What are Boundaries?
What does a boundary look like?
When we think of a physical boundary, we often think of a border in the form of a wall. A personal boundary is more like a fence with a gate. The fence is there to keep the bad out and the gate is to let the good in. Having boundaries requires you to determine what ‘good’ you will let in and what ‘bad’ you intend to keep out and then communicate that to the people around you.
Why am I so unhappy?
I was a self-less giver – a “yes” girl – and the people around me probably just thought that was my personality. They also probably thought that I was happy. I never asked for anything in return because I thought that would be selfish. I was taught in Catechism that Jesus gave his life for us and we need to spend the rest of our lives following in his sacrificial footsteps by giving to and helping others selflessly.
Above anything else though, I wanted to be liked and appreciated and when people thought of me I wanted them to think of a person who is kind, generous, reliable, and unselfish. Giving to, doing for, and helping others was my path to happiness…or so I thought.
Instead I was bitter, angry, resentful, and extremely unhappy but I couldn’t understand why. I believed that everyone was supposed to be this way, and when it came time for someone else to “give to, do for, or help me”, they always fell short of my expectations. I never felt comfortable asking for help because I suppose I felt people would just reciprocate out of appreciation for all that I did for them. I felt like I was falling all over myself to help everyone yet I was still not getting the love, appreciation, and reciprocation I thought I deserved. But I felt guilty for feeling this way because I'm sure it's sinful.
I just wanted people to think of me in the same way I thought of them when it came to generosity, support, reliability, and thoughtfulness. My emotional ROI was 0%. I was mentally drained and emotionally conflicted.
What would God think?
I’m not a hugely religious person, but I was raised Catholic, and for the majority of my life, I was convinced that being unselfish was being obedient to God and his teachings. And everyone aspired to be obedient children of God, right? To me this meant to help those in need no matter the cost. A life of servitude without selfishly thinking about yourself because the goal was to make it through the “pearly gates” (entryway to heaven for those who aren’t Christian) when you die. If I could give my young-self some advice, I would tell her to “stop blindly following all the rules and start asking more questions in order to find your truth.”
What is wrong with me?
I started therapy when I was about 25 years old because I was very angry and unhappy, and I couldn’t figure out why. I only went a few times and didn’t feel like it was helping. Yes, my childhood was very dysfunctional (see my post below ‘My Humble Childhood’) but I felt like I had dealt with a lot of it on my own. Through therapy, however, I discovered there are many behaviors people develop as bi-products of this dysfunction.
I tried therapy again when I was about 30 years old, newly married and still very angry and unhappy. I finally found a therapist I connected with. I met with Gayle sporadically over the next 10 years. During that time I had a child and even though I was happy raising my daughter, something was still very wrong. I was depressed, disconnected, and resentful. I started going to therapy sessions more frequently when I turned 40 because my marriage was struggling and so was I.
During one session my therapist told me she thought my unhappiness stemmed from my lack of boundaries. Gayle said, “Jackie, victims of physical and sexual abuse tend to have a poor sense of boundaries.” People who were physically and/or sexually abused as children were taught that the most basic fundamental boundary, their skin, was not something they could protect. They learned at an early age that others could hop over the “fence” and do whatever they wanted.
Once she explained the concept to me, I started connecting the dots. Around the same time I had been learning about my ‘disease to please’ (see the link below ‘My Disease to Please’) and I suddenly realized that the two “conditions” were intertwined.
My therapist suggested, I take a boundary workshop and read the book “Boundaries”, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. (see link below)
The workshop and the book were life-changing. The book states, “Misinformation about the Bible’s answers to these [clinical] issues has led to much wrong teaching about boundaries.” “…many clinical psychological symptoms, such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, addictions, impulsive disorders, guilt problems, shame issues, panic disorders, and marital and relational struggles, find their root in conflicts with boundaries.” (Boundaries, p28)
Slow clap it out… At first I was angry that I felt I had been misled my entire life and truthfully, my faith was shaken. Thankfully, however, at least I had an actual “diagnosis” I could work with and begin to heal.
Time to make some changes
“No” was not even a word in my vocabulary. Now I had to start living my life with the understanding that “No” is a complete sentence while also learning when, where, and how I should start using it. But first I had to actually form my own opinions, wants, and needs in order to consider them worthy of protection from the bad. You see, I learned from the book that I was a "compliant" which means which means I said ‘yes’ to the bad. I had “fuzzy and indistinct” boundaries which meant I couldn’t recognize the bad. Compliants pretend to like the same things as the people around them, just to get along and make everyone happy. In my case, I was so heavily entrenched in what those around me liked/disliked, that I was like a chameleon and changed my needs/wants depending on my environment. I was a shell of a person.
I was also an “avoidant” which means I said “no” to the good. Avoidance is a boundary problem because we can’t ask for help. I never asked anyone for help but yet I was angry and disappointed when nobody offered to help. Compliant/avoidants have “reverse boundaries” meaning they have no boundaries where they need them, and they have boundaries where they shouldn’t have them.
Most of my forties were about learning about my boundary-setting problems, my disease to please, and changing my thoughts about basically everything I thought to be true. It has taken 10 years to retrain my brain, erode years of deeply embedded dysfunctional behaviors, discover my own wants/needs/desires (as an individual person), and learn to set limits for the people around me. It was not an easy task and many of my relationships suffered as a result.
The people who pushed back
During the process of healing, there were people who resisted the way I was changing. These people were angry that they were not getting what they wanted from me anymore. They were used to the “yes girl” and would not accept the new “no girl.” I just had to keep telling myself I did nothing TO them to hurt them, I simply didn’t give them what they wanted in order to protect my boundaries. These are people with character problems and if I gave in, I knew things would go back to the way they were and I didn't want to be there anymore.
I was able to identify the solid relationships that still deserved my time and attention. Those that were hindering my growth naturally unraveled in irreparable ways and were discarded. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy. Sometimes it had to be a conscious decision to discard those relationships and that was the most difficult part. Many times I thought about just giving in and reverting back to my old behaviors because of my fear of making people angry. But because I had come so far and had done so much work, my new-found confidence and self-talk led me the rest of the way.
I’m still learning
I’m almost 50 years old now and I still sometimes have trouble with boundaries; saying “no”, and setting limits with the people around me. For example, I worked in an a very unhealthy environment for several years and tolerated being treated disrespectfully by my supervisor. He was condescending, arrogant and unapproachable. I dreaded going to work every day of the last two years.
One day, a few months ago, my supervisor was especially rude to me so I decided I was going to establish some boundaries and tell him what I needed from him. This is the email I sent to him:
“Marv, I realize you are frustrated but I would appreciate it if you would talk to me like you do any other professional in this company. The stress around here is very high and I’m doing many different things for several different departments. I’m not an idiot and I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t address me as if I were incompetent.”
After three years of being treated poorly, I finally stood up for myself. Okay, so maybe my language was a bit harsh at the end but I was extremely angry and believe me compared to what I really wanted to say to him, my email was as politically correct as I could muster in that moment.
And then I was "laid off."
I am extremely proud of myself though because, for three years and out of desperation to have a job, I pretended to be someone I am not and I tolerated way more than I should have. Every day I was conflicted and frustrated for not being true to who I really am. And for the first time, in a long time, I was able to walk past the fear and into freedom just by clicking send. Yay!
Everything happens for a reason and I am so much happier now. I am currently looking for employment, but also working on the blog.
Fear, anxiety, and self-doubt show up at least once a day so many days I watch motivational videos to regain my confidence and keep moving forward...and sometimes I take a nap.
Do you have boundary issues?
If you are constantly giving to, doing for, and helping others while sacrificing your own wants/needs in the process, you may have boundary issues. It could be why you are unhappy in your relationships.
What motivates you to continually do these things that may detract from your personal goals, wants, and needs. You may be afraid that if you set limits, the relationship will go away and that may be more painful than getting your own needs met, so you sacrifice again and again.
Are you unable to say “No” for fear of:
- Hurting the other person’s feelings
- Someone else’s anger
- Being shamed
- Being seen as bad or selfish
- Being unspiritual
- One’s over-strict, critical conscience (feeling guilty)
Ask yourself questions like:
- Why did I say yes to my friend when I really wanted to stay home and get my homework done?
- Why did I promise my sister I would watch her baby, when I already had plans with my boyfriend?
- Why did I apologize even though I didn’t think I did anything wrong?
- Why did I say “yes” to coaching my kids softball team when I rarely get 6 hours of sleep at night as it is?
- Why did I tell my boss I would work on this project tonight when I promised my son I would take him to the game?
If you feel you may lack personal boundaries I highly recommend reading the below book. I just read it again while writing this post and it has helped me to reinforce my boundaries.
I welcome comments and I enjoy discussing this topic so please comment and we can start a conversation.
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Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Boundaries: When To Say Yes, When To Say No, To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004. Companion workbook available. This work, as many other boundary-setting resources, is Christian-oriented.