The word “boundaries” has become a common psychological buzzword. I hear, and have probably given, much advice to others about their needing to set firmboundaries with theirparents, theirkids, theirco-workers and even theirboss. It’s so easy for us to tell other people to set boundaries, but it’s not so easy for many of us to follow our own advice.
Boundaries are the personal consequences we impose on those who we perceive to be invasive in their expectations, judgments, demands, manipulations and criticism, or who just behave poorly. It is important for me to remember that these are my perceptions, and that others, including those I choose to set boundaries with, may interpret things differently.
There are lot of less than healthy ways to set boundaries. We can banish people without warning, from a place of anger and revenge, lashing out at unsuspecting people who have no idea that we are even feeling hurt or upset. We may avoid the important initial first step of telling people how we feel, and of making our request that they interact with us differently. It’s amazing how often people tell me that they have already taken the first step, but when I speak to the recipients of their communication they are often surprised that there is a problem. For them, the boundary comes as a total surprise. Before setting a boundary, especially with children, it is important that we first communicate why a specific behavior is inappropriate, and what the consequences will be if the offending behavior persists.
I believe that we set boundaries with people in order to protect ourselves, change behavior, and feel respected. The word “boundary” creates an image for me of drawing a line in the sand, which, if crossed, will lead to my pushing away the offender. I warn people not to set boundaries like Rambo, with sub-machine blasting away at parents, teachers, bosses, conservatives or liberals, believers or pagans, whites or blacks. Motivated by rage, revenge, pride, and self-righteousness, we can cut a swath in our relationships with the precision of a psychological scalpel, or a razor tongue: “Give me space! You’re smothering me. You’re invasive. You’re toxic. Leave me alone. You have no shame. You’re pathetic. You’re evil. That is to say, you’re not human.”
We do use healthy anger to create needed space between others and ourselves. But when our “no” is so charged with pent-up anger, pride, envy, and revenge, it generally keeps us in relationship with those we want space from. Our attack leads to a counter-attack, escalation of accusations, blame, judgment, and tit-for-tat retaliation. Even if we physically separate, we remain emotionally connected, often in unhealthy ways. Ultimately, the safety and respect we crave are not achieved.
When we set boundaries in anger, we often make the consequences much more severe than the behavior warrants. We punish rather than attempt to change things. Often, taking the cell phone away for a week teaches the lesson, whereas taking it away forever will be interpreted as a personal attack. “I need a twenty minute break” is very different than “I wish you were never born.” Healthy boundaries service justice, not revenge.
Sometimes, we are so possessed by fear that our “no” is actually much more of a pleading request than setting a firm boundary, even to the point of begging. “Please, please leave me alone. Please, please don’t hurt me, don’t say those things to me.” We give away our power even in our boundary setting, leaving us dependent on our emotional captors to grant us freedom. Often, our request comes in the voice of a pleading child, not a strong adult. It is unfair to ask an internal, injured child to plead our case.
Another example of fear-based boundary setting is making multiple threats, without following through. “If you do that again, I will…..” But the consequences never come. We might escalate our threats, or revert to endless explanations that the recipient has heard a dozen times, or even try bribery. We are afraid of the consequences of setting limits, or we just don’t have the emotional energy to follow through. Either way, when fear dominates our boundary setting, we once again lose respect.
I believe that healthy boundaries are always about saying “yes” to self, rather than “no” to someone else. When I am healthy, I set boundaries because I listened to my deepest needs rather than purely to my anger, jealousy, or fear. Of course, the first step in listening to myself is to acknowledge my pain, hurt, and frustration in my relationship. It may be a very old hurt, or here-and-now frustration that my kids don’t listen, and are openly defiant. Next, I accept my strong feelings and have compassion for my anger, jealousy and fear. By acknowledging, and gently holding my strong feelings, I am actually cultivating a voice that is calmer and wiser than those emotions, a voice that is capable of protecting me, and setting healthy limits on my desire to hurt others purely out of revenge. In essence, myfirsthealthy boundary is an internal one, making sure that my motivation comes from my wise, knowing self, not from my triggered, enraged, envious or terrified inner child. Setting healthy boundaries emanates from a centered rather than a reactive psyche. Of course, sometimes we lash out, but we can come back later, apologize for howwe set a boundary, and still maintain it.
Just because I am clear minded about my boundary, it does not mean the recipient will be so clear or happy about it. I remember a few four-letter tirades and slamming doors when we set a limit with our teenagers. Twenty minutes later, the storm had passed. Once a boundary is set, it is important not to have our feelings spill over in other areas of the relationship. I have a friend who regularly has to say to her invasive mother, “Mom, I’m going to hang up now.” Because she no longer expects her mom to change, she takes care of herself when needed; but she calls her mom the next day with an open heart and hopes for the best. Her mom, in turn, feels the love her daughter has for her, and knows that there will be consequences for unwelcome behavior. They separate the behavior form the person. Most importantly, no one holds a grudge.
But consequences are often messy. Setting a boundary may bring up more inner pain. Saying “no” to someone we love might make us feel like, once again, we are never good enough, too sensitive, too needy, a bad parent, an ungrateful child, partner or co-worker. It might bring up the grief for what we never had, and the pain of the loss of hope that things might be different. It might trigger fear that no one will love us and we will end up all alone. Setting a boundary might tap into these ancient childhood feelings. Hopefully, we have a solid, clear-minded and compassionate adult self who can re-assure those childhood voices.
Setting even a healthy boundary can cause external havoc as well. We must be prepared for the door slamming, accusations, guilt-trips, gossip, and utter disdain that may come our way. I do not take the task of setting healthy boundaries lightly. I often will sit with myself, and come to a consensus with my fearful and frustrated – and also very wise – inner voices. Before I act, rather than react, I find the “yes” to self rather than the “no” to someone else.