme.

In this story the tree has enough energy to produce a big crop of apples each season and she isn’t stumped.