Do you find that challenges come in waves? Not just in pairs, or threes, as tales tell. But in bunches. That happened with me over the past several months, where I felt my boundaries being challenged over and over.
What I mean by that is that I would be asked – or expected – to let some seemingly little thing happen. Like letting something slip by as a “personal favor”, or changing the rules for a friend, or acting as mother to someone I’m not a mother to, or finding myself expected to listen to an endless rant on a mutual acquaintance.
These are all boundary breakers, because they effectively make me responsible, or partly responsible, for my friend’s or acquaintance’s, or colleague’s behavior. The personal favor that I grant, if it causes pain for someone, can be justifiably seen as my fault, at least in part. The rule-changing, likewise. Being a mother to a child is a special relationship that allows a boundaryless connection to some extent while your child is young. But allowing that in adulthood is called “codependence”. Allowing a friend or colleague to rant for more than a few minutes isn’t helpful to either of us: getting those bad feelings aired once is good; re-airing them more than that is painful and really depressing.
Apparently, I must score high on agreeableness – people who score high in this are more likely to accept someone oversharing because they don’t want the other person to feel in the wrong. I do know it’s a challenge for me, and have been aware of it for some time. After all, I’m a therapist, and boundary maintenance is important in my line of work.
If you’re like me in allowing others to cross your boundaries, here are some tips in changing that, and living happier as a result:
- Awareness. Learn to recognize the signs that boundaries are being challenged. One major sign is how you’re feeling about the conversation. Are you feeling uneasy? Bored? Anxious? Pay attention to these indicators; take them seriously. True, it might be for some other reason – like broaching an unpleasant topic – but the more you become aware of how you react to breaking boundaries, the better you will be at recognizing the signs early.
- Become a little disagreeable. Allow prolonged silences; don’t answer prying questions. You might get an apology, or a rebuff. Either way, you’ll feel stronger and in charge of the conversation, rather than at the effect of the other.
- Limit it. Give it 5 or 10 minutes, then say you need to go elsewhere, or do other things. If a friend needs to vent, and you’re open to listening for a while, then this is a way to do it and support your friend without making you feel caught and cornered.
- Attend to the degree of separation. With an intimate partner, most of us are very close and reveal a lot. Even here, there are boundaries: my partner may not want me to reveal things he’s said to me in private (this is even truer with our kids). I’ll tend to reveal more to a friend than I do to an acquaintance or stranger. Then there are relationships that are inherently unequal: parent-child, teacher-student, therapist-client, manager-employee. It’s important to know and understand the rules of engagement when in an unequal situation, and the responsibility for doing so should rest with the person with the greater power.
- When your boss is crossing a boundary: sometimes it’s obvious (a sexual inuendo) and sometimes it isn’t (asking a personal question). You may be dealing with an ethically dubious person and fear being fired if you don’t go along with it. But honestly, letting yourself be invaded in never worth it in the long run.
Boundaries are good. Flexible boundaries are the best. When we honor our own boundaries, it engenders a sense of empowerment in us that makes our world a safer – and freer – place.
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Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist. To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .