Boundaries. It’s a subject that seems to be helping me discover some very interesting things about how I show up in relationships (up to now), how I harshly judge myself, and also what I seem to fear most.
A boundary is a sort of property line. It’s a definition of where something starts and ends. A boundary also denotes who owns what. This ownership part of the definition is where I have found my biggest lessons in why boundaries are essential in a relationship. It’s super important to be clear about who OWNS things like feelings, attitudes, behaviors, meanings because if there is any issue with one of those items, we need to know who the problems belongs to.
In their book “Boundaries in Marriage”, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend outline some great info and clarify how lack of boundaries leads to blame of the other party for the problems in the relationship. “When we are in relationships, one item we all want is love. Yet, love is not enough. For a relationship to grow and thrive it needs other ingredients. Those ingredients are freedom and responsibility.”
“If we lack boundaries, we will tend to blame others, circumstances, conditions for the problems we focus on. When two people are free to disagree, they are free to love. When they are not free, they live in fear, and love dies. And when two people together take responsibility for their relationship, love can grow. When they do not. One takes on too much responsibility and resents it; the other does not take on enough and becomes self-centered and controlling. Freedom and responsibility problems in marriage will cause love to struggle.”
Now for many, we might guess that a lack of boundaries shows up in NOT taking ENOUGH of the responsibility. What I have experienced is that I tend to take on TOO MUCH of the emotional responsibility in my relationships – thinking that the way the other person feels is MY responsibility to manage, soothe, “fix”, because I can pull them out of their funk or anger and “save” them. What a hero huh? Turns out, not so much.
You see, when we try to manage another person’s stuff that is actually their own responsibility… we rob them of the experience that they need to actually grow, learn, and become empowered. I seem to sort of think that the other person is somehow not capable of handling their own disappointment and pain yet the truth is, they are just as capable as I am of handling that. I have been causing damage to myself and my partners by always trying to manage their feelings for them.
So here is where the big challenge happens for me in having boundaries… handling MY OWN discomfort and pain when someone decides to experience my boundary as a disappointment or painful.
Let’s try a hypothetical couple. We’ll call them Dan and Sally. Dan is a dedicated man to his work and committed to his relationship with Sally. He can often times become very moody, angry, sullen and withdrawn and this is very confusing to Sally. She wants desperately to figure out if she has done something to upset Dan, or is there something she can do to snap him out of his moodiness, she can’t quite figure it out and tries very hard to do all the right things she thinks might help. She ends up feeling powerless in the relationship, spending so much energy managing Dan’s mood and trying to be both pro-active and reactive in taking care of it or giving in to it, that she in essence, loses her own identity.
This kind of situation has a typical result – over time Sally becomes resentful. She feels powerless and at the mercy of Dan’s emotions which she, of course, cannot do control. She feels she is sort of in bondage due to his behavior…So she REBELS. This can show up in small ways and big ways, not unlike any person who feels "imprisoned", even if the imprisonment is at your own hand, human nature is to "break out"! But without working on her limiting belief that it is her job to make sure Dan is happy and in a good mood, the cycle will repeat.
We may look at this story and think “Well it’s all Dan’s fault! He was being a grump butt!” Sure, he has a role in it for sure. Yet, Sally perpetuated the situation and her own pain by not having boundaries. Dan really didn’t have to take responsibility for his mood because Sally would do the dance each time and try to soothe things. In this story freedom and responsibility were at the root of what was going on… Sally took responsibility for something that wasn’t hers (Dan’s mood) and she also took away her own freedom by not having a line in the sand about how Dan behaved in their relationship. She was afraid of the conflict and chose to adapt rather than fully show up and shine her light into the relationship.
Dan’s lack of taking responsibility for his behavior led to resentment from Sally which in turn made Dan feel like he was trapped (not free). Sally actually stole away Dan's opportunity to experience what he needs to in order to grow and learn to manage his own moods because she was operating in fear of enduring his unexplained grumpiness. Where there is no responsibility… there is bondage. Where we do not take ownership of our own stuff, our relationships will stall out and lack intimacy.
The process of boundaries always starts with taking responsibility for our own part in the problem. Boundaries are what give us back our freedom. Boundaries are basically about SELF-control. They are about YOU, not the other person. Boundaries are not about fixing the other person. They are about ourselves.
What Sally could have done is say to Dan… “I love you and you are obviously not in a good place right now. I’m going to distance myself from you and when you are ready to talk about it, let me know.” This is enforceable because Sally’s actions have to do with what SHE is going to do. If she were to say something like “You can’t talk to me that way.” That’s not enforceable because it’s not about HER, it’s about Dan and she doesn’t have control over that. She can also invest in defining herself, taking ownership and responsibility for what is hers, and also knowing what is NOT her responsibility. We are responsible TO each other, not FOR each other.
When we take responsibility for what is ours and own it – then we are empowered. As long as we blame, criticize, judge, say it’s the other person’s fault we stay disempowered and you will notice that your same problems repeat over and over.
How other people experience our decisions in not our business. It’s what I think is the hardest part of boundaries, managing myself as I disappoint someone by saying “Enough.” As Brene’ Brown says we need to “choose discomfort over resentment”. Staying true to ourselves via boundaries is certainly going to cause some people to be unhappy with us. There may even be those who try to negotiate us out of our boundaries, so you have to know what is important to you, what are your priorities. From there your boundaries become much clearer.
You can easily see that being a people pleaser is a boundary issue. The idea of pleasing people isn’t bad. Wanting others to feel good is a wonderful thing. But when you believe it’s your job to get them feeling good, it almost always back-fires. When we become focused on the needs of others and abandon our own feelings it is often an attempt to AVOID something…
Esther Hicks reminds us that it comes down to our motivation in determining if we are in people pleaser mode or if we are genuinely contributing to the other person. Is your intention/motivation coming from passionate desire? Or obligation? If you want to be an up-lifter of others, your motivation must be passionate desire. If you are coming from the people pleaser mode, you’re giving out of obligation, duty, GUILT, your role, what others expect and that’s NOT love. It’s an attempt to control what other think and feel about you – reminder… you don’t have that kind of power yet we humans seem to lean toward trying to fix others, so that we can be more comfortable. HAVING to do anything is a sign that someone is afraid.
Have you ever had two people in your life that you care deeply about, maybe two of your kids, grand-kids, friends, etc…who each want two different things from you? There’s no way you’re not going to disappoint one of them. This is a people pleasers worst nightmare! So what’s the best solution? Well it’s actually something I said in a relationship a few years ago. I have had a hard time sticking to it, but I have recently recommitted myself to it. “I’m going to do what feels like the most fun and makes me happy. Anybody who wants to join me – come on!”
If you see this as selfish, I get it. Yet, what else do we have control over other than how we feel? If I’m not managing how I feel and I blame someone else for that – then I am a big ‘ol Victim and that also says I and not taking personal responsibility for my own sh$@. If I see it as my job to get someone else in a good place emotionally, that’s obligation and that’s a recipe for suffering for BOTH of us.
To figure out where you need to find your boundaries, notice what lights you up – know what gets you in your “Sweet spot”. Make a list of what’s happening when you’re there. THEN, make a list of what takes you OUT of that sweet spot. These are the places you need boundaries in order to bring your best up-lifter self to your relationships. Protecting what brings you joy is the key to a boundary based in love.
Boundaries will feel super uncomfortable for you and for those you apply them to. Expect to feel discomfort – it’s doesn’t mean you’re “wrong”, it’s just INFORMATION. Just because someone is in pain doesn’t mean something bad is happening. Notice what meanings you put on your discomfort and breathe. Show yourself some grace, some self-compassion, love – just like you would anyone else you love. Also expect push-back from those who you have taught that you will take care of their needs that actually belong to them. It take practice just like anything else to break a pattern on both sides of the boundary. Discomfort us usually a requirement for growth.
If you still need a reason to work on your own boundaries - this last bit of info from Cloud and Townsend might inspire you… “Boundaries clarify where responsibility belongs and responsibility EMPOWERS us to have a good life and great relationships. Boundaries help us realize our freedom again, the freedom to choose how we respond, choose where our limits are. Love can only exist where responsibility and freedom are operating.” So do it for love, the best reason to ever do anything.
Sandy Edie Hansen
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