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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.