What are these boundaries that you speak of?

Directional Signs in California I know, another therapist writing about boundaries.  The thought of it makes me nauseous too, so let’s get through this together.

We hear a lot about why boundaries are important. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “you need to have some boundaries girlfriend” on the Jerry Springer Show. That show that would mercilessly play on every single television set in the University cafeteria during my undergrad years.

Did I watch?  You bet I did.  I was young…er and the prospect of bearing witness to a chair flying incident was too great of an incentive to look away, at that time in my life.

God, I feel so ashamed.

Anyway, depending on the school of thought you subscribe to, boundaries can be thick or thin, permeable or impermeable, clear or unclear…the list is endless.  These are certainly useful concepts that can help guide folks in evaluating their relationship skills but skips over the initial and more important questions surrounding the “stuff” that makes up a boundary.

Interpersonal boundaries are analogous to geopolitical boundaries because, in many ways, they serve the same purpose on a smaller scale. Boundaries exist because of our differences across a wide variety of areas- religion, finances, philosophy, spatial needs, to name a few. They are a concrete demarcation between person A and person B. It would be difficult to recognize an identity without boundaries; they represent what makes us different

Boundaries consist of many things so let’s take a stab at some of the stuff that good ones are made of-

Effective boundaries are informed by values, emotion and logic-

Effective boundaries are not the product of a purely logical or emotional impulse;  they are anchored in an approach a person has chosen to follow in living their life.  This approach seeks to honor what they feel and think is right.

I’m pretty sure 99% of the world shares a similar “top 25” list when it comes to values. Differences exist on which values are prioritized and how issues are perceived to either support or violate a value.  The healthcare debate we’ve had in this country for the past 100 years (yes it has been going on that long) is really an issue of competing values.  Both sides of the issue would agree that people should get the healthcare they need.  Both sides place a priority on individual freedom and life but the moral equations they use to answer the question of “should we have it?” end up coming back with different answers.  Those opposed to universal healthcare don’t want people to die and those for it don’t want government cameras installed in our kitchens.  We may believe they do because we’ve developed this nasty tendency to confuse hyperbole with fact; but if we were really fair about it we’d recognize how silly this whole thing has become.

Considering values in boundary setting can help us feel confident that our actions are consistent with what it means to be a good person. They are also protective because they ask us to consider the impact our behaviors have on others and ourselves before acting.  Not being mindful of our values or being unnecessarily rigid in their application leads to similar outcomes- regret and poor relationship stability. The keys to incorporating values in boundary setting are awareness, flexibility and consistency.

Awareness means coming to a working definition of virtue and understanding what that virtue looks like when applied. Flexibility is important because we don’t live in a black and white world. If we are too rigid in our expectations, we neglect the sensibilities that allow relationships to flourish (forgiveness, understanding, negotiation). Consistency is important because it allows other people to know where we stand.  If our values are moving targets then people may continue to push back believing that your position has more to do with how you feel in a given moment versus conviction or principle.

Effective boundaries are not driven by impulse-

If you feel like a demand that is being made of you is pushy or wrong but you’re not clear as to why then take the time to think about it before reacting.  Things are usually not as urgent or as critical as they may feel in a given moment. If 15 years of doing therapy has taught me anything it’s that “just doing something” can lead to worse consequences than letting a situation play itself out. You have a legitimate right not to be pushed or bullied into a decision. If someone takes it to that point, you have greater cause to take a break and do a little more homework before committing to anything.

Effective boundaries take available resources into consideration-

Resources are another important factor to consider when it comes to boundaries.

Wealth, time and emotional capacity are finite resources that play a large part in who we hang with and can also influence whether a relationship is going to work. They are connected to boundaries because what we have and are willing to give influences expectations others may have on what they could expect to get from us.

Being too available or giving leads to burnout and resentment. This becomes more true if the recipient isn’t willing or able to reciprocate.  Remaining constantly detached and not involved means taking a hit on reciprocity and relationship proximity. Don’t expect others to do for you or feel close to you if you’re not willing to make an investment in their lives.

In both cases it’s about being mindful of the excess or deficit your inclination leads you to in setting and evaluating boundaries.

Effective boundaries are flexible and reasonable –

The terrain surrounding your life, as it looks right now should be considered in setting boundaries.   Holding onto expectations that we had of ourselves or others in the past may not make sense for what our life looks like today.  This is usually true when we experience significant changes in our lives (job loss, promotions, new child etc.) or when the folks we care about move to a different stage of development.

When I threw out my back a couple of months ago I had a really difficult time accepting that I couldn’t work or play with my kids the way I did before it happened.  I had everyone change their schedules and routine in order to accommodate that nonsense.  On some level, the desire to maintain routine wasn’t horrible but the fact that I wasn’t willing to give an inch in adjusting to the reality was unfair and created way more distress for everyone. The expectations I had of myself didn’t reap the same benefits as they had in the past, there was more of a cost in trying to meet them.

By the way, I’m much better now. Thanks for caring.

Effective boundaries sweat the small stuff-

Effective boundaries create ripples not waves.  When we are upfront, clear and assertive on the small stuff we avoid situations that trigger us to anger and urgency.   So if someone borrowing your pen without asking annoys you, then assert your need when it happens the first time.  Doing so may prevent you from calling the cops when he decides to take your Porsche out for a spin three months later.

The take away, I hope, is that boundaries aren’t just about how you handle other people. That’s a big part of it for sure, but equally important are factors that relate to yourself and your idea of what life is about. Boundaries are not a spur of the moment reaction to a request or issue; they are an extension of a larger thought out plan that will probably change throughout the course of your life.

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