Sometimes I get asked, what's the one thing that I wish women would master, when it comes to matters of the heart. It might surprise you, what tops the list, pretty much every time—knowing the difference between when you are setting a boundary and when you are operating out of sheer bitterness. What's unfortunate is, this topic seems to be tackled so little, that when it comes to understanding what boundaries vs. bitterness means, very few seem to be able to make clear distinctions. In fact, the irony is that, more times than not, what someone calls a "boundary", it is the direct result of something that happened that made them, well, bitter. What's even more ironic than that is, if we had set boundaries in the first place—purely out of the desire to love ourselves as well as possible and not as a knee-jerk reaction to pain—we could probably avoid many of the things that resulted in us becoming bitter in the long run. Here's what I mean by that.
What a Relationship Without Boundaries (Typically) Looks Like
Take the last relationship—whether it was romantic, a friendship or even work-related—that totally disappointed you, for example. When you stop and think about all that went down, did a part of your devastation ultimately have to do with having a lack of boundaries? If you're not sure, here are some signs you probably didn't establish as many boundaries as you should've before the relationship ever began:
- You felt taken for granted
- You didn't speak up when you should have
- You were the one who did most of the giving or most of the work
- You constantly said "yes", even when you didn't want to
- You allowed your own feelings and needs to be dismissed
- You engaged in controlling and/or manipulative and/or gaslighting tactics far too much
- The situation ultimately did more harm than good
If any of these things happened, my condolences. No, I mean it.
I totally know what it's like to be in an unhealthy relationship, all because the situation lacked firm and healthy boundaries. Know what else? I also know what it's like to be so out of touch with why boundaries are necessary that I allowed the "fallout" of the dynamic to leave me bitter. In other words, I know what it's like to spend so much time blaming the person for what they did (or didn't do) that I never took ownership for it being, in part, due to never having set boundaries with them from day one.
Coming to that conclusion was a big reality check for me. But you know what? It also made it easier to forgive those who hurt me, to work past the bitterness and get to a place of not putting myself in similar forms of toxicity. I'm telling you, you start to enter into the world of "big girl relationships" when you stop being so mad at what someone did to you and, instead, as an act of self-love, start spending time wondering what you can do to avoid feeling disappointed and disillusioned all of the time. And sis, that starts with knowing the difference between boundaries (being relationally proactive) and bitterness (being relationally reactive).
How to Know a Relationship Has Left You Bitter
There is a Scripture in the Bible (Hebrews 12:15) that warns us that bitterness can cause trouble. After checking out some of the indications of what bitterness looks like, I'm sure you'll be able to see why:
- Bitter people can't forgive and they hold grudges
- Bitter people remain stagnant in their pain
- Bitter people generalize everyone
- Bitter people misdirect their hurt, frustration or anger
- Bitter people dish out what they can't take
- Bitter people don't know how to compromise
- Bitter people have an "all or nothing" mentality; even when it's unrealistic to be that way
- Bitter people are ungrateful
- Bitter people make mountains out of molehills
- Bitter people tend to be hypocritical (they contradict themselves…a lot)
There's not nearly enough time or space to touch on all of these points, but let's look at how a few of them can cause people to think that they are actually setting a boundary, when really all that they are doing is operating from a space of pure bitterness.
Bitter people can't forgive and hold grudges. It really does baffle me, how many people want to be forgiven but refuse to forgive others. Bitter people are like this. They have been hurt so much—or they forgive so little—that if you do one thing that offends them, they are out. Oh, but let them do the same thing or worse and suddenly they are only human and/or the "offendee" needs to get over it. Forgiveness—if it's true forgiveness—isn't easy. As someone who is still figuring out, it's also a process of acknowledging what happened, accepting that nothing can change it, resolving to pardon the offender and then figuring out how to move forward. Bitter people? They don't want to entertain doing any of this. They'd prefer to hold the person—and themselves—hostage by nursing a grudge, harping on the issue and controlling the dynamic by never letting it go rather than releasing the matter and then establishing boundaries until trust can be regained and the relationship can potentially be restored. To a bitter individual, the boundary is that there is no hope for reconciliation…ever. Meanwhile, a person with boundaries accepts that they make mistakes too, so they tend to pay more attention to character and repeated patterns before making a final decision.
Bitter people slice immediately. Folks with boundaries tend to give things time.
Bitter people generalize everyone. I've said it before in other articles; every time I tiptoe out into Black Twitter and see the incessant "Black women ain't this" and "Black men ain't that" coming from my own people, it reminds me of why I enjoy the peace of not being on social media at all. No matter how long any of us have been on this earth, we don't know every human being, so no—we can't be out here generalizing an entire demographic of individuals (we get mad when white folks do that…amen?). This is a given to a lot of folks, but you know who doesn't believe that? Bitter folks. Let three people from a particular "group" disappoint them and suddenly everyone in it is trash. That's because bitter people tend to be too jaded to be patient and forgiving, let alone self-introspective. The way they see it, it's easier to resolve that all of those individuals are the problem instead of retracing their steps to see if boundaries, gut instinct and keen discernment could've resulted in a totally different outcome.
Bitter people tend to be hypocritical. I honestly can't tell you, just how many times that I have sat in front of a married couple who expected their partner to do things that they themselves won't do. The husband wants the wife to initiate sex more when he continues to drop the ball when it comes to being more romantic. The wife wants the husband to affirm her more when he can't get his foot in the door fast enough before she is criticizing him for something. Both people end up resenting each other—which is basically a manifestation of bitterness—because of it. And so, they decide that the way to handle their dissatisfaction is to continue to "hold out" until the other gives them what they want, when what they really should be doing is being the kind of spouse that they desire.
Do you see how, if you're in a bitter space, it can appear to be a boundary when really, it's anything but? If you'd like it to be made a little bit clearer, here's what setting firm boundaries looks like so that you can avoid allowing bitterness to set in as much as possible.
How to Know You’re Setting Good Boundaries
There is someone in my world who hurt me. I mean, really hurt me. For the past several months, they've been trying to set things right. I already know that if I hadn't have forgiven them, I would be out here making it hard on all of the new people who would try and come into my life. Instead, I've set boundaries with this individual. And boundaries are nothing more than limits. For starters, we didn't even begin the process of trying to rebuild our relationship until we discussed what got us off course in the first place, and they owned their part in it, which included an apology. I no longer go above and beyond like I tend to do with my other friends because we're not friends right now; we are two people who care about each other who are trying to heal. I don't put myself in the position to be hurt like I was before because I know what got me in the predicament in the first place; it's that they have a tendency to not do intimacy very well. So, we keep things lighter and more casual. I don't expect them to be or do what I once used to because their actions have proven that they are not ready to.
Still, I haven't totally shut the door because they aren't a bad person; they're really not. I own that I didn't establish certain boundaries and, also that I ignored certain signs that they lacked emotional intelligence and relational self-awareness at the time. By forgiving them, I don't see them as horrible or unredeemable. I see them as someone who simply shouldn't be as close to me as they once were. And you know what? Slowly, but surely, we're getting to being in the best place that we've ever been. Sure, time and us both growing play a direct role. Yet so does boundaries.
See, while bitterness puts up a barbed wire wall that is virtually unscalable, boundaries sets up a wooden fence that says, "Come this close until I say otherwise." And if the person who is on the receiving end of the boundary respects that, over time, oftentimes the boundaries shift. People with healthy boundaries are open to negotiation while bitter people never are. Bitter folks are too busy being annoyed, displeased, irritated, offended and vexed to consider being or doing anything else. Hmph. The sad thing is that it's pretty much only hurting them to be that way.
This is the kind of message that can be a, pardon the pun, bitter pill to swallow. But I promise you, if you become intentional about avoiding bitterness and setting healthy and realistic boundaries, you will be all the better for it. Disappointments will happen less. When they do occur, you'll learn from them easier. And the boundaries will keep you evolving rather than remaining stagnant. Bitterness is bitter. It's not worth it. If it's been your defense mechanism, for the sake of all that you're deserving of—please let it go.
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