If you’re like me, being vulnerable is often like pulling nose hairs: brutal and painful. I hate the feeling of putting myself on a platter, peeling back my layers for inspection, and hoping someone still wants what they see.
The worst is when I’m getting to know someone—a new friend, a date, anyone—and we immediately click. We have banter, trade our favorite TikTok videos over Twitter, and then I suddenly find myself talking about my fears of never amounting to anything great. That’s when Pandora’s box opens. I word-vomit my trauma of being a first-generation Nigerian immigrant with chronic diseases, and I’m left awkwardly trying to pick up pieces of my aftermath: too much, too soon. And even worse: too much and too soon to the wrong person.
I assume we all fear giving too much of ourselves to the wrong person—not just physically, but emotionally, mentally, and maybe even spiritually. I once came across a quote by English novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan that reads, “A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.” It’s hard to open up again once you’ve been torn, just like it’s hard to make any jump after you fall. But we have two choices to make after we’re hurt. We can choose to hide away and never give anyone the chance to really get to know us intimately, or we can choose to heal and set up appropriate boundaries.
I won’t lie and say I’m an expert—at 24, I’ve never even been in a proper adult relationship. I’ve never been so lucky to have met someone who deserved (and wanted) to earn a spot as my boyfriend. So who am I to write to you about dating and boundaries? I write to you as someone who has spectacularly failed. I write as someone who is both a cynic and hopelessly dreaming of “the one.” I write this for myself and to all my friends who need a reminder that love is worth failing for.
As a fellow human on the mend, I’ve learned we don’t heal from each situation the same way. What doesn’t change for me, however, is that my first step is always to figure out what I need in order to heal. Ask yourself—do you need physical distance from the situation? Do you need relational distance? Do you need and have access to professional help? Once I’ve figured out what I need, I work hard to understand why I felt the way I felt. No matter how self-aware you are, it takes time and effort to understand your feelings. Healing is just as messy as breaking. It’s a process that doesn’t happen all at once, so don’t put yourself on a timeline.
Finally, before you think you’re ready to put yourself out there again, it’s time to define and set boundaries for yourself. I believe that setting the right boundaries is a great tool we can use to protect ourselves when we’re getting to know someone. For romantic relationships, it could mean anything from defining physical boundaries to marking certain conversations as “off-limits” by stating that you have to be more comfortable with someone before talking about things like religion, sex, and politics. The best thing about boundaries is that you set them. That means they can change, evolve, and disappear altogether. You have that power.
About halfway through quarantine, while riding the dating app carousel, I started talking to someone. We clicked instantly. I felt like I’d known him for years. One day spent talking to him felt like six months with anyone else. Two days later, we were FaceTiming for hours; three days later, we already had plans to meet. I felt overwhelmed by how much I wanted to open up to him about my hopes and dreams and fears. I was scared of how much I already wanted an exclusive relationship with him, and I was overwhelmed by the thought that it was all in my head—that there was no way he was feeling the same.
I saw myself speeding into paranoia and I wasn’t sure how to stop. It felt great to be wanted, and it felt amazing to seemingly have all of someone’s time and energy. I knew that I wasn’t ready for a relationship, but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking what ifs. I wanted to stop feeling lonely; I wanted someone who would make me feel beautiful; to be honest, I wanted someone for Instagram. But he didn’t want to woo me, and he didn’t want a girlfriend. He wanted someone he could have fun and be intimate with, but he wanted freedom with that intimacy. Once I came face to face with that realization, I did what I thought was best for me—keep him as a friend and make it clear to him that was all I wanted.
For me, setting boundaries simply means expressing my expectations. It means taking a pause to actually discuss what I want and need from our relationship. I suggest that everyone does the same too. What does friendship mean to you? How do you define a long-term romantic relationship versus a casual physical connection? We often grow up thinking that we know how to approach these different relationships, and we rarely take the time to define them for ourselves. But it’s important for everyone to do the introspective work and check ourselves before we’re hurt by differences in expectations and definitions.
Once I’ve figured out and can communicate (that’s the key part!) what different relationships mean to me and require of me, I can figure out what kind of relationships I want with the people I’m getting to know. Do I want a committed romantic connection, or do I only have the capacity for a casual, physical one? Do I just want to be friends? Defining relationships and expressing expectations has a bad reputation for being too serious, but it’s always better to know explicitly what your relationship is with someone—especially when defining it as casual—than get hurt because you thought it was more serious than the other person.
After defining what kind of relationship you’d like to have, it’s important to set the pace and communicate that pace with someone. It can be as simple as saying that you don’t kiss on the first date or as difficult as expressing that you don’t feel comfortable talking about your family background until that person has proven to be anti-racist. It can mean negotiating kinks or establishing non-negotiable political stances. The keys to boundary-setting for me are self-awareness, communication, and flexibility. Situations and people are constantly evolving, and it’s okay if our expectations of our relationships and boundaries also evolve. What shouldn’t change is the fact that you’re worth getting to know. You are worth being seen and loved for all of you who are.
I was talking to one of my best friends about this very topic and I realized that part of the reason we have such a hard time setting boundaries with people is that we were taught to think that establishing boundaries is inherently selfish. I grew up thinking that saying no and setting space for myself were inherently wrong. I had to spend so much time finding myself, discovering my needs, and having the right people around me to learn that prioritizing myself isn’t selfish and/or wrong. If someone isn’t willing to respect the boundaries you’ve set, they’re not willing to respect you. Someone out there will take care of your heart; you just have to be the first one to do it.