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Healthy Boundaries, Healthy Relationships

What comes to mind when you think of having boundaries? When personal boundaries are discussed in the public arena, the focus is often on sexual boundaries and issues of consent, or the concern is the welfare of our children by teaching them safe boundaries when dealing with strangers.

However, we are less often concerned with the frequent, less ‘visible’ boundary transgressions we are guilty of in our everyday lives, either as a result of ignoring our own boundaries or by overstepping someone else’s. While the boundaries discussed above are extremely important in terms of immediate safety, and it is only right that they are to the fore, the smaller, yet frequent boundary transgressions that happen in daily life can also be quite destructive, albeit in a slower, more insidious manner.

What do I mean when I talk about boundary transgressions? Well here are some examples:

  • Doing things for our children that we know they can do for themselves (the child is made helpless and the parent is overworked)

  • Allowing our partners, parents, siblings or friends to speak to us in ways we don’t like.

  • Saying yes to our friends EVERY time they ask for our help when we don’t really have the time.

  • Expecting others to be responsible for our emotions.

  • Asking a colleague to cover up a mistake we made.

  • Demanding to be let in on the private matters of our adult children, parents, siblings etc.

Usually, when we overstep a boundary, either our own or someone else’s, there are signs and signals to tell us this is the case. If we cross our own boundaries, it might be that we feel a little uncomfortable or ‘off’, or maybe afterwards we feel regretful, bitter or angry. The difficulty is that if our boundaries are weak, we have usually learnt this in childhood and it has become an engrained habit. Often our parents had the same problem and passed it on to us. You have to be the ‘nice’ boy or girl. You must try to accommodate others as much as possible. When your habit has been to cross your own boundaries, you don’t automatically pay attention to the warning signs anymore. However, the important bit is that THEY ARE STILL THERE if you learn to become aware of them and learn how to listen.

For those with loose boundaries, overstepping the boundaries of others may also be a problem. We tend to treat others how we ourselves expect to be treated. Therefore, when others will not give in to us as much as we would give in to them, we get angry; we try to punish them for having a line and sticking with it. This may be as an angry outburst or it may come out in other, more subversive ways such as in passive aggressive behaviour (stonewalling, snappy comments, unspoken hostility etc).

It is not difficult to see how boundary transgressions, either by crossing our own boundaries or overstepping the boundaries of others, will lead to problems in our close relationships. This may not happen immediately, but over time resentment and anger build and play out in our interactions with those close to us.

When we give to others more than we really want to, or take from others what we know they don’t give willingly, we are acting in an unloving manner. Our actions are either inauthentic if we give while feeling resentment, or needy if we take more than we should. For the person who makes themselves overly available to others or who gives too much, this can be a particularly difficult habit to break, as culturally this can equate to the ‘nice’ guy or girl. It seems like the right thing to do. But remember your inner warning signs. If it feels wrong, it is wrong. If it leads to resentment or feelings of having been used, then it wasn’t given with the right intent.

At certain times it’s okay to cross our boundaries. Every now and then we may be asked to do something for another person than we really don’t feel like doing but that might be ultimately the better choice e.g. helping out an elderly relative when it conflicts with our schedule. The important things to consider are:

a) Am I taking full responsibility for the fact that I am doing something I don’t really feel like doing? If full personal responsibility is taken then we will not feel the same resentment towards the other person.

b) Is it a once off and dependent on special circumstances?

If it becomes a regular thing then we are back to boundary issues. Remember that having boundaries does not mean that you are selfish, unkind, rude or uncharitable. It is a sign of healthy self-respect, not to mention respect for those close to you who, in the long run, will be better served by your authenticity.

Why not have a think about your boundaries? Is there an area where you feel you are giving too much and end up feeling resentment or anger towards another? How might you address that to bring authenticity back to that relationship? Or, is there someone who you feel you are over reliant upon? Might you be able to take more personal responsibility for your actions and behaviours towards that person?

Remember that having healthy boundaries is good, not only for yourself, but also for those close to you.

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