Art by Dale Frank
"I was angry with my friend:
A few months ago I felt a strange sensation that I’d come home to die, in the same way a wild animal retreats from the world to a final resting place. For a brief and somewhat hilarious moment I thought I might actually be dying (because hey, I’m a little bit "Nina Proudman" neurotic). But I soon realised that instead, a part of my psyche was set for demolition. A part of my being that has been with me for as long as I can remember. A part of my self that is now at odds with the woman I am growing into.
This part of me is the “nice girl”. I’m sure she is recognisable to many: The people-pleaser, the yes-woman, the peacemaker and the door mat. The girl in me that says “yes” when the woman in me really means “no”.
Over my lifetime I have collected more noes than I can count. Each time they would rise to the surface of my throat, I’d carefully catch them before they threatened to escape. I then placed them into a tiny cellar at the centre of my body. Occasionally, I could hear them pleading to come out. They might sometimes slip into my thoughts and emit a passive-aggressive response to someone’s transgression. Or they would feed me with the idea that running away from the world is the best way to avoid having to swallow more noes.
But this tiny cellar can only hold so much. I can feel its doors are beginning to bulge at the hinges. There is a loud knocking of noes, raging to get out, like a deafening choir that I can no longer silence. All together now I can hear each of their once muted pleas...
No, I do not want to be touched that way. No, I will not work overtime for free. No, I cannot help you right now. No, I will not allow you to physically threaten me. No, I won’t stick around while you verbally abuse me. No, I won’t continue in this role unless you pay me accordingly. No, I will not suppress my sexuality to fit in with social norms. No, I don't want your presumptuous advice or belittling opinion. No, I won’t keep quiet so as not to rock the boat. No, I won’t swallow my feelings in order to keep the peace.
For this calm sea is an illusion. Saying "yes" to keep the peace ultimately creates a war within myself, which then spills out into all my relationships. Dumping repressed rights into the corners of the soul creates a poison that leaks out into every estuary and ocean.
Five Bells by John Olson
It’s pretty clear that learning where my boundaries are is the preventative remedy for this toxic fall out. For so many years I thought having good boundaries meant being cold to the world and dead to myself. I confused it with shutting people out and closing off my heart. It was only recently that I found my understanding of what healthy boundaries might look like through metaphor.
I imagined my heart as a house. In order to keep out unwanted visitors, I had previously believed that I needed to keep all the doors and windows locked. Indeed, this kept me safe to some extent, but in the meantime, all the indoor plants were beginning to shrivel in the darkness. The walls were becoming mouldy with emotions that couldn’t breathe. A thick layer of dust accumulated over the windows so I couldn’t see clearly anymore. All creative life within me was withering away.
This is not the answer. So instead, it makes more sense to me to build a fence around the house; to work out where the natural borders of the land are, and to place a guardian at the gate. This woman will be warm and welcoming, but she will also be discerning. She is not afraid to turn away any person or situation to which she cannot give a whole-hearted "yes". But in doing so, she allows me to keep all the doors and windows of the house wide open, so that I may feel the caress of the breeze and the sweet-scented invitation of the flowers. The sun can then shine into my heart, and I can return its gaze with a loving reflection.
Because while letting go of the "nice girl" may sometimes require a fierce loyalty to one's edges, it doesn't equate to becoming a heartless woman. The mature version of nice is not indifference but wise compassion, and for that, we need to feel safe enough to open ourselves to the world and act from a place that is not riddled with the bitter venom of unacknowledged rage.