How to Recognize a Good Boundary When You See It
Maintaining good personal emotional boundaries is a very important element of positive mental health. Emotional boundaries protect us from manipulation and from being taken advantage of. They help minimize hurt and frustration. They build our self-confidence and even help improve our relationships. But what are they, and why are they so tricky?
In my experience, most patients believe they have better personal boundaries than they do. They say, “I’d never tolerate [x]” or “I’ll never put up with [y] again.” But when it comes time to exercise those boundaries, they don’t. They loan them money or swallow the insults or ignore the behavior they swore they’d never overlook again. And the cycle continues to repeats itself.
Since this is such a common cycle, I’d like to examine the basic elements of healthy emotional boundaries. To illustrate, let me tell you about the story of my patient, Gary.
Gary couldn’t say no.
Gary was a successful real estate broker who couldn’t say no to his adult daughter. Every time she needed money — whether two hundred dollars or two thousand dollars — he gave it to her. Then when she spent it on expensive clothes or indulgent nights out, he’d despair that she’d essentially thrown his money away. He made comments about her being irresponsible. He told her he wasn’t going to give her any money unless he knew precisely how she was going to spend it. Then they’d argue, and she’d cry, and he’d feel terrible and he’d end up writing his daughter a check.
I asked him why he couldn’t say no to his daughter’s requests. He explained that he and his wife divorced when his daughter was young. “It was so hard on her,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt her any more than I already have.” Then he added, “Plus, I have the money. I’ve done well for myself. Why wouldn’t
I share it with my daughter?” The answer to that question is where Gary and I began our work together.
Emotional Boundaries are rarely black and white
Gary had a partial understanding of personal boundaries. He saw them as absolutes, as lines in the sand. “I would never give her money for drugs,” for example. Boundaries, however, are rarely so black and white. Instead, they’re more effectively viewed as limits, as the threshold between when an interaction goes from feeling good to feeling bad. To have great boundaries, I told him, he must learn and understand his limits. He must learn to recognize and respect the “gray area” in which his emotional senses perk up and say, “Warning! This behavior or interaction is about to cross a line.”
For Gary, that meant learning to respect the boundary between when he felt good about giving his daughter money and when he felt taken advantage of. When he felt good, Gary wouldn’t say no. Boundaries are rarely black and white. For example, helping his daughter by investing in her future- her education, unexpected or substantial medical expenses, or taking a family trip. In contrast, he felt taken advantage of when she asked for money to pay off credit card debt or to subsidize a lifestyle above her means. Being able to identify that boundary zone was the first step in being able to change his relationship with his daughter.
Why emotional boundaries feel so uncomfortable to protect
For most people, the difficulty with boundaries can be summarized in one word: Guilt. We don’t want to make other people feel bad.
• People hate to say no because it will hurt a loved one or force them to alter plans.
• We tolerate rude or hurtful comments because we don’t want to be rude or confrontational in return.
• We ignore inappropriate behavior because confronting it could lead to a very uncomfortable situation.
In Gary’s case, he felt a great deal of guilt about how he believed the divorce affected his daughter. So he made up for it with money. As if he were saying, “I hurt you when you were a child, but look at how much I’m doing for you now.” The problem with ignoring our boundaries, however, is that the hurt, frustration, and anger we’re avoiding has to land somewhere, so it falls on us. To avoid hurting other people, we end up hurting ourselves and, in turn, our relationships.
• Gary can’t say no, but he is infuriated about his daughter’s financial choices and makes passing comments to her about her “irresponsible” lifestyle.
• The husband tolerates his wife’s criticism and rationalizes it by saying, “that’s just how she is,” but isolates himself from her because he doesn’t enjoy the time they spend together.
• A son puts his parents’ needs above the needs of his wife and kids, dropping everything when they call, saying, “They’re my parents. I don’t have a choice.” Soon his marriage is in trouble because his wife feels overshadowed and abandoned.
Boundaries require us to put our needs above the needs of others.
It’s no wonder we resist setting boundaries with the ones we love. Boundaries require us to put our needs above the needs of others. They expect us to quit taking responsibility for other people’s feelings. Protecting our boundaries forces us to say, “I know this is going to feel bad for you, but I’m going to do it
Consider this- when we don’t set and protect our boundaries, our emotional health and our relationships suffer. Gary resents his “irresponsible” daughter; the husband isolates from his wife. The son risks losing his marriage. Avoiding the discomfort of boundary-setting is a temporary, short-term fix. But our lives and our relationships are long-term investments. To keep them healthy, we need a long-term solution.
Exercise: Take a minute to examine your most important relationships and ask yourself this question: Where is the threshold between when my interactions go from feeling good to feeling bad?