Where Are My Boundaries?

Marie can’t seem to get her children to mind. No matter how much she pleads with them and talks to them, she feels out of control most of the time. When her husband is home, he seems to be able to get them to do their homework or clean their rooms with a minimum of arguing.  Sometimes the fact that he can get them to respond to his requests makes her even more frustrated. She’s about given up hope that they will ever listen to her.

Mark’s friend, Fred, calls at all times of the day and night. Fred has been going through a divorce and has been destroyed emotionally.  Mark desires to be a supportive friend, so he hesitates to say anything to Fred about his frequent and inconvenient calls. Last night Mark was up until midnight listening to Fred, then drug himself out of bed at 6:30 this morning to head off to work. Mark would like to change things, but doesn’t want to hurt Fred’s feelings.

Both Marie and Mark are struggling to establish healthy boundaries. Boundaries are the invisible limits that exist between you and other people. Your boundaries indicate how close someone else can come to you and what they can do in a relationship with you. Boundaries exist on a continuum from too loose to too tight. Boundaries that are too loose, too open, are like living in a house with big holes in the walls where doors and windows should have been installed, but never were. Pests, precipitation, and people come into and out of the house, not on your terms, but on their terms. At the other extreme, boundaries that are too tight, too closed, are like living in a fortress with walls ten feet tall and two feet thick. There are no windows and doors to make access easy, only a small opening used to crawl into and out of the house. Life in this house is lonely and cold.

Healthy boundaries exist between these two extremes, like living in a house with windows and doors that you can open and shut when you choose. You can make a choice about who you let in and when. At night, the doors and windows can be closed and locked to provide safety for those inside the house.

It’s not possible to see a boundary, but you can see evidence of it’s existence in your actions and emotions. If you seem overly affected by other people’s feelings, your boundaries are probably too open. On the other hand, if you are seldom affected by someone else’s emotions, your boundaries are probably too closed. If you find yourself repeatedly doing things for other people that you didn’t want to do, your boundaries are usually too open. But if you miss out on things you’d like to do because you don’t speak up or take the action necessary to be included, your boundaries are too closed. In short, if you’re not living the life you want, a good place to start making changes is to alter your boundaries.

How do you do that? How does a person go about changing and strengthening their boundaries? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Become more aware of your emotional state. If you find yourself frequently feeling frustrated, anxious, tired, used or angry, you most likely have let one or more boundaries be violated. Stop and take an inventory.
  2. You can’t set a boundary and worry about someone else’s feelings at the same time. Decide what you want and be ready to act. The point is NOT to run over or control anyone else, but to take care of yourself and your own welfare.
  3. When it’s time to set a boundary, do it directly and clearly, using as few words as possible. You don’t have to give reasons or explanations. Even just saying “No” is sometimes a relief.
  4. When you set a boundary, do so without undue anger, if possible. If being angry is the only way you can set a limit, do it in anger for now. Learning to set limits without blowing up is part of the learning process.
  5. Don’t expect others to always like the changes you’re making to your limits. Changing boundaries is like changing the thermostat in your home or office. You might be ready for a change in temperature, but others may be a lot more comfortable with the old setting. Discussion and negotiation will need to happen.
  6. Your boundaries will be tested, Be prepared to assert yourself to keep your boundaries in place. Boundaries are like fences–if you build one, it’s your responsibility to keep it in place and be sure it’s well maintained.
  7. If your boundaries were violated through abuse, shaming or being discounted, these issues will have to be addressed before you can regularly set healthy limits. There are books you can read and groups you can attend to assist you in this process. And of course a counselor may be a helpful resource as well.

Treasure Hunting

treasure-chest-2-1421834-639x590Happy Valentine’s Day
I’m aware that it’s risky to talk about relationships around Valentine’s Day. My readers will come from various backgrounds and have been through differing experiences, so writing a single article to communicate with them all is a challenge.
Some of you want with all your heart to be in a relationship in which you are loved lavishly and in which you free to love in return the object of your affection. You are waiting for Mr. Right and he hasn’t yet appeared. Or you are ready for the woman of your dreams who will be the love of your life, but so far her arrival has been delayed. And this may have gone on for an exasperatingly long time.
A few of you have been so wounded by the last person you gave your heart to (or maybe it was the cumulative effect of several times you allowed yourself to love, and lost) that you can’t see yourself even entertaining the thought of a love relationship. You’ve decided there is just too much potential for heartache, so you’ve given up the search.
Some of you had a good relationship with just the partner for you, but all too soon they died, a victim of illness or disease, an accident, or military action. I am so sorry for your loss and apologize in advance if my words tap on the wounded regions of your heart.Continue reading

No Fear of Death

creeping-shadows-1521632-1279x832There is often meaning that lies below the surface, more to a story than meets the eye.

At one point in our history, my sisters and I were making it a yearly habit to exchange Christmas ornaments with one another. For several years the four of us would create or find distinctive adornments for the tree that we would then mail across town, across the state, or in my case, across the country, as a way of amplifying Christmas cheer. This tradition ended about a half dozen years ago.Continue reading

Almost Too Late?

couple without rings“Since the horse is clearly out of the barn, could you help me get the door closed?” That’s not exactly what my client said on his first visit to see me, but it was close.
He came alone to counseling. His wife was so angry and so hurt she didn’t want anything to do with therapy. Nor to do with him, he reported. He told me he was desperate to find a way to convince her to stay with him, but he certainly hadn’t acted all that excited to be with her through their three years of marriage.Continue reading

Change of Plans

bicycle shadowThe plaque in my friend’s living room reads, “Life is what happens when you’ve got something else planned.” Some days that is so true.

One night a few months ago it was my turn to cook dinner. My wife was teaching an aerobics class until late, so I was in charge of the evening meal. My plan was to prepare a chicken casserole, but I needed a few more things from the grocery store. Lucky I’m a multitasker, I thought. I put the chicken breasts on to boil and ran out to get the few items on my list.Continue reading

Am I Normal?

normal gas pumpFor a large number of people, the one thing they want from counseling is to be reassured that they are normal. Once they have a fix on that question and can answer in the affirmative, they are content to settle in and deal with the challenges in front of them.

Now I’m aware that it’s no easy task to determine or define what is normal and what is not. I’m not about to explain the answer to that question to anyone’s satisfaction in this little piece. But if you think of “normal” as responding to an experience in a fashion similar to others—emotionally, relationally, and spiritually—I will suggest again that many people come to counseling to have their “I am normal, aren’t I?” ticket punched.Continue reading

Get Up, Get Out, and Something Grand Just Might Happen

DSCF1848I recently had a most surreal experience. I traded headgear with a Buddhist monk—my dashing British driving hat for his plain stocking cap. I think he got the better end of the deal; he looked a lot smarter when he had commandeered by cap. But how many people can say they exchanged hats with a Buddhist monk?

This exchange happened after thirty of us traveled by chartered bus from Daegu, South Korea to Tongdosa, a temple near the city of Yangsan, a building which dates back to 646 A.D. While most of the buildings have been destroyed and then rebuilt over the last 1,368 years, it is said that the temple candle has never gone out.

It was raining on us as we traveled from Daegu, so I thought seriously about not going at all. The tour host said we had the opportunity to opt out of the trip at no charge. But in the end I decided to stay on board and take the trip. As the day wore on, I was so very glad I did.

It took us about two hours to get to the temple gates. The rain stopped when we got arrived. We toured the grounds and took many pictures. At noon we found our way into the free lunch area. The monks feed all comers a meal of rice, soup and many vegetables each day for lunch and dinner. During the meal, we were befriended by the monk in charge at the temple. He took twelve of us on a contemplative walk, then served us tea for over an hour in another lesson in contemplating life, slowing down and ceasing to hurry.

It was after the walk that he suggested the trade—my hat for his skull cap. At first I thought he was kidding, then I thought the swop would be temporary. But he had taken a liking to me, to us, and as it turned out, to my black hat. He was delightful and gracious; how could I deny his request?

While I can’t embrace his theology, I did relish his calm and mindful way of living. And, while I won’t wear it often, when I see my simple, knitted skull cap, I’ll remember the trip, our meeting, the intersection of cultures, and the exchange of head covering that occurred today.

The thing is, none of this would have happened if I hadn’t left my hotel, braved the weather and gotten on the bus that took us to the temple. All of these “serendipities” happened because I got up and got out.

I wonder what opportunities I might have missed in the past because I didn’t risk. What experiences did I NOT have because I was too lazy or uneducated,  or frightened to step out? When I graduated from high school I didn’t go off to college with my friends because I was too frightened to load up the VW bug and move to another city. I defaulted to the “sure thing,” which turned out to be a coward’s way to live. I’m determined not to let that be the way I make my choices today.

What risk would you like to take? Is there something you’d like to do that you haven’t? Are you living under the weight of an unrealized dream? I encourage you to step out. Do what you’ve wanted to do, now, while you have time and health.

Get out there and it might happen, whatever “it” might turn out to be.

Grace—A Gift that Defies Logic

Rape-victim-Katja-RosenbergKatja Rosenberg made the news this year when she traveled to a prison in England to have a face-to-face meeting with the man who raped her seven years before. It took her two years of determined effort to arrange this encounter. She didn’t want to confront him; she wasn’t interested in telling him how his attack had ruined her life. In fact, she required nothing from him at all. Katja wanted to give him a gift by letting him know that she had forgiven him.Continue reading

Learning About Life with Jim Morrison and The Doors

peoplearestrangeI was recently reminded again of how every one of us participates in creating the quality of the world in which we exist. Through our thoughts and opinions, we craft our own reality, then we live in this world as if every aspect of our creation is written in stone, an unchangeable part of who we are. That of course is not true.

My epiphany occurred while I was on an afternoon walk, enjoying some Spring weather, talking my music with me. Selecting the Doors album “Strange Days,” I scrolled to the cut “People are Strange.” At first I was so focused on the beauty of nature around me—the budding trees and the evening sky painted in hues of purple, orange and yellow as the sun set—I missed what the song was saying. But something in me said, “What was that?” so I started the song over so I could listen again. The verse says—

“People are strange when you’re a stranger,

Faces look ugly when you’re alone.

Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted,

Streets are uneven when you’re down.”

History says that Jim Morrison, the lead singer and resident poet behind The Doors’ music, was suffering with a bout of depression when the thought occurred to him that he was taking a leading role in manufacturing his own frame of mind. He penned these words as a reminder that his mood was mostly his own construction.

While it is true that events happen that are out of our control and that people with bad intensions (or who are at least in a bad humor) cross our paths, we are responsible for the way we feel. We can’t blame everyone “out there” for what’s going on “in here.”

Some of the soldiers and family members I’ve worked with are overwhelmed when the Army moves them to a new state, a different part of the US, or to another country. They stay in their barracks room or their on-post housing, doing their best to insulate themselves from uncomfortable experiences in their unfamiliar surroundings. That’s one way to exist, but I wouldn’t call it living.

It seems to me that real life begins on the edges of our comfort zone. The faces that “look ugly” may appear to be very different when you learn a few words in a foreign language, venture out into your new world, or simply tag along with someone who’s been out there and is willing to show you the way. Expect to make mistakes along the way. Trying new things comes with a learning curve. But saying the wrong word in a conversation in a foreign language or getting lost while driving or taking the train for the first time is part of the educational process. Keep doing the new thing until it doesn’t make you so uncomfortable.

If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting. The honest truth is, If you want something new, you have to do something new. Go to the edges of what you’re comfortable with, then take a step (or a leap) toward something beyond.

There was once a man who moved to a different location. He asked an inhabitant of his new hometown, “What do you think? Is this the sort of place where I will be happy?” The man considered the question for a bit and responded, “It all depends, I guess. Were you happy in the place where you lived before? If you were, you’ll probably be happy here as well. If you weren’t, well it seems to me geography is not going to change the situation much.”

Get involved. Educate yourself. Look for the beauty around you. Take back your personal power by acknowledging that you’ve created your reality. Recognize that when you seem to be surrounded by strangers, ugly people and folks who can’t be bothered to even give you a pleasant look, all of these observations can be your creation.

Pointing Fingers

finger pointing stkxchgAs a therapist I’m often waiting to hear the rest of the story from the people I meet in my office. Frequently what I’ve heard from a couple doesn’t fit with what I perceive when I’m with them in the session. I can see the part they’ve shown me and told me, but I may have a sense there is more hiding in the bushes, obscured from view but present nonetheless. I’m aware of the rustlings among the leaves, so I press on, looking for clarity.

It was on one such day that I met alone with a wife who had told her husband she wanted a divorce. She had moved out, but no lawyers had been involved in their saga, not yet anyway. I had met with the couple several times before suggesting this session alone with her. My main purpose was to find out what it was that made her question her desire to continue in the marriage. As we started, I purposely asked her a vague question about her disillusionment with her relationship so she would have the freedom to respond as she wished.Continue reading