Boundaries for Beginners

Flourishing in my circle

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians on Pixabay

In my early adulthood, someone recommended a book to me. It was called Boundaries, and it was written by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. I bought it and never read it. It would be years before I began to understand why my friend recommended it and even longer before I understood why she was right.

I grew up a people-pleaser. I wanted to please my parents, my teachers, my authority figure, and my friends. It was inordinately important to me that the people around me like me and approve of me. That isn’t too unusual, especially for someone young. However, it was the core of how I identified myself. If my parents thought I was good or smart, I was good and smart. If my friends or classmates thought I was funny, I was funny. When a producer for a children’s show moved me to the far corner view of the camera and replaced me with Jane, I knew I wasn’t pretty.

I was also a peacemaker, a mediator, and this lasted through my adulthood. If there was conflict, my role was to make peace, foster understanding, and make it go away. Conflict feels like rejection. It’s uncomfortable. Everyone around me needed to be okay. Of course, I told myself this was altruistic and a gift I had. Yes, it can be. But sometimes things just aren’t my business. I spent a lot of energy trying to be good enough, be approved, and make others happy.

Making the people we care about happy is not inherently bad. One could argue that not caring at all about the people around us is unhealthy. It speaks to a lack of empathy. It may even be selfish. But I wasn’t just a people-pleaser. I was a people-pleasure without boundaries.

Me, I didn’t have a line. I just wanted to be liked.

It is said that we teach others how to treat us, and the lessons those of us without boundaries teach are not always good. When I was in 6th grade, three girls decided they didn’t like me anymore. If you have never been an 11-year-old girl, you may not know how common this is. They began talking about me, passing little notes about me, and sometimes leaving mean little notes in my desk. Unfortunately, this is a common rite of passage for young girls, and almost everyone my age experienced and survived it.

Most girls who experienced this may have cried or felt sad, but they eventually just focused on their other friends and moved on to other concerns. In fact, even one of the meekest girls in my class eventually got fed up with a couple of boys teasing her and let them have it. She had a line, and they crossed it. Me, I didn’t have a line. I just wanted to be liked. So my solution for this problem of three girls not liking me was to try harder, even invited just the three of them for a sleepover. They accepted, and it was awful.

Childhood woes eventually fade, and I made other friends. However, as I got older, went to college, and entered my 20’s, my lack of boundaries created issues between my parents and me. Most parents and children transition into more of an adult relationship once the kids are old enough to vote and go to war. Even in my mid-20’s, I was “the child.” Things like FERPA and HIPAA didn’t exist then, and there were no boundaries. My inability to have and enforce boundaries with my own parents created all sorts of conflict, even in my young marriage. Too often I tried to please everyone, playing both ends against the middle until things blew up for everyone.

My lack of boundaries made me wishy-washy trying to please everyone, and it led to resentment because doing so was impossible. I’d say yes when I wanted to say no, and I’d become resentful and angry about how overwhelmed I was. I felt like a leaf blowing in whatever direction the wind took at times. In one case, I shared too much information about myself with strangers, leading to a terrifying episode of cyber-harassment.

Finally, after almost having a breakdown, and thanks to some reading and a very dear friend who had walked the path before me, I began to develop an understanding of some boundary basics.

What are boundaries, and what aren’t they

  1. Boundaries are not about getting someone else to behave differently. This was the first lesson I had to learn. If you read advice columns or advice forums, you’ve probably read countless questions that begin with “How can I get him/her to do….” or “How can I make him/her see that…” That has nothing to do with boundaries. I always thought boundaries were strategies to get someone else to do something or stop doing something. But they aren’t. I don’t really have the power to make someone do something. And honestly, it really isn’t my place to control someone else.
  2. Boundaries are about me and what I am willing to accept or tolerate. In other words, the only person I can control is me. I can draw an invisible line or circle around me and decide what I accept inside that line, so to speak. I cannot make someone else stop losing their temper. However, I can decide whether or not I will be subjected to their temper, at least within reason. For example, I cannot keep someone from yelling at me. But I can leave the room. I cannot make an unfaithful partner end an affair, but I can end the relationship. I cannot make my boss stop taking credit for my ideas. But I can stop sharing every idea I have with only him or her. Boundaries are about me, my limits, my behavior, and my responses.
  3. Boundaries are not about controlling the outcome. This one was tough for me. The number 1 reason that I twisted myself into pretzels all those years was so that I could control the outcome. The outcome of being liked, the outcome of making someone happy, the outcome of getting something I wanted or needed. Boundaries cannot guarantee an outcome. They can only guide my behavior and responses. If I want a promotion, but I refuse to do something unethical or flirt with the boss or step on a coworker to get there, then I may or may not get a promotion. I can control my actions, but I won’t control the outcome. I remember reading a relationship forum where a man whose wife cheated repeatedly was advised to distance himself and file for divorce. He asked, “Will that shock her into ending the affair?” Like me, he didn’t get it. The boundary was about what he was willing to accept. He had no real control over whether she was faithful or not.
  4. Boundaries are about self-awareness. In order to have strong boundaries, I needed to really know myself. I think those of us who have weak boundaries or no boundaries don’t often know ourselves, at least not as well as we think we do. I see this in a simple way as I work to maintain weight loss. One of my boundaries is no Pringles potato chips in the house. I might think I can just have one serving a day. I can’t. I will eat the whole can. Right now. I don’t want to waste 25 Weight Watchers points on salt and grease. So I have a boundary. I don’t want to lose my temper and let angry words fly. When I do that, it is ugly, and I don’t like myself. I hurt others. So when I know I am getting overly stressed from a discussion, I ask for a time out. If the time out is not given and the stress continues, I leave the room. I cannot make someone else stop fighting. I can decide not to participate. I know that if I begin reading a lot of news, I will get angry. I don’t want to be angry over things I cannot control. So I am very selective about what I read. Sometimes I skip what might be really good writing based on the title. I know myself.
  5. Boundaries are not ultimatums. This one is tough. It’s easy to treat our boundaries as a threat: “If you don’t stop yelling I’m leaving!” “If you don’t give me the intimacy I need, this marriage is over!” “If you touch me, I will call the police!” Now, all of those things can be boundaries. If someone is being abusive in their language, I will leave the situation. This happens online from time to time. And no, I will not ever again stay in a marriage starved of intimacy. And if a person raises a hand to me in anger, I will likely call the police. But these are not threats intended to control someone else’s behavior. They are my personal lines. They are guidelines for me concerning what I will accept in my life. It may seem like semantics, but it is a vital distinction. And because they are firm boundaries and not emotional threats, I will follow through. Boundaries with no follow-through are not boundaries.
  6. Boundaries are proactive, not reactive. I generally know what my boundaries are. It took learning and practice and failing. Even now, if I fall back into old patterns and react in the moment, it doesn’t work well. I get pulled back into the cyclical dance. Emotional reactivity is the quickest way to lose validity and lose someone’s respect. It may not be fair, but it just is. I am not a partying kind of girl. I am not going to get drunk and have no self-control. That doesn’t sound fun to me. If I want to dance badly and laugh too loudly I can do that sober (smile). So I have a plan for social gatherings. If I know that pretty much all that will be there is alcohol, I bring a little backpack cooler with water and my favorite, Coke Zero. If I do decide to have a drink, which doesn’t happen often, I make sure I eat. Even though I am 51 and I trust my friends, I don’t always know everyone at every gathering, so I fix my own drink, whether it’s Coke or something else. Again, even in 2019 with all of the things we “should” be able to freely do, I know the only person I can control is me.
  7. Boundaries can strengthen relationships. You might wonder if having boundaries causes strain in relationships. Will people reject me or back away from me if I stop trying to please everyone all the time? The truth is, some people will. The people in my life who had me around only for their benefit didn’t appreciate my development of boundaries. But some of my core relationships are even better with boundaries. For most of my adult life, I had a strange and strained relationship with my parents. There was fault on both sides. But a few years ago, I laid who I was out on the table and made it clear what I was and was not willing to change. It wasn’t confrontational. It was loving and kind and clear. My mother and I are closer than we ever have been, and we are closer than we ever could have been had I not done that. I know that the boundaries that I have, along with the boundaries my husband has, help to strengthen our marriage.

My tips for establishing boundaries

Setting and establishing boundaries didn’t happen overnight. It was hard and scary. I can’t tell you how many times I fell back into the old patterns. Or worried about how someone else would behave or respond. My dear longtime friend would gently remind me. Sometimes I would get mad. But a few key habits and changes proved very helpful.

  1. I learned to say no simply. I didn’t give elaborate excuses or try to make up some sympathetic sounding get out of jail free card. If I knew I couldn’t do something, or if I knew it would be too overwhelming, I simply said, “No, I can’t.” You know what? Almost no one was ever bold enough to say ”Why not?” If they did, I just reiterated, “I’m sorry, I’m just not able to do that.” They rarely asked a second time. We don’t owe everyone our life story just to be allowed to decline a request.
  2. I learned the power of the mantra. The first time I did this was during a discussion with my mom about holidays. My kids were young, and each set of in-laws lived in opposite directions from our house, several hours away. My mom was good at the holiday guilt trip. This year, I tried something different. I told her, “We can come on X days.” She went on about how once Christmas was over it didn’t feel like Christmas anymore and could we come Y. I told her, “This is when we can come see you, at X time.” She talked about how much they missed the grandchildren and how the other grandparents got to see them more often (because the other grandparents traveled more). I said, “They miss you too and really want to see you over Christmas break. This is when we can come.” She finally huffed and said fine. There was no yelling, no manipulation, no tears. And I didn’t have to get ugly or hurt her feelings. If said calmly and kindly over and over, a boundary can protect you from overreacting or getting caught in circular arguments.
  3. I stopped asking “why” regarding others’ behavior. Other people sometimes do things we do not understand. At all. A boss may treat employees differently. The rules for one person might seem different from the rules for me. Some people worry more than others. There is nothing I can do about any of that, and knowing why probably won’t change them. My responsibility is my behavior. If my boss is treating me differently, he probably knows it. My job is to do my job well. If a friend constantly worries over everything, that doesn’t mean I have to join her in worrying. If we need to leave at 2:00, and at 1:20 my husband is already worrying about whether or not everyone is ready, I don’t have to speed up and freak out. I’ll be ready by 2:00. It’s only 1:20.
  4. I stopped enabling. I had this bad habit of trying to be a mind-reader. This was especially detrimental in my first marriage. My first husband was very good at passively asking for something without actually asking for it. I was good at complying. This meant I couldn’t complain because he never actually asked me to do it, so why was I so upset? In fact, he hardly asked for anything, so why would I feel so overwhelmed? He made what I call “public service announcement.” He was a type I diabetic, and sometimes — lots of times — he would come home and say, “I haven’t eaten since 9:00 this morning.” Then he would sit down on the sofa. Well, now I knew he probably had low sugar. And he was sitting on the sofa. I couldn’t let his sugar drop, so I stopped whatever I was doing and got him something to eat, even if I was in the middle of cooking dinner. And it drove me crazy. But I was the one who chose to drop everything. No one was forcing me to rearrange things to respond to his public service announcement. That was all on me.

The benefits of boundaries

So how has having boundaries and enforcing them benefited me, along with the people around me?

  1. It frees me from the resentment of feeling compelled to please everyone.
  2. It protects my personal resources, which means I can be fully there for the people who matter and when it matters.
  3. It naturally distanced me from toxic or selfish people.
  4. It has improved my self-esteem because it isn’t based on running around being “enough” all the time.
  5. It has made me healthier mentally and physically.

Boundaries are essential, in my opinion, to long-term contentment and healthy relationships. Oh, and I finally read that book. It was great; I highly recommend it. I wish I’d read it back in 1995. But better late than never!

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