We all want to be fair, kind and loving to the people that we care about. Sometimes that means going out of our way for them. At other times, it means putting up with a certain amount of crap. In the long run, we hope and bet on the odds that it’s worth it for our relationship to have a little give-and-take. However, giving out love without any boundaries can be extremely dangerous and carries extreme risk to our own sense of self and others.
We all know that it’s important to have boundaries. On paper, it makes perfect sense to have boundaries. But when we try to put our assertiveness to the test, we often flounder. Others may refer to us as “dependable” and as someone who can always be counted on. But when we need help, there’s no reciprocation.
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re probably living a life with misaligned boundaries. Why is it so hard for us to have boundaries? What makes us trapped in trying to please others? How does our anger and anxiety start turning inward as we struggle with our inability to say “no”?
Table of Contents
The Boundary Litmus Test
You can discover whether you have an issue with boundaries by doing a simple test. Take a situation of yours that you suspect might be a boundary issue. Some hints might be that you feel guilty, angry or anxious after a particular interaction with someone else. Most likely, this other person has said, done or implied something that made you feel obligated.
Now take what this other person said, and in your mind, pretend to say it out loud to them.
Does it feel weird? Wrong? Does your stomach churn at the thought? Chances are that your boundaries are out of alignment.
Here’s another test: Take a moment where nothing is happening. If you have to, steal a moment. Breathe, relax, and sit still for 90 seconds. If you feel a sense of apprehension that you’re not doing what you need to be doing, then that’s also a sign.
They say that the best way to achieve a goal is to dedicate 100% of your energy to it. The good news? You’ve done that already! You’re excellent at… not having boundaries. I’m not a fan of screwing up in reverse, so let’s look at some ways to undo this mess. But first…
Why Don’t we have Boundaries?
Frequently, we’re struggling with one or more of the following:
- We feel that it’s irresponsible to be capable of something and yet still say “no” when asked
- We feel that we are responsible for other people’s feelings
- We feel guilt over simple misunderstandings or hurting someone else’s feelings
- We have someone in our life that doesn’t respond well to limits
- We give more than we get in out of our relationships and start to feel isolated
- We think, “At least I’ve done the right thing”
- We minimize our concerns over our own needs
- We feel extremely capable and loyal beyond measure regardless of the recipient of our dedication
- We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility
- We believe that if we try just a little bit harder, other people will “get it” and understand where we’re coming from
- We think that, “Maybe I can save them”
- We would make excellent lawyers, in that we can talk ourselves out of our needs in any circumstance
- We over-emphasize with other people’s struggles, feelings and situation
- We believe that it’s irresponsible if we aren’t there for others when they need us
- We have a mistaken belief that “things won’t get done” or “they won’t be done right” if we don’t take care of things ourselves.
What Happens Without Boundaries
When we don’t have boundaries, we end up risking loosing ourselves. More than we might realize. For example:
- We dread looking forward to each day as we get out of bed
- We start to resent others for having needs and with any imbalance in our relationships
- We start to feel “on edge”, angry and irritable with others, even though we would never, ever, let them know this
- More and more, we start to have trouble concentrating, we forget things, and generally start to “not care”
- We start to become unaware of what legitimate boundaries look like
- We don’t know how to handle someone who is hurt by our boundaries
- We feel “run over” all the time
- We start to move from crisis to crisis as we continue to feel out of control
- We feel a twinge of sadness as we think about what we have to look forward to
- Our life starts to feel meaningless
- We feel guilty or afraid when we consider setting boundaries
- We don’t know how to answer someone who wants our time, love, energy or money
- Our inability to say no actually makes people less responsible, not more
- If it goes on for too long, we start to feel nothing
- When we use our boundaries, we feel selfish
The Boundary Solution
First, we have to realize that just trying to be better and work harder isn’t working. In fact, the more we try, the worse we feel. Keep in mind, if our boundaries are out of alignment, nothing we do will change our situation until we correct this misalignment.
Second, we must understand that being nice isn’t working anymore. I don’t mean that we should be mean; rather, our motivation for being nice is misguided and misplaced. We’re doing it because we’re afraid.
Third, did you notice that taking responsibility for other people isn’t working. We end up living our life feeling worn out, ragged and miserable. No matter how many people we help or save, other people will still make poor choices.
In order to have things change for the better, we have to be willing to give up these three misguided approaches to life. In essence, this is called taking ownership of our lives. We’re already good at being responsible. Now, we just need to change who we’re being responsible for. In order to do this, we need some context.
Our Boundaries are “Built-In”
Carl Sagan hinted at this in his book, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Imagine ancient history: At some point early on in our primordial history, we were all just single-celled organisms. Over there, there’s George amoeba! Next to him? Bob amoeba! And over there behind the chip dip, did you notice Susan amoeba? You get the picture.
Almost immediately, this presented our collection of cells a key problem: How do I survive? Fortunately, our options were fairly simple:
Rule #1: To survive, I can absorb and process my own glucose (thereby ceasing to exist).
Rule #2: Alternatively, I can absorb and process the glucose belonging to these other "not me's".
Those that took option #1 simply ceased to exist through their own choices. That’s Darwinism at it’s best. Those that took option #2, to our benefit, survived.
It can be argued, Sagan said, that we became aware of the difference between “me” and “not me” on an instinctual and cellular level. There are “those things” that aren’t me, and then there’s “just me”. It seems silly, but it makes sense that this awareness is almost part of our genetic underpinning. For our survival, it is imperative that we understand the difference between “ourself” and “others”.
Let’s fast forward to the modern era, filled with people and past the era of digital watches. Now, when we get into trouble you’ll notice that we invent a non-existent option number three:
Rule #3: To survive, we let others absorb and process our own glucose.
NOTE: For a single-cell organism, this is a terrible way to cease to exist. For us human beings, it gets even more convoluted.
Let’s get back to our key point: How do we show other people love, yet not “cease to exist”? We can do this by recalling some essential rules about love:
- Not all love is good love.
- Sometimes we love “too much” by tolerating things that should not be tolerated, not setting limits, and viewing other people as “better” than us and “more deserving” of forgiveness.
- Sometimes we need the reassurance of being loved by others. When left unchecked, this can grow out of control and result in our doing “too much” for others. This actually causes us more problems in the long run.
- Some of us are fearful of doing or saying anything that will make other people angry with us. Sometimes we cannot bear having other people show us any anger, dislike or disappointment.
- Our fears that other people will not love us make us “do anything” for the other person. We end up “giving in” and we teach other people that it is ok to “use” us.
- Some people will refuse to deny anything that another person wants, which only makes for a demanding and self-centered human being. We end up allowing other people to essentially become a spoiled tyrant who controls us and our lives in general.
- We try to intervene and solve everyone else’s problems in the name of “love”. This creates an unhealthy relationship where the other person never learns to resolve any problem by themselves, or they resent the intrusion into their own complicated life.
The Burden of Being Taken Advantage Of
The burden of teaching other people not to take advantage of us requires the following:
- Other people should NOT be allowed to control us when “they” want.
- The people we allow to be close to us need to learn to hear us say, “NO!”
- We don’t always have to explain why we say no. Explaining “why” means that we are justifying our position. Setting boundaries and limits don’t require justification, and are critical to other people learning how to get along with us.
- Think of the difficult people in your life in this way: Their job is to “complain and be upset” when you say “no”. Your job is to “tune out the noise” and not listen to all the “upset”.
- Other people need to be held accountable for their actions and problems.
- Those that are close to us need to know that they cannot “get away” with things without natural consequences for their actions. You would think this was natural and “to be expected,” but human beings are flawed, can be selfish and can sometimes not be at their best.
- In this sense, you are providing a type of “hidden discipline” like you would to a child. Without discipline, children grow up selfish, spoiled and unable to feel the feelings and reality of other people in the family. It’s the same for those that we let into our lives.
How Do We Keep Boundaries Intact?
We need to remember that:
- Other people protest to the boundaries we put in place to “save face.” Don’t get upset with their “upset”.
- People, as a rule, will often test, double and quadruple test, hoping your behaviors won’t last and they can wear you down. Sometimes, this is unintentional and other times it’s not. It doesn’t really matter as it’s poor form either way.
- Other people may get defensive in response to what you say. Remind yourself that this lets you know that they feel guilty and figuratively “want to run and avoid responsibility.”
- Other people need us to listen and be reasonable with them. However, love does not mean always being nice and giving in to other people.
- Love also means setting limits and saying NO when necessary.
- Love means helping other people learn to face and solve their own problems and interpersonal difficulties, without our “saving them”.
- Love requires understanding the importance of clear boundaries and limits on behaviors, relationships with others, and responsibility toward life and others.
- We all grow through personal struggles; don’t take important learning opportunities away from those you love and care about by trying to help them avoid uncomfortable feelings. They need to learn to think of, and find, their own solutions to problems. They also need to think of you as a unique and independent individual.
- As a rule, people do not learn self-discipline unless someone teaches them by setting reasonable limits on behaviors. If no one has ever done that, people grow up to be self-centered, self-indulgent, and unconcerned with others.
- People need firm rules and limits because they do not necessarily know what is best for you.
- Rules, boundaries, and limits all help to reduce obnoxious behaviors and help other people to learn how to get along with us.
- Withdrawing from negative behaviors is important and critical even while providing for kindness and love.