Boundaries: Making and keeping them

Learning how to create and maintain boundaries has been one of the most challenging (but rewarding) parts of my life. It's like going to the dentist. It's not often pleasant, but if you keep it up, it will pay off in the long run (no dentures!). Boundaries can be excruciating to implement, but well worth it. A lot of people come to me feeling sad and trapped in their interpersonal relationships, but have no insight into the cause. 99.9% of the time, these people have poor boundaries. Let's try something together. Say no. Really, say it out loud. NO. It is such a hard word to say. I think we are in a culture that looks down on self-advocacy. If I speak up, I'm selfish or all sorts of words I can't say when my daughter is around. That mindset really perpetuates unhealthy relationships with yucky boundaries. When I think of life as a young adult (nearing middle life here), I remember friends that were all up in my business. Who's dating who, who should break up with who, and she said what about me? Not to mention that my apartment was a lot like grand central station. People could drop by at any time without calling, just to hang out. It seemed normal to me at the time and really, I felt I was just being a good and supportive friend. Having control over your time and who you spend it with is your right. It is also your right to be treated with kindness and respect by everyone in your life. 

You may not be aware of the need for boundaries in your life. If that's that case, here is a list I put together that can narrow down the areas of your world that are needing a little TLC.

  • What makes you feel uncomfortable?
  • What makes you feel like you don't have control of your life?
  • What do you dread? 
  • Who do you lose your voice around?
  • When do you feel overwhelmed?

You know Mrs. Smith...

These are questions to ask, in order to identify an area of your life that is not working anymore. This is a lot easier if I can give you an example.  Say you have a family member that is always giving you their 2 cents about your life. "Oh, you shouldn't take that job honey. It's no good, I tell you. You need to stay in town so that I can help you with the kids!"(manipulation). What can we do with scenario number one? "Mom, I really appreciate how much you have done for us to help with childcare and support over the years, but this is a wonderful opportunity and I think it's worth taking a serious look at."  Scenario number two, perhaps you've taken on too much responsibility at your daughter's school, volunteering for every field trip and you're exhausted but can't think of how to get out of the situation. How about telling the teacher this: "You know Mrs. Smith, I've found myself in a tight spot lately. I'm going to need to take my name off the volunteer list until things calm down. How about I let you know when I'm able to take on more responsibility?" Both of these situations are very common boundary issues with easy solutions. Did it make you feel a little nervous reading them? That's totally normal. It can feel mortifying to think of letting someone down, but oftentimes it's not as bad as we think it's going to be. The bonus is that when it's over, we feel liberated and totally free of the feelings I listed earlier. 

It's not always that easy...

Those are simple boundary problems. It's not always that easy. Some dynamics have been established over a lifetime, or even generations. In some homes, women are expected to act in a certain way because of cultural or religious expectations. If you're the young woman to break that pattern, it's going to be an uphill battle- one that is worth the fight. Some boundaries end relationships permanently. If that's that case, it can be excruciating and it's not uncommon to second-guess you're choices. Patterns are hard to break and some boundaries need to be made over and over. 

Men are the same at 90 as they are at 16.

What happens if you're in line at the grocery store and your child is begging for candy by the display that is always taunting them with their delicious sugary goodness? They whine, they beg, and they make empty promises. If you give in and buy them the candy, what will happen the next time you go to the store- and the next, and the next? They learn that they get their way if they push hard enough. It's the same way with boundaries. If you don't want someone to talk to you in a disrespectful way, you have to reiterate that boundary over and over until it is understood. Every single time you allow for it to be broken, you have to start from scratch. I work with a lot of elderly people in my practice. Men are the same at 90, as they are at 16. Flirts. Now, a harmless compliment is one thing- but even if you're 90, you don't get to make crude comments to me. Not ever. I will create a boundary and say "You know Harold, that's not an appropriate way to speak to me. If it continues, we will have to end this session." Boom. Boundary. What if I let him get away with one comment and another etc... over several weeks, he will have escalated his banter to a very uncomfortable place and I won't want to be alone with him in my office! 

If you would rather get an endoscopy...

I would challenge you to take a little time out and ask yourself what relationships or situations make your stomach do the "running man." If you would rather get an endoscopy, than go to dinner with Joe and his wife down the street, that's a clue. Boundaries are in order. Saying no is my favorite. Just watch. Audrey, would you like to sign up to sell girl scout cookies this Saturday? No. Audrey, would you like to donate money to save the starving seals in Antarctica? No, no I wouldn't. Now I'm a social worker, so I'm kindhearted by nature. If I want to stay that way, I will say "no" sometimes. You should too. It's empowering and necessary. Go forth and find your boundaries!