I first mentioned boundaries in part 2 of my post on Forgiveness (here’s The Transformative Power of Forgiveness, Part 1 and The Transformative Power of Forgiveness, Part 2 if you want to read about forgiveness and ways to do it).
Boundaries are a tricky, tricky thing. Hard to figure out exactly what they are, hard to figure out how to have healthy ones, and hard to figure out what to do when yours have been crossed. I also have a different spin on what boundaries are in a person’s life and how healthy boundaries are actually maps that define your personal responsibilities to yourself. If you read something that sounds suspiciously like your own behavior here, don’t immediately try to defend against, or justify why you don’t have a problem. Be open to learning, be open to trying a new way, you may be surprised at the results.
What are boundaries?
First things first. “What are boundaries?”, you might be thinking. Boundaries describe the place where you end and another person begins. Physically, mentally, emotionally, in terms of responsibilities, and so on and so forth. Boundaries define how you act and how you treat others. Boundaries also define how you permit people to act around you and how you permit/allow people to treat you.
How do I know when a boundary has been violated?
When you are doing something that someone should be doing for themselves, or when someone is doing for you what you should be doing for yourself, that is a boundary violation.
A boundary violation can occur when:
- Someone talks to/touches you in a way you don’t want them to, or they ask inappropriate questions about things that are not their business (probably to embarrass you or get a rise out of you).
- Someone makes you feel guilty and you agree to do something you’d rather not.
- Someone neglects to do something on time and then begs you to drop everything you’re doing to help them (and it happens a lot).
- In a romantic relationship, someone constantly drinks/does drugs/cheats/gambles/spends too much and despite repeatedly saying you’re not going to put up with it, you do.
- You feel badly because someone is being mean to you/you’re being treated unfairly/your work environment is hostile/you always seem to be the butt of the jokes with your family or the group you spend time with and you don’t feel like you have ability to speak up for yourself.
- You’re the one who does everything for everybody, makes sure everyone is where they are supposed to be, lunch in hand, clean clothes on back, and homework done.
- You cook, clean, manage the household, and go to work while your partner goes to work then comes home and watches TV.
- When you feel that the only way for you to be in a romantic relationship with someone is if you are completely enmeshed (meaning, you do every single thing together).
In my life, one of the (many) ways I had boundary problems was that I was always the kind of person who was never getting things done. My life was a perpetual emergency. If something was due Tuesday, on Thursday, two days later, I’m making excuses about why it wasn’t done. If I needed to get a visa to go to India, I‘m the one paying stupid late fees because I waited ‘til the last minute. No matter what, I was late or I had a problem. I always had some excuse to justify my behavior, and I wanted everyone around me to jump through hoops so I wouldn’t be negatively impacted. That is a boundary issue because I did not have a clue as to where OTHER’S responsibility lay in relationship to me. I had the mistaken belief that people should take care of my messes. This is NOT true. After getting burned a few times by people who had strong personal responsibility boundaries (people who said to me, you knew when the deadline was, you missed it, you’re out of luck), I learned that I had to learn to take care of things in a timely manner. Others respected me more and I respected myself more. And in fact, the more people save you from yourself, the bigger and uglier your messes will be. By the way, those people are called enablers and all they’re doing is allowing you to be a royal disaster. Take it from one who knows.
How do I set appropriate boundaries?
1. Learn to Say No
First of all, setting boundaries for what is okay for you (saying no when you don’t want to do something, asserting that you need time for yourself, etc.) can feel mean in the beginning. The truth is, it’s really kind and caring. By taking care of yourself (as only you can), you clear up your mind and heart for being there for people in the ways that are most appropriate for you and in ways that allow you to be fully present, free from resentments and fatigue.
It will be really hard the to stand up for what you want and need the first few times. Someone asks to handle a problem you know isn’t yours and you say, “No.” After you begin to stand up for yourself and your time, you’ll find it gets easier, and people will actually begin to be more thoughtful before they just start dumping things on you. It’s pretty amazing how it works.
2. Get Your Act Together
If you’re the kind of person who tends to be the one dumping on others, it’s really past time you got your act together. Really. You might think you’re endearing and charming and people understand that you’re going through tough things, but TRUST me when I say they don’t respect you much. I’ll be talking about developing personal discipline in a future post. Stay tuned.
3. Look for Ways to Take Care of Yourself
If you’re constantly looking for others to be your emotional anchor, you’ve got work to do. One day, the anchors will likely fail and you’ll be adrift with no sense of how to take care of yourself. Work with a therapist, talk about your feelings (or lack thereof), do some inner-child work and get to the bottom of why you can’t rely on yourself for emotional support. Look, I’m not suggesting people never need others. We very often need others to be supportive to us; it’s what makes us human. But you can’t always be farming out your needs to everyone else. When times are tough, you have to also have a personal reserve of strength to get you through.
I’ve also got another perspective for you. I was talking to a friend about boundaries and she stated that she came to realize, late in her life, that the reason she has never been able to stand up for herself, or to feel like she can tell others when she’s been hurt or when she wants or needs something is that when she was growing up, it was not permissible for anyone in her household to say anything negative. Everyone had to be happy, there were never any tears allowed, and she was constantly told, “You’re okay, there’s nothing wrong, that didn’t hurt, etc.” After years and years of that kind of conditioning and never being taught how to appropriately express feelings, wants, and needs, she never knew how. As an adult, she found she never expressed differing opinions, tended to go along with the crowd (i.e., doing what everyone else wanted just to get along), and generally accepted any kind of behavior she got from relationships because she didn't think she had a voice in the matter.
Now, after years and years, she realizes her experiences growing up led to have serious boundary issues as an adult. She’s now trying to work all of that out. It’s a long and arduous process, but she’s already much more confident, much more assertive, and much more FUN than she was when I met her several months ago.
Final Thoughts and a Preview of Part 2
Very often, you will set boundaries and they will get crossed. Again and again. This is where the ability to set and follow through on consequences comes in. We’ll talk about these Thursday in part 2.
Just to give you a hint of where I’m going with this, here’s an example:
You’re in a relationship with someone and you decide you have a boundary that you aren’t comfortable with your partner spending more than $100 without talking it over first. Yet, your partner continues to do this. You keep talking about it, arguing about it, threatening to leave; yet nothing changes. You’ve established a boundary, it’s been broken, and you don’t know how to enforce it. This is a challenging thing. See me again tomorrow.ShareThis