Sweet Boundaries

Auntie 13 was always the nicest (with 14 relatives on my mom’s side of the family, it was easy to refer to them by number) and often the most generous.

I recall when I was growing up that she would always give us candy upon each visit.  Being raised in a household where my father was really strict about junk food consumption, my brother and I found ourselves in heaven.

“Isn’t Auntie 13 nice?” I gleamed, stuffing my face full of Kit Kat chocolate bars one day on the way home.

My brother and I could see my mom’s face in the corner of the rearview mirror. Her eyes rolled.

My brother and I got quiet.

We knew, even after only six short years on the planet, that the famous eye roll, called “sterile meatballs,” meant it was best to stay quiet.  Just to clarify to those who aren’t familiar with Chinese slang, sterile meatballs, in Chinese Mandarin, came about as a metaphor by referring to how folks only see the white “sterile” parts of someone’s eyes, or “meatballs,” when they were frustrated.

I approached my mom from the backseat with caution and stuck my head over the upright armrest.

“How could candy be a bad thing?” said my naïve mind with an inner monologue.

“Your aunt has a real issue to please everyone, even when she can’t afford to.”

“You mean, she doesn’t have enough money to buy us candy but she does anyway?” asked my brother.

“Yes,” my mom said with an angry demeanor. “And her reckless spending puts a lot of pressure on your uncle to work longer hours.”

The candy didn’t taste as good as it did a couple moments ago.

I learned later on that Auntie 13 had poor control of her boundaries. She often let her inability to face her shame and her embarrassment of showing up empty handed when she saw guests and relatives to be the driving force in her actions, clouding her financial decisions.

There is a needy part in all of us, and like Auntie 13 so many years ago, I too have had enormous difficulty committing to my boundaries.

It has been a recurring theme, a lesson my Mother in the Sky seems to throw at me with recurring efficiency for the last 28 years.

Take, for instance, my uncle’s biggest frustration when I first started learning martial arts with him at seven years old, where my inability to commit to a punch or a block drove him crazy.

He would often catch me striking without conviction, in a half-hearted stance while trying to block too.

“Just what exactly are you doing?!?” He would ask me out of frustration.

“I want to be ready to block as quickly as possible after being open to being hit when I attack.” I would explain with self-assurance, expecting him to commend me for remembering the lesson that  he preached about. When we strike, we were the most vulnerable to being hit ourselves.

He wasted no time bringing to light my lack of understanding of the lesson.

“But your stance is caught halfway between a punch and a block and not serving you at all,” he said with stern eye contact. Then without warning, he parried my weak punch and took me down to the floor.

When my million mile stare subsided as I regained air in my lungs, he spoke. “Commit to your decision,” he said with authority, hoping the lesson would stick in my head.

Real Life Practice

It’s been 28 years since that day of martial arts practice, and that same fear of being hit, now transposed to occasional forms of social anxiety and inner conflict, have caused me complications when deciding whether to stand up for myself or to have my emotions trampled by people.

That same insecurity and fear still lurk from my inner critic, and the source of pain reminds me I’ve been hurt before, and I’ve often chosen to bite my tongue and stick around in a social setting, despite the people being toxic, negative, judgmental, controlling, and even abusive towards me, sometimes turning me into emotional road kill.

During the emotional beat down, my stronger, inner voice, my authentic and confident self, often screams at me to stand up, to uphold my boundaries, but at times, to no avail because I chose to side with Needy Natalie.

Needy Natalie is the Natalie who clings to people, the one who isn’t sure of herself and is afraid of conflict.  She is the Natalie who doesn’t commit due to fear of loss, fear of feeling lonely, so she does a half ass attempt at being a friend and getting ready to flee. So I had to ask myself. Was I willing to bend myself into unauthentic shapes in order to get a quick fix of desire that I was taught to crave from a young age? A craving that we were all taught to seek for that matter, to play up to the part of how others imagine us to be in order to extend the attention we receive a bit longer and to maintain the comfort others expect out of us? Or do I do what’s best and honest for me, even if it causes a bit of discomfort?

I know I can listen to and act out on behalf of Authentic Natalie: stable, centered, confident.  I’ve done so numerous times by being mindful, and remembering the memories of how things played out when I did listen to my heart in past situations, reminding myself that I have had past successes in honoring myself. It hasn’t been easy employing this new practice. But when I do commit to my inner truth, the outcomes give me more self-esteem and satisfaction, in the long run. I may not have gotten the initial sensation of avoiding conflict during a situation, but I can live with the choice I made, knowing I chose the authentic path in my heart.

And that path, when aptly used in my journey, has been the sweetest candy of them all.


Natalie Yeh

Liminal Spaces with Natalie Yeh -- aerospace engineer with a penchant for the spiritual, artistic, and cerebral -- is an attempt where she tries to accept her own messy humanity in exploring the gifts in her everyday stories and milestones with compassion, gratitude, and mindfulness. Gifts she believes we can all share and learn from when we choose to see our continuous threads of connection in our common humanity rather than uphold paper walls of illusions of separation that some treat as real. When she has free time, she loves to cook, shoot landscape photography, practice martial arts, write and dance. Her Chinese American background, bilingual upbringing, and transgender history all lend to her experiences in exploring the liminal spaces where her history, her present and her future are at odds and of a piece, creating herself and her writing as unique, cross cultural art.

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