Confession: I have overextended myself for people in my life who were unable to reciprocate with love and kindness. Because of my own history of neglect and trauma, at times I have allowed people to walk all over me instead of setting firm boundaries of what I will and will not tolerate. In many instances I have called it grace, wanting to be gracious to those who appeared to be struggling more than I. But it wasn’t grace at all.
As I reflect on how I got here, I see that this behavior stems from historical and familial patterns, specific instances where I was called on to attend to the emotional needs of others at the expense of my own.
I can name countless ways in which experiences from my childhood (and quite honestly even in adulthood) reinforced the belief that to belong, I needed to show up in this way. And so, I did.
Even as I write this, the overwhelming drive to protect others’ identities makes me feel as if I cannot be as transparent and vocal with my own story.
But I am willing to take a step of faith and vulnerability here because my story is commonplace for so many Black women.
After leaving an institution where I worked for years, I felt privately ashamed for wanting to speak honestly about my experiences. The need to protect a space where I felt harmed kept me from being more candid about why I needed to leave, out of fear of being punished and marginalized more than I already was.
Instead of being honest, I opted to pacify those who held power over me, offering comfort and grace (that word again), when I should have called people out. It felt safer that way. I am convinced that bottling up my pain, instead of naming it where it needed to be named, not only prolonged the healing process but made it difficult for me to form new, healthy relationships in other places.
This is only one example of where I have put the needs of others before my own; I could write whole books about so many more. But I am not as concerned about telling all the ways in which this has happened as I am about shaking free of the pattern that has caused me to protect others more than I protect myself.
The work that I am doing today to attend to my emotional wellness dropped off somewhere in my early twenties, and I have only picked that work up again in recent years.
To be quite honest, I did not really take it seriously until COVID-19 hit because I did not have the time.
I was too busy with family, putting out fires at work, pursuing a PhD, trying hard to maintain a vegan diet (it’s work, y’all), balancing finances, serving on a board, starting a nonprofit, keeping up with my writing, and all the other things that Black women do.
Right before COVID-19 grasped hold of our community, I started a new journal.
On the first page, I articulated how frustrated I was with how things were going in my life. It felt like doors of opportunity kept closing in my face and I couldn’t shake this deep anguish in my heart that had been building over the previous few months.
On the second page of the journal, I listed four things that I wanted to focus on over the next few months. It was the start of Lent and I felt like I needed to lean into the season in a way that I hadn’t before. With intentionality, I declared that I needed to focus on healthy relationships, direction, Divine favor, and wellness at all levels.
At the time, I did not know how prophetic these words would be, as over the last few months these have become the areas that define my life. COVID-19 forced me into community with myself first and foremost, giving me the space to evaluate what was important without running a hundred miles an hour. And it hurt like hell. In addition, it forced a program that I intended to host in-person online.
Relationships with close friends that I thought were solid broke apart, revealing to me things that I knew but wanted to ignore. Dynamics within my larger family system resurfaced with the passing of my grandmother, making me feel as insecure and vulnerable as I felt when I was thirteen years old.
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the City of Minneapolis police, the same institution I work for, intensified all of the pain and trauma I was already experiencing.
The cumulative nature of all of these things, while also trying to finish out the second year of my PhD program and homeschooling my two kids, made me feel as if I had reached the end of my proverbial rope and had absolutely nothing left to hang on to.
I felt at my wit’s end. And at the same time, I remembered the words that I wrote in that journal several months before all these things transpired.
Relationships. Direction. Favor. Wellness. Wellness. Wellness.
I was already in therapy and had found a Black woman therapist (thank you Jesus) right before COVID-19 hit.
I was in a healthy environment within an African Methodist Episcopal congregation, which not only consisted of Sunday service but a dynamic group of women meeting together on Monday evenings for fellowship and prayer.
And I was exercising. And staying on top of my dietary restrictions. And getting outside. And writing. And praying. And doing as much as I could to be well, not just in order to survive, but to thrive. Period.
I want to reflect on my inner struggle, and more accurately, the struggle in establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships. The process is simultaneously liberating and frustrating but it is work that I must take on regardless if I do not want to continue the same patterns that have plagued my family, and quite frankly our people, for generations.
I write these words, as well as the words that follow, because I have heard it said that we are only as sick as our secrets. Many of us were raised with the belief that in order to protect others, and inevitably ourselves, that we need to keep things to ourselves—no matter how much they hurt.
But as I look at close and distant relationships, I can tell you that secrecy doesn’t work; it only lessens the possibility for healing and transformation.
This essay is an excerpt from Ebony Adedayo’s recent publication, “The Gospel According to a Black Woman.” You can order Ebony’s book here.