The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. – Anna Quindlen

 - The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. – Anna Quindlen

I Dared to Set Boundaries: Shame on Me

blue_knockerby Miss O

Sleep-deprived and cooking a meal to feed my hungry offspring, I was also trying to configure a mental schedule of when I’d be able to finish organizing the extra living room that seemed to have become a default storage room for all things miscellaneous.  I was flustered but doing my thang when an unexpected, unannounced guest arrived through the informal side door of our house and right smack dab in the middle of our make shift storage room.

It was my mother- and father-in-law. Bless their hearts, they must have forgotten how to use a phone. No surprise there, as they’ve been doing this our whole marriage. Looks of distaste overcame my mother-in-law’s face as she began to dramatically step through the living room as if she were walking through a marshland avoiding awakening an alligator napping in the midst of the Everglades de Miscellaneous.

As embarrassment took over, I began to feel as if my home was not my sanctuary. Anxiety stirred and took over.  I was no longer a believing Mormon but I was suddenly taken back to the days of the frantic responses to random door knocking via obnoxiously ill-timed visiting teachers. It was as if their monthly assignments to visit me also included reporting results from random home-cleanliness testing.  Short of having to pee in a cup for them, I was always left with a sense of shame, a sense of never measuring up and a bout of anger due to being disrespected.

The rest of world seems to understand appointments and the purpose they serve.  What is the point of having a get together when half of the party isn’t expecting it or prepared? Is this a sick game of one upping each other? Am I on a game show? If this is foreshadowing of how well I will be prepared for the 2nd coming then I’m screwed. I do not pass go and I certainly do not collect my $200.

One of the first things I learned about when leaving the Church was this odd concept called boundaries. I admit that I lived 30 years of my life not knowing that such a thing existed.  After leaving, I read about how the Church as a whole and at the individual level abuse personal boundaries. It was no wonder I experienced such a visceral response to people dropping in unannounced.

So there I was, frantically scrambling to finish up dinner, rein in my anklebiters, and welcome my unwanted guests into my chaotic abyss. I couldn’t close the door to the mess – they had walked right into it and, unlike Jesus, they didn’t knock and wait patiently for me to answer.  I must see about installing a knobless door, I thought.

To make matters worse I have this tenacious need to feed people who visit, yet I hadn’t planned for this and was now desperately trying to find a way to turn a noodle dish into fishes and loaves.  And then it hit me – this is my house!  Just because my mother-in-law does not require the use of her own doorbell and feels it rude to expect manners at her own home does not mean that all homes must abide by this. So I said to myself: “Self, it’s time to try out those boundaries that you’ve been reading about on exmormon forums.”

I collected my thoughts and attempted to get my pounding heart out of my throat. What I wanted to say was, “GET OUT!!!  My house is a mess and I know you’re loving this! Use my front door, not the damned side entrance! And this, here, is a doorbell. USE IT!”  But what came out was, “[MIL], I know that to you it doesn’t matter if people walk into your house unannounced but would you and [FIL] mind calling first so I can make sure we are available to visit with you guys?” I was sure my antiperspirant had either expired or the manufacturer had never met my mother-in-law. Maybe I would write in and suggest a new line called MIL-Proof.

She gave no response but a look of confusion and then I dared to add my current, larger pet peeve: “And would you mind using the front door?  This door enters a room that I’m embarrassed to say isn’t functional right now.” My heart had relocated to my ears now and my vision blackened and tunneled, so I am not able to recall how she responded. I just wanted it over. I had stood up for myself. This was the beginning of Miss O establishing and vocalizing her boundaries. Had I known it would later deem me an even bigger “bitch of the family,” I may not have attempted it – but I’m glad I hadn’t thought yet of the repercussions of a woman scorned and armed with tools of passive aggression.

Later that month I was working in my garden when I received a call from my mother-in-law asking if she and my father-in-law could pick up my oldest to go eat ice cream.  Now that wasn’t that hard, was it? What a beautiful thing, this contraption called a phone and a behavior called respect. I felt great. It appeared that we had safely entered the uncharted waters of respecting boundaries. Thirty minutes later there was a knock on the door.  A knock! Oh how it’s the little things that make life enjoyable and fulfilling. Feeling valued, I opened the door to see my mother-in-law standing there with a stern smile (yes, there’s such a thing). I greeted her and stepped back to welcome her in while I called out for my daughter to finish up and get going. “Oh no, I’ll wait right here outside the front door.” Silence.

Although I thought I had approached this issue very respectfully, I realized my efforts were not filed away in the respect cabinet but in the offended cabinet. Everything I had observed about my mother-in-law’s behavior flashed before my eyes.  Oh my God!!!  Now when she sits around the table with whomever will tolerate her gossip, it is me she is going to be babbling about. Telling her side of things as the martyr always does – turning something small into something newsworthy and heinous.

Would I be in the next month’s ward examiner piece as an example of what losing the Spirit does to one’s ability to interact with others? Would my attempt to declare my humble boundaries be slandered around the table at homemaking night?

Boundaries are frowned upon in the Church culture. They are seen as confrontational and are avoided in fear of being ostracized as punishment for not staying in the fold, for not doing as I’m doing – follow follow me, and other conforming ideas meant to keep the masses from being individuals. Surely asking for a heads up when coming over and not just walking right in seemed liked an uncomplicated request, no?  Leave it to a Mormon woman to teach me a lesson for imposing how I want things in my own home upon her.

After catching my breath from the shock and realization of what she was doing, I said, “Ok,” and walked off leaving her there. I wasn’t going to forfeit my efforts that were about a decade late. I was not going to dance her dance by submitting to her and learning the lessons she gave through passive-aggressive punishments. Boundaries became my new focus – how many more of these have I neglected to implement?

Fast forward to the present, 4 years later, and I have successfully taught my mother-in-law how to treat me (my father-in-law took a lot more effort – that’s a whole other post). I have also learned not to play in any reindeer games with her or any other members whose tool box is lacking anything constructive and only contains a travel-size torture kit labeled with a sharpie: Passive Aggressiveness. We are our only advocates. Combating the culture of our LDS family members often requires setting and sticking to boundaries, even if it’s uncomfortable.

Be strong; stand your ground – your sanity is worth it. It may take a few tries and many tear-filled evenings before you have a breakthrough with your LDS family members. What I now call “telephone first-then please knock” was my first attempt at setting boundaries, and I am happy to report that I have since established many more. Unfortunately in the process I was deemed the uncooperative bitch of the family, but I’ll take it. I’d rather be a bitch and be at peace than conform and be despondent.  Setting boundaries is a tricky thing, but opening your mouth is the first step.  Teach others how to treat you.

  • Sicily salome

    Perfect! I can’t tell you how scared I was to walk around in garments in my own home for fear of my in laws walking in on me! My in laws are amazing people, but not being afraid to shower in my own house, for fear of someone walking in, would have been nice.

  • The Wog

    Without too much imagination I will add as a newly wed my husband and I were often surprised when my own TBM mother walked in unannounced while we were enjoying being newly weds…

    • kaylayale

      I hope you continued in your newlywed activities, since it was your home. ;)

  • Caroline U.

    I had felt I did not have that much to relate about this issue until a comment on this article on fb made it all come crashing back. Coco X-mo commented that boundaries were seen as evidence that we had something to hide.

    Suddenly I remembered – when I was in 8th grade I started writing (furiously) in a notebook. I was a little bit feral about guarding the privacy of it. As a young adolescent in a tiny house filled with other kids and several (not just two parents but several) adults, I had no space to call my own except for one drawer in a chest of drawers. And that was subject to unreasonable search and seizure. It was at about that age that I finally figured out that it wasn’t safe to express my own thoughts and feelings about things (they were uncorrelated) as they were always met with shaming and invalidation.

    So I just started writing like crazy. I hadn’t thought it through as clearly as I expressed it above, it was just something that I started to do because of an obscure (at the time) feeling of desperation.

    I remember that my mother reacted to this with a great deal of hostility. I couldn’t figure it out. I just didn’t respond to her really angry vibe – yes, it was passive aggressive on my part, I suppose but it was the only defense I really had at the time – the classic defense of the powerless. Finally, one day, I was sitting on the couch in the living room writing in my notebook, when I looked up to find my mother standing in the doorway, across the room, glaring at me – with some real serious anger. She just kept staring at me and staring at me. Not saying a word. I tried to go back to writing but the energy she was beaming at me was intense. Finally I looked back up at her and she hissed at me, her voice quite literally trembling with rage, “What is it that you’re writing in there that you are SO ASHAMED of that you have to hide it from everyone?”

    I was quite stunned – I had no idea that this was the spin she was putting on my really quite typical exercise in adolescent self-expression – the garden variety “secret” diary. And I just could not see where it was coming from. The message I basically took was that my mom thought I was bad and that left to my own devices I was doing wrong things. That was also the message I seemed to be getting from my dad and all my teachers at church, and the church itself through the message in the lessons I was getting. I was NOT to be trusted. Everything I did was suspect – I had to be watched and open to scrutiny at all times because if not I would be off dancing with the Devil at the first opportunity. And if I objected to said scrutiny it was because I was trying to hide something E-VILLE.

    In response to my mom in the moment, the best I could come up with was a shrug and a “nothing” and going back to my notebook pretending to be indifferent to her. Although I was madly writing a furious response in the notebook itself, lol. If I’d said any of it out loud though – yikes.

    My mom was not generally speaking a “ragey” person. She was pretty calm, cool, and collected most of the time and I think authentically so. But for some reason she was enraged by this. I never could understand until today. Suddenly. She saw boundaries as threatening. And that I think was her cultural upbringing.
    So thanks for this! I really worked through some stuff today. :)

    • Jill Searle

      “What is it that … you are SO ASHAMED of that you have to hide it from everyone?”

      I find it funny that the Temple ceremony is so ‘secret/sacred’. Maybe there is something to be ‘ashamed’ of in this highly protected practice. Perhaps they are off dancing with the devil. :o)

      Thanks for sharing in your reply Caroline.

  • Jill Searle

    Oh Miss O you have done it again. Captured the experience of so many of us and expressed it so well.

    ‘Onward fearless bitches marching as to war. With the cross of freedom going on before…”

    • Miss O

      Thank you! It’s amazing how much we all have lived through what we have and stand and march now with learning how to set boundaries.

  • Tina

    Thanks for sharing! When I finally had enough of my MIL it was past fixable. Still a TBM then I stood up for myself and let it be known to her that she can’t run my/our lives anymore. So one day, we had just resigned from the LDS church, she came unannounced hiding behind a neighbor (my husband was still at work). I have had enough. I told her off and made it clear to her that she is no longer welcome here and would call the police for trespassing would she show up like that again. No more incidents after that. My reaction was the result of a long non-functional, manipulative, and abusive in-law relationship. I hope no one else has to take extreme measures like that with their in-laws.

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  • guest

    I did not realize how common this was in mormon families. I thought it was just ours. The almost insane pre judgements, were so shaming. And I remember when I was younger and giving up sharing my opinion.Because, individuals were not allowed to have an opinion.

    • Miss O


      Yep, you are not alone. It wasn’t until I left the Church and read up online of others having the same unfortunate boundary crossing going on that I learned how to implement boundaries myself.

  • PSC9586

    So I married a Mormon man recently. He was a widower. Apparently it was common practice for people to just walk into his house all the time. When he married me, people thought that practice could continue. Well, when I am in my home, I wear what I want… and it likely is not “modest”. So I am sitting in a back room wearing nothing but a t-shirt and some dude walks into the room asking where my husband was. Seriously. After that, I put a note on the door that said something to the effect of “Do not walk into this house; or else pay a $25 cover charge.” Left that up for a few weeks. I think once I may have even been ruder and said to someone “Look, my husband gets laid now so don’t walk in here.”

    • Miss O

      My BIL used to come over all the time and hang out well past the line that is “overstaying your welcome”. I told my then-DH that if he didn’t ask him to give us our own family time now and then that I would come downstairs naked to make the point that it’s bed time. His wife loved that tactic since she too was annoyed that he was never home.

  • Rob M

    Lock the door.

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