Boundaries, boundaries, BOUNDARIES!

Boundaries, boundaries, BOUNDARIES!
If you have spent any time on a therapist’s couch, you have probably been exposed to the psychological concept of boundaries. And, generally, I feel that any successful therapy should include an exploration of this concept. However, as is often the case with psychobabble buzzwords, boundaries have become clichéd, and I have seen some grimace and squirm at the mere mention of the dread “B word”.
Today I’d like to communicate my feelings on the fundamentals of boundaries, their importance, and how to make use of them in your life. Let’s start with a purely fictional example:
You have a friend named Marsha. Marsha is likeable enough in many ways, but over the years your relationship has become somewhat of a burden. When her name pops up on the caller ID, your pulse quickens, armpits dampen and feelings of dread ensue. Marsha has a tendency to push the limits of what you should be expected to do as a reasonable human being. She depends on you, and sometimes blames you in a way that feels unfair. You feel responsible for her. When she’s sad, you’re guilty; when she’s hurting, you’re afraid. When she asks you to do something for her, you know you have to do it, or she will “lose it” or fall apart. A 3-hour phone conversation is not unusual, and afterwards your pressure to say the right thing has left you feeling too exhausted to function…not to mention the appointment you had to miss to stay on the phone with her. Sometimes she yells at you. Marsha also has an annoying tendency to tell you what to do, and doesn’t take no for an answer. On top of all that, she really doesn’t like your other friends, or the fact that you’d rather hang out with them from time to time.
Yes, this example is extreme of a toxic relationship with poor boundaries, but I’d be willing to bet you have known more than a few Marshas in your lifetime, or found yourself in a relationship that felt at least a little bit like the one described. Before going further, I think it is important to emphasize that not all the blame in this situation is on Marsha (In fact, I’ll argue that only 50% is on her). She is who she is, and she actually might behave quite differently in other relationships, but the relationship with you is broken and painful. So, what is to be done?! How do you keep these kinds of relationships from accumulating in your life?
The only way I know of to help a relationship like this one is by building your boundary skills and putting them to use. Essentially, boundaries are the lines we draw between self and other. As I see it there are two main aspects to boundaries: 1. Recognizing who you are, what you stand for, and what you (or anyone else) shouldn’t tolerate, and being assertive about those things. 2. Allowing other people to feel their emotions without feeling responsible for what they are feeling.
But, before we go on to how to do that, let’s think for a minute about why it is so hard for you to do. Your difficulty setting boundaries arises primarily from four feelings: Fear, low self-worth/compassion, guilt, and guilt’s second cousin, obligation. Maybe you’re afraid that you’ll be rejected, or abandoned and forced into loneliness. Maybe you’re afraid that confrontation will just leave you feeling worse. Maybe you feel like you don’t matter enough to take a stand, that your own needs and feelings don’t matter as much as others. Perhaps a parent, friend or spouse blamed you for their negative feelings and you started to believe them. Or, you just tend to take on guilt for other people’s actions or feelings. Everyone who struggles to set boundaries has their own set of reasons this is the case, and this warrants exploration in your psychotherapy or personal self-exploration so that you can be less blind to what drives your behaviors and feelings.
Here are some general tips that I’ve compiled on how to set healthy boundaries:
  1. You don't cause other people to feel emotions. Emotions come from within. Your actions might play a role in how they are feeling, but you are not making them feel anything and shouldn’t be blamed for such. We should strive to be responsible to each other, not for each other.
  2. Ultimately your actions are the only thing you can control. You can’t control/change/fix other people even if it makes you very uncomfortable not to do that.
  3. Even people who are struggling can be told no. No matter how much pain someone is in, it is usually unreasonable for them to expect all their support from you alone. You can be there for people in need, but you have your own set of needs that are also important.
  4. You can care a lot about yourself and not be selfish. A good rule of thumb is to strive for 49% caring for others and 51% caring for yourself. You need to be healthy to be an effective person and this requires taking care of yourself and working to limit the number of draining relationships in your life. Few could fault you for caring about others almost as much as you care about yourself.
  5. Avoid telling other people what to feel or make them feel bad for feeling something. Respect their boundaries, and they might pay more attention to yours.
  6. Examine the characters in your life. Do any of them seem overly dependent on you? If so, think about what effect that is having on you and think about setting some limits on that.
  7. If you find that contact with someone in your life is leaving you feeling used, abused, disrespected, untrusted or less than, tell them about it. But, be careful not to blame them for your feelings or tell them what to do/not do, or you’re just as guilty as they are. The exception to this is if someone is abusing you. In that case the way to set a boundary is to say no and leave. For everything else, though,try the following:
    1. Use “I” or “Me” statements to let them know what you are feeling and what you aren’t okay with or what you want/need.
    2. Use the ABC equation: I feel ___A___ when you ___B___, and I would like ___­C___. Be as specific as possible.
  8. Remember that boundaries help others grow. People with dependent, borderline, narcissistic, etc. traits usually only get help when people in their lives set consistent boundaries. They must grow to understand that their behavior is unhealthy and unacceptable.
  9. The most extreme boundary enforcement is ending a relationship with someone who is causing you pain, but that is not usually the goal. You establish what your needs are and what you can’t tolerate, then communicate that and from there it is up to them to either honor that, or face the consequence that the relationship can’t go on.
  10. Boundaries need to be set and enforced. When you establish a boundary, make sure you know how far you’re willing to go to make sure the boundary is respected. This will probably be different for the particular thing you’re communicating about. For instance, some boundaries must allow for gradual change, compromise, or second chances, whereas others (e.g., those involving your safety) must not allow compromise.
  11. Sometimes your boundaries will cause others pain. In these cases, you must take time to make sure your boundary is reasonable and that if it does cause someone pain, does the pain lead only to injury, or possibly to growth.
  12. During a fight is very seldom the time to communicate boundaries effectively. It helps to present your boundaries in a confident, straightforward, non-blaming way and this is very hard to do when tensions are high. Get some distance from the fight, make sure the other person has calmed down, and then explain your boundary as clearly and calmly as possible.
  13. When in doubt, talk to people you trust about your boundaries. Make sure your “boundary advisor” is someone you respect as a good “boundary setter”. Seek their input when you are struggling with whether it is appropriate to set a particular boundary.
  14. Remember that as half of a relationship, you share half of the responsibility for things that happen in that relationship. Refusing to set a boundary is doing just as much damage as the other person who is mistreating you.
  15. If you feel unsafe setting a boundary, this is a VERY SERIOUS warning sign for a dangerous and abusive relationship. Get help before you or someone you love gets hurt. 
Establishing and enforcing healthy boundaries is not an innate human behavior. We aren’t born with any special ability to do this, and few of us have just the right set of circumstances during childhood to make boundaries come naturally. Improving this part of your life takes patience and very often reassurance and self-compassion. I strongly believe though that the more we are able to set and enforce boundaries, the stronger our sense of self becomes and the greater our chances are for peace and happiness in life.
Here are some resources that I have found helpful on this topic:
Out of the FOG support community
The DBT Therapy Skills Workbook
Self Compassion by Kristin Neff
Psych Central article on boundaries 
Codependent No More: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself by Melody Beattie