SUMMARY: There is a delicate balance between taking care of yourself and the giving of self that is integral to any real relationship with another person. Whether it is your partner, family of origin, friends, co-workers or children, relationships require certain boundaries to stay healthy. Learn to recognize and respect yours.
Boundaries are Limits that YOU Have and Will Not Cross
Personal boundaries are internal limits. They may not be obvious to you, but they exist and influence your actions. Boundaries are important and should be recognized and appreciated. Most of our boundaries are healthy, and to ignore them is detrimental to our physical, mental, emotional or spiritual well being. Such limits are developed for many reasons, and stem from different sources which may include:
- Family or moral values
- Ethical principles
- Self-knowledge and an understanding of your personal needs
- Awareness of the consequences of going beyond these boundaries
Boundaries are Limits that Others May Not Cross:
- Violence, physical or mental cruelty
- Insulting behavior (vs. supportive behavior):
“MAKE-WRONGS” – Turn your comments, ideas or thoughts into negative feedback, often subtly and insidiously:
You say: “I lost 5 pounds this week.”
Make-wrong response: “Great, but how are you doing on the 50 pounds you still have to lose?”
Supportive response: “That’s terrific! I know this is tough and I’ll help in any way I can!”
“PUT-DOWNS” – Convey a lack of faith in your ability to do something and/or to do it correctly:
You say: “I’ll finish the project this evening.”
Make-wrong/Put-down response: “Sure, like you said you would yesterday?”
Supportive response: “Okay, but if you forget, do you want me to remind you?”
GLOBAL COMMENTS/CRITICISMS – Turns previous disappointments into general character statements that trap, hurt and prevent moving forward in a relationship:
”You never get anything done.”
“You always do that!”
“It’s always what you want!”
Pushing The Limits
Sometimes, the personal boundaries we set are overly protective and limiting. This is not healthy. While they serve a purpose, they keep us from reaching for a higher rung. We are comfortable where we are, and unwilling to make the effort (emotional, physical, intellectual, etc.) to push our limits and risk the possibility of growth – or failure.
Personal boundaries are meant to protect our values, not to stifle our growth. Limits imposed from fear are often cages. Beliefs should be looked at from a position of honesty and humility:
“Am I a better person because of my internal limits or am I protecting myself from the challenges of self-growth or the intimacy of a relationship?”
Personal Limits Include:
SPACE – Physical, emotional, thoughts… Everyone needs some privacy. We have a right to private thoughts and solitary activities.
- Not sharing everything doesn’t mean a lack of trust in another person, nor does it mean you’re cutting the other person out of your life (or being cut out of his or her life).
- If you feel compelled to always be with others, question why… What is it about your own company that is so unappealing? If you are just bored, develop some interests! You can’t always count on others, but you are always around, so learn to enjoy – and appreciate – yourself. Do you need others to constantly validate you? What can you do to build your sense of self-worth and learn to respect your wonderful, unique self?
- Be together, but separate – practice parallel play.
- Some people are more extroverted, in the sense that they get energy from being with others, while some are more introverted, and recharge by doing solitary activities or having ‘quiet time.’ It can be helpful to know what you – and your partner – need.
TIME – There is rarely enough time in our lives to do everything we would like to do, let alone everything others want us to do. Give yourself permission to take time… to make time… for self-care: quiet time, sleep, relaxation, healthy eating, grooming, personal interests or hobbies, enjoyable activities, etc.
- Interfering with or intruding on this time is actually counter-productive and can even be detrimental to productivity.
- It’s easy to criticize someone for “doing nothing” when there’s much left undone, but time to unwind is NOT selfish or do-nothing time. It helps us to decompress, recharge and build up the ability to attack projects, go places or just “do something.”
- There can be justification in expressing concern at “too much” personal time. If both partners agree there is an excess of time spent “vegetating,” then provisions should be made to SCHEDULE certain activities at specified times. This avoids conflict as to what was agreed upon.
- Scheduling also allows the person taking personal time to do so without guilt, but since the “assigned” personal time isn’t open-ended, scheduling it helps to limit over-indulgence. Guilt-free personal time is also an excellent reward/incentive for accomplishing scheduled Task-Appointments. See “The Task-Appointment.”
- When working, interruptions will slow you down and destroy the ‘flow.’ Some estimates say it takes an average of 26 minutes to get back on track, and that’s if you don’t get distracted by something else! And it is even more frustrating if it took major effort to get activated in the first place. You have a right to minimize interruptions – especially when you are working at a task that requires concentrated effort. If possible, turn off the computer and phone notifications for a set time. Let others know you’ll be in temporary seclusion. Consider a phone message that tells others when you will, once again, be available. Put a sign or count-down timer on your desk or office door that says when you will be free (people are more likely to wait if they have a specific time when they can speak to you).
- Learn to say ‘NO” so you have more time to say “YES” to what really matters. Our time banks are limited, and everything you do is a withdrawal. So, choose wisely. Decide what is important and set your boundaries accordingly.
PERSONAL GOALS, DREAMS, and INTERESTS – We all need dreams to strive and hope for, but it’s important to objectively evaluate them, discard the unrealistic and work towards actually achieving goals that are truly meaningful. See “How to Accomplish Goals.” We also need to accept and enjoy our interests without judging them according to someone else’s barometer.
- Expressing realistic concern about another’s goals or desires is okay, as long it’s done constructively.
- To be critical in a negative way (“make-wrongs” or “put-downs”) of another’s goals and desires is to take away something precious from that person. The same is true for being totally non-supportive.
- If your needs strongly conflict with another’s goal (e.g., your partner wants to buy a vacation home and you don’t want the stress, financial outlay and additional demands on your time), you can still express an understanding of the need, even if you are not supportive of the action. Perhaps you can both work out some compromise, such as buying into a time-share.
- The reverse is also true. We can be supportive without fully understanding another’s dreams. Sometimes we haven’t a clue as to why something is important for someone else (e.g., running a marathon), but we can still support them in their quest.
- Be careful that you don’t impose your dreams, or interests, on others. If you want to go bird-watching and your friends find it boring, it is unfair to force them to join you. However, don’t give up your interest, just find others who share it. Or suggest that while you birdwatch, your friend can use the time for his photography hobby, so you are both doing what you enjoy.
- Don’t allow others to impose their interests on you. You can decline to share an activity and still be a good friend. You can appreciate that your spouse likes to watch sports on TV but choose to watch your favorite sitcom in another room. Not wanting to watch the news or go to an opera doesn’t mean you are superficial. (Beware the hidden make-wrong!)
- If you know something will be difficult for the other person, even if you don’t think it should be, accept their limitations (real or perceived) and lend your moral support, without being controlling, indirectly insulting or withdrawing.
Limits Must Be Communicated
- Know and understand your own limits. It is unreasonable to expect compliance or understanding from others if you’re not clear on your own needs.
- Make sure others know your limits before you criticize them for going too far, or not far enough. It is unfair to expect something of someone else unless you’ve clearly explained to them what it is you want or need. Too often we get upset with someone because we think they should just know what we want, need, etc.
- Relationships consist of more than one person. While it is important to get what you need and to strive for what you want, it’s unhealthy (to a relationship) not to also take into account the other person’s needs and wants.
- Reclarify as needed. Sometimes we think we said something or made something clear and the other person says we didn’t. Instead of accusing the other, accept that either one of you may be responsible for the misunderstanding and restate your needs and expectations. Remember that conversations disappear, and no one is to blame. Communication is critical. And it always helps to write down things that you want to remember, and if they relate to an event, put them on a calendar and set an alarm!
- Ask for feedback. To be sure major points are understood and to avoid miscommunication, ask the other person to tell you what they’ve heard, and what they think you mean. (Ask nicely, not with an attitude.)
- Be flexible. Boundaries can be expanded at times. Stay somewhat flexible and try to see things from the other’s point of view without losing your integrity or perspective.
If your partner is ill or “down,” you may do more than your share of chores or provide greater emotional support.
A well-meaning grandparent may be allowed to ask questions or do certain things that you wouldn’t permit someone else. (But even here, there should be a limit!)
You may allow a partner or a good friend certain intimacies or criticisms you wouldn’t accept from an acquaintance.
Formulate Consequences for Overstepped Boundaries
- Calmly state the situation (the other person may not have realized they were pushing your limits).
- Reinforce your boundaries when they are, or might be, violated.
- Graciously refuse to accept an over-the-boundary situation. Getting angry, depressed or belligerent doesn’t make it easier for you or the other person.
- Allow the other person a backdoor; an easy way to change their mind or offer a compromise that realistically works for you.
Employer: “I need this report by 9am.”
Response: “You may have forgotten, but when we met yesterday, I explained that I had to leave early today. You said it was okay. It’s impossible for me to cancel my plans at this point, but I can either prepare the report when I come in tomorrow and have it by noon, or give the data to Nancy so that she can prepare the report.”
Spouse: “Honey, I’m watching the playoffs… can you please keep the kids quiet?”
Response: “We agreed that you take care of the children on Sunday afternoons so I can work on my thesis. I know you really want to see the game, so I can take them to the park now, but if I do, you’ll have to take care of dinner and putting them to bed so I can complete the section I’m working on.”
Partner: “Are you ever going to get that ‘A’ project finished?
Response: “I certainly hope so. However, I’m also juggling the ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ projects. If you can take over the ‘C’ project, I shouldn’t have any difficulty completing the other three on schedule.”
Child: “Mom – you didn’t wash my team jersey! You’re in charge of doing the laundry! I need it by 4:00, so wash it now!”
Response: “Everyone in this family is old enough to be responsible for putting their clothes in the laundry hamper. You know that. Since you left the jersey on the floor in your room, it wasn’t washed when I did the family laundry. If you want to wear a clean jersey to team practice, you’ll just have to wash it yourself. If you’re not sure how to do that, I’ll be happy to answer your questions, but I won’t do it for you.”
Child: “I’ve had it with doing chores around here. I’m not your slave! You take out the garbage yourself.”
Response: “I won’t force you to take out the garbage. I know it’s not very appealing, but everyone has responsibilities. Since you don’t want to do your share of what must be done, I’ll have to work harder. So, I won’t have the energy or time to take you to dance class on Thursday. It’s your choice.”