I have always had a hard time with boundaries. For whatever reason, it’s hard for me to ask for what I need, and it’s hard for me to say no.
I’m pretty good with people who are like me, gentle people who are always thinking (probably too much) about other people’s needs and priorities. It’s the strong personalities who bulldoze boundaries and get angry when you “try” to say no that make me want to curl into a ball and hide.
I love the community and conversations that sprout up on my Facebook page, and the other day someone recommended the book Boundaries by Dr.Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
Seriously, it is one of the best books I have ever read (note that Cloud and Townsend are psychologists with a Christian perspective that informs many aspects of their writing).
Here are some highlights and short quotes:
Those of us who try to please others and meet their needs (while ignoring our own) often think that this will somehow make our lives better and safer, that people will love us more. How frustrating, then, that it doesn’t actually work this way. When our efforts to be excessively agreeable and accommodating backfire, we are often left feeling resentful and generally disappointed with life.
2) “Part of taking responsibility, or ownership, is knowing what is our job and what isn’t. Workers who continually take on duties that aren’t theirs will eventually burn out.”
Over the years I’ve worked significantly on my codependent tendencies, such as excessive care-taking and taking on responsibilities that aren’t mine. Notice when you feel motivated to “help” or “rescue”, whether you’ve been asked to or not. Is it really your job? Would looking after them mean you wouldn’t have time or energy to properly look after your own needs? Is it something that the other adult can and should really be doing for themselves?
3) “Compliant people have fuzzy and indistinct boundaries; they ‘melt’ into the demands and needs of other people. They can’t stand alone, distinct from people who want something from them…they minimize their differences with others so as not to rock the boat.”
When I work with coaching clients who have this challenge, I work hard to get them to reconnect with themselves. Sometimes when I ask “but what do YOU want?” they initially have no idea. They’ve been so other-focused, so chameleon-like, for so long. If you notice this pattern in yourself, make a point of regularly asking yourself what you’d really like, in spite of others preferences. Maybe you want to go to a different restaurant this time, or to a movie you’d actually like to see (instead of just going along with the crowd). Notice your initial genuine reaction to a circumstance, and resist the urge to squelch your opinion or preference.
4) “An important thing to remember about boundaries is that they exist, and they will affect us, whether or not we communicate them…If our boundaries are not communicated or exposed directly, they will be communicated indirectly or through manipulation.”
This section of the book was the biggest “a-ha” moment for me. When we don’t verbalize our boundaries – and I can have a really hard time doing so – we live in the illusion that our silence has solved the problem. We feel that avoiding conflict or people-pleasing is a superior choice to having our own needs honoured. I love that it’s not that simple, that we can’t actually get away with this behavior.
Your boundaries and needs don’t actually go away. In fact, if you avoid expressing them when you should, it is guaranteed to cause problems. The ostrich who sticks his head in the ground and keeps it there will eventually get run over by a bus.
Though it feels like we’re avoiding unpleasant consequences by bending to the needs of others, things are sure to get worse, not better, in our relationships, life and even health if we don’t learn to live within our own boundaries.
If you can see yourself here, and really struggle to stand up for yourself, maybe this point will really help you do things differently, as it has for me. Better to find the courage to speak up and be a little uncomfortable now, than to have it really blow up in your face later. Because it will.
It’s hard to stand up to a bully, or someone who is used to you doing everything they want you to. They will probably get mad at you, but they’ll get over it. And oh what a relief it is when you can finally say how you really feel, instead of secretly burning with resentment.
The next time someone asks you for a favor, notice what your initial reaction is to it. Do you groan inwardly because you’d been looking forward to finally relaxing this weekend, but then suppress it and paste a smile on your face and say yes? Stop that.
It’s so hard, I know. Even just writing that last paragraph I could feel that saying no, because you already have other plans, might seem “selfish”. Aren’t we supposed to be kind and help others? I always reassure my boundary-challenged clients that selfishness isn’t their problem, and probably never will be. Quite the opposite, in fact. So don’t even go there, even though you will want to. Your definition of “selfish” has probably gotten you into this situation in the first place. Looking after your basic needs for rest and relaxation isn’t selfish, it’s necessary.
Another article about boundaries that you might find helpful: