Setting boundaries


When I was working toward my Master’s degree in social work, I discovered there were certain buzzwords that my professors loved, and that showed up a lot in my ludicrously-overpriced textbooks. Empowerment was one of them. So were advocacy and strengths-based and solution-focused and community resources and a handful of others. I used to joke that if you could work all of them into a term paper, you were guaranteed to get an ‘A.’ Some of them got kicked around so much that they started to lose their meaning.

            One of the words that got kicked around a lot was boundaries. I always assumed I knew what it meant, without ever giving it a lot of thought. If anyone had asked me what it meant, I probably would have responded with something like, “You know, a boundary is like a fence or a wall, to protect you.” I also was perfectly prepared to pay lip service to the notion that boundaries were a good thing and we should all have them and so on. After graduating from school and entering the work force (where real education takes place), I had a supervisor at a mental health facility here in Dallas, Texas, who often stressed the importance of boundaries. Through him, I learned what boundaries really are, and why they are important.

            A common definition of boundary is, “Something that indicates a border or limit.” This is a pretty broad definition, but it works. Of course, this article is concerned with boundaries as they apply to human interaction. Why is this an important topic? Because the world is filled with people who crash through your boundaries and take advantage of you, if you do not enforce your boundaries. Which leads me to one of the most simple, important, and difficult boundaries available to you: the word “No.”

            I have seen many clients who make statements like, “I just can’t say no to…” They are never happy about this, because the person or persons to whom they can’t say no to are often taking full advantage of my clients’ difficulty. They are abusing their time, or money, or hospitality, or belongings, etc. The client knows he should be saying “No,” but just can’t seem to muster the courage to do it. So they often agree to things that they don’t really want to agree to. And why do people do this? The big reason could be summed up like this: “I couldn’t stand the thought of someone being angry or disappointed with me.”

            Most people who have difficulty setting and maintaining boundaries are aware that they are allowing others to take advantage of them. They’re not happy about it. They might want to set healthy boundaries, but the fear that others will think bad thoughts about them often keeps them from this behavior. If I continue to allow people to take advantage of me, even if I don’t like it and know how to stop it, then the problem isn’t that I don’t know what to do. The real problem is a self-esteem issue. I can’t stand the thought of others having bad thoughts about me, because that means I must have done a bad thing, or worse yet, I am a bad person.

            Let’s look at that last statement. “If someone is unhappy with me, I must have done something wrong.” If you’ve ever had that thought, you are certainly not alone. The problem with that thought, however, is that it is NOT AUTOMATICALLY TRUE. You might have done something wrong, but you might not have. In fact, if you set an appropriate boundary, then you have actually done a healthy behavior, but that doesn’t mean everyone is going to be happy about it. If you have had few boundaries, and you start setting healthy ones, then you’re almost guaranteed to upset some people who are used to being able to get their way with you. On the other hand, you will likely have some friends who will say things like, “Good for you! It’s about time.” This brings up an important point: You cannot please everyone, no matter how hard you try, so don’t bother. No one, and I mean NO ONE, is universally liked. So, to reiterate an important point: just because someone is unhappy with you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have done something wrong.

            Here’s an example: Jan works in an office, and she is friends with her neighbor in the next office, Francis. Francis does not have good boundaries herself, and she doesn’t respect other people’s boundaries, either. We could speculate as to the reason for this, such as a lack of good role models, but that’s not important right now. Francis is fond of coming into Jan’s office and telling her all kinds of lurid details about her sex life, and to discuss whatever rumors are flying around the workplace that day. Jan isn’t really interested in these topics, but she is afraid to set a boundary, because she is afraid if she did, Francis wouldn’t like her anymore. The irony here is that Jan doesn’t particularly like Francis, but she wants Francis to like her. In fact, Jan wants everyone to like her, because deep down, she doesn’t like herself very much, in spite of being a decent human being.

            Finally, however, Jan gets fed up with listening to Francis, and Francis is no longer buying Jan’s excuse that she is “too busy” to listen. So she summons up her courage and says to Francis, “Look, I’m not trying to be mean here, but I’m really not interested in your sex life, and I don’t like gossip, so I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t talk to me about those things.” Francis doesn’t like this one bit, although she is unaware the reason she dislikes it so much is because deep down she knows she has poor boundaries, and someone has just reminded her of that. But instead of saying, “You’re right, these are inappropriate topics and I need to talk less and work more,” Francis says something like, “Well, fine, you little bitch.” She then storms out and tells everyone who will listen how Jan thinks she’s better than everyone else, and bad-mouths her in any way she can think of. Jan is fully aware of what is going on, and now her fear isn’t that just Francis won’t like her, everyone won’t like her.

            At this point, Jan has a choice. She can either stick to her guns and let the chips fall where they may, or she can try to win Francis back by apologizing (even though she doesn’t mean it) and hoping that Francis will forgive her. Francis is trying to convince everyone in the office what a terrible person Jan is. Some people agree with her, but more are saying (or thinking), “Good grief, Francis. Shut up and get over it. I like Jan more than I like you, anyway.”

            Setting healthy boundaries is a challenge for more than one reason. But if you want to do it, you have to get used to the idea that not everyone will like you, which is true whether you have good boundaries or not. In fact, the person who has few or no boundaries in an effort to be liked isn’t necessarily well thought of by the people who are taking advantage of him. They call him a “pushover” behind his back. They may like the fact that they can get him to do whatever they want, but they have no respect for him.

            How are your boundaries? Are you able to say “No” when you want to? Do you agree to things that are against your values? Do you try to make everyone like you? Do you like yourself? A large part of what I do involves helping people identify, establish, and maintain healthy boundaries. Like most things I try to help with, if it were easy, everyone would already be doing it. Change is difficult, but it’s a little easier when you’ve got some help.

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