Written by: John Glass
Boundary setting might be one of the most overlooked or abused parts in a relationship. They have been shown to be one of the most important parts of a relationship. According to Murray Bowen, a well-known psychologist, boundaries are essential for healthy relationships because without them dysfunction occurs.
For me, boundaries have been a difficult concept to grasp, set, and enforce with others. I had a tendency to not want people to think badly of me or at least that I assumed they would think badly of me for not helping, catering, comforting, and so on. Problem with that mentality is that I ended up being taken advantage of on more than one occasion. Actually on multiple occasions.
Some of you might identify growing up with this perspective on others and yourself.
I eventually became very aware of it and started saying “no” to everything. I took on a mentality of “dog eat dog” or “I will get mine first.” The problem with this mentality is that my boundaries became too strict. This strictness was a way of protecting myself, yet it caused social and emotional problems with others. I had checked my empathy for others at the door. I had checked what many say make us human.
Like I ask my psychology classes, “What type of person experiences no empathy or sympathy?” To which I respond “Sociopath.” I am not saying that is who I had become, it is problematic behavior.
Anyone who can relate to what I described above can understand that neither of these perspectives are healthy in a relationship. In one you lose a sense of self and in the other you lose a sense of compromise.
After many years I learned that neither one works best, yet there is a constant conflict that battles within me. One side desires selfishness and the other desires to help. Which reminds me of a Native story called “Grandfather Tells”
An old Grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice… “Let me tell you a story.”
“I too, at times, have felt great hate for those who have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It’s like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times. ”
“It is as if there are two wolves inside me; one is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.”
“But…the other wolf… ah! The littlest thing will send him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all of the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.”
“Sometimes it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”
The boy looked intently into his Grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather ?”
The Grandfather smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”
From this story, one can gather that the moral is to feed the one that you want to prosper.
I interpret the moral as the need to feed both wolves. Not equally, but to give what each desires depending on the situation.
When it comes to boundaries it is necessary to not only set boundaries for others there by feeding your more self-centered wolf, but you must also set limits for yourself thereby feeding your relationship wolf. Each wolf has restrictions, yet each is fed in their own way.
You might be wondering, “What does this look like?” Which is a question I get a lot in my sessions with clients. It looks similar to these:
- “I want to hear about your day. I’ll be free to give you my full attention in 15 minutes.”
- “I’m sorry; that doesn’t work for me. I won’t be loaning you money until you have paid me what I loaned you previously.”
- “I’m not willing to argue with you.”
Each of these statements is setting a boundary for the other person while setting a limit for yourself.
Boundaries help take care of yourself, while limits allow you to see your own restrictions. Using both keeps the wolves at bay. At least, that is the way it is working for me.
Here is what you can do to get yourself started:
- Make a list of a 5 or more boundaries that you will have for others. Your boundaries must be clear, concise, and direct. If they are not then they will be left to interpretation of others. Thus, leaving you open to be taken advantage of.
- I will not allow a loved one to dehumanize me through words, actions, or anything else. I will make this known in a compassionate, loving, yet direct and assertive way.
- Make a list of 5 or more limits for yourself. Limits must also be clear and concise. They must be written in a way that will not allow you any room to lawyer your way out of them. NO LOOPHOLES.
- I will not allow myself to criticize others because they are not meeting my expectations. This only causes damage and strife in a relationship. I will politely and lovingly state my perspective, while allowing my loved one to be their own person.
Murry Bowen discussed that the more we differentiated ourselves, thus becoming a more solid person, the less we will be influenced or affected by others emotions. All the while, creating less emotional reaction and less anxiety within us. Thereby, strengthening ourselves and creating healthy relationships with others.
When one is unable to create this differentiation they tend to lean towards what is referred to as codependency. The inability to distinguish the difference between one’s thoughts and feelings and their loved one’s thoughts and feelings.
If you take anything away from this post take away the idea that to create and maintain healthy relationships with others we must begin to recognize where we end and others begin.