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Taking the First Step towards Personal Boundaries, Part 2

Posted Apr 30 2008 7:00pm 1 Comment

In the previous post, we spoke of the importance of developing personal boundaries. The question remains, then – how?

Recognition of Worth

The first step is recognition; it always is. This step might seem silly, absurd – but for many, an important step. Recognise first and foremost that you have a right to boundaries. Do everything you can – affirmations, meditations, or social support – to drive that point in: you have a right to be respected, to be safe, and to be treated as an equal. We have to take care of ourselves, no one else can do it for us.

As Claudia Howard put it in The Self-Esteem Workbook, we have to realise that external factors – money, looks, achievements, and age – only affect our market or social worth. It has nothing to do with our worthiness as a person – which is equal to everyone else’s, regardless of what society says, what they say.

Mother Protecting a Child

Recognition of Boundaries

With that first recognition, the second is to recognise where our boundaries have been lacking, perhaps where they have been overdeveloped.

It can be shocking to see just how widespread our lack of protection is, how insidiously common our lack of self-worth is. It extends beyond the major – remaining in an abusive relationship, for instance – and creeps into the minor, the everyday.

I remember one particular Christmas dinner when I was a teen. I was at a fancy restaurant, lining up at a buffet, feeling good in my best clothes, when someone cut right in front of me and started piling her plate. My chest slumped immediately, but I kept quiet, pretending to be above the pettiness. I told myself a real man would not kick up a fuss over something so small. And the strange thing was, perhaps someone who really was compassionate might really have brushed it off – it might genuinely mean nothing to them – but the difference is internal. Inside myself, I was hurt – was I not equal to her, not worthy to get respect from her?

A similar way a lack of boundaries shows up is in being unable to ask for what you deserve. A few years ago, when I first started my web design business, I would put all my effort into my work – and when the time came to ask for payment, I didn’t dare to! I felt I did not deserve it. Senseless and irrational when I think about it now; but it was my reality then.

A final example – this time of a strange phenomenon, one I do not know how to classify. It is simple: are you taking unhealthy responsibility for other people? When a loved one is feeling upset, yes – care for them, make them laugh, put a smile back on their face. But do we feel upset with them; do we jump into the water and drown next to them? Do we take responsibility if they refuse to smile, or blame ourselves for something that is beyond our control?

A Moment for Reflection

Take a moment now – be brutally honest with yourself. Where are your boundaries overdeveloped, where are you stepping on other people’s toes – and where are your boundaries non-existent or underdeveloped?

Here are some questions to guide your search. They are not exhaustive; please use them as a springboard for your own questioning.

  • Who am I allowing to demean me, put me down?
  • Who am I demeaning?
  • What am I giving that leaves me tired or frustrated?
  • In what way am I taking more than I should?
  • Who is taking advantage of me?
  • Who am I taking advantage of?
  • Who is hurting me – physically, emotionally, socially or otherwise?
  • Who am I hurting?
  • What do I want or deserve that I am not getting?

Remember that boundaries can come in many forms – social, physical, mental, emotional. They also extend to your possessions, time, and other resources.

A list of cognitive distortions and how to combat them is very helpful when trying to distinguish between a healthy and unhealthy boundary.

Further reading: Knowing and Mastering Your Thoughts with CBT

Bring it Out into the World

The real work comes after such preparation. When you are going about your day – can you notice when has someone crossed the line?

For many, that is all we need to begin with. It is unrealistic to expect ourselves to enforce our boundaries straight away, for such patterns are often deeply ingrained. For now, simply take notice.

Spend a few days living with the above questions in mind. Pay particular attention to situations that leave you hurt, unhappy, or simply feeling drained. At the end of each day, write down all the situations.

At the end of a week, look at your answers again – compare them to the original list you made. You’ll be surprised at how much more you have noticed, I guarantee it.

Preparing to set limits

At this point you can begin setting your limits. Learn to protest an offence – speak up and tell someone when they have hurt you, when they are taking advantage of you. Learn to say no. Learn to ask for what you want. Learn not to take unnecessary responsibility. Reduce or cut off all contact with those who put you down, or do not support you. Spend more time with those who do.

Again, it might be wise to take little steps. Jumping into the deep end, so to speak, works for some people but for many the inevitable setbacks will discourage them and often cause them to give up.

The third part of this series will give more definite guidelines and techniques, but for now a relevant post is one I wrote a few weeks ago on transcending your fears and living your life purpose. While it is geared towards work and life purpose, it is essentially a guide on beginning to take action. I highly recommend it.

I’ll give some examples on how we can begin to relate that post to our current one:

Alibis vs. Genuine limitations:

Are you giving too much, or allowing someone to take advantage of you, because you genuinely care? Or are you hiding your fear and insecurities behind a façade of altruism?

Examining the Fears that hold you back:

There are often deep, irrational fears that hold us back from even the slightest actions. Again, these can be quite shocking and irrational once exposed, but they live underneath our awareness, influencing us. If you speak up to someone who cuts you off in front of a line, are you avoiding a commotion, or is there something that you are unconsciously afraid of?

Perhaps you are scared of being humiliated? You might even irrationally believe that you will be physically attacked, and things will escalate into an accidental death. Examine these fears. Are they likely to happen? What would a more realistic consequence be? Would that really be the end of the world? If you protested an offence, and got into a shouting match – would it really be that bad?

An Emergency Plan:

If I told a cheating girlfriend that I will not stand for her behaviour anymore, a likely consequence is a break-up. Having an emergency plan for such occasions will decrease the fear, and make it more likely for me to take action.

Cost and Benefit Analysis:

What are the costs and benefits of remaining weak, or taking a risk and speaking up for yourself? Laid out on paper, with brutal honesty, you will find that the continued damage to your self-esteem and happiness far outweighs the benefits of being stepped on, if there are any.

The 5% Statement

My favourite tool by far is the 5% statement from Nathaniel Branden’s masterpiece, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.

Some examples of boundary statements:
If I was to stand up for my rights just 5% more today, I would __________.
If I was to show 5% more self-respect today, I would __________.

The Internal State

To finish off this post, my opinion on some of the questions raised at the end of the last post. The first – are some boundaries caused by fear? Definitely; it is another form of an unhealthy boundary.

A perfect example would be those who retreat for far too long after a broken relationship. Broken hearts need time to heal; it is normal to need some time alone. But some people remain unable to open their hearts for years or decades, unable to risk being close to another lover. This is a boundary, a form of protection, but that sense it is very unhealthy.

Perhaps the difference is in their state of mind. Are they retreating out of fear? To indulge in their misery? Or do they cocoon themselves, and heal, get stronger?

Outward Strength, Inward Weakness

And this answers another question – what are the differences between boundaries born from strength, and boundaries born of weakness? One man can handle the same intrusion in the same way as another; yet the results will be completely different.

Perhaps the difference lies once again in their state of mind. Someone who is strong, or perhaps no longer needs a protective shell, can still react in a way that seems passive or even weak.

A stronger example: In my martial arts and boxing days, I was friends with many skilled fighters, and we often went out drinking on the weekends. There was one time a drunken man tried to pick a fight with an ex-national champion, spitting at his feet and calling him names – and yet he remained quiet and walked away. I thought it was a sign of weakness, but now I realise it was a sign of power – self-restraint.

Perhaps a more everyday example would be helpful in distinguishing our internal attitudes: when the woman at the Christmas buffet cut me off, I remained silent out of fear. Fear of humiliation, fear of drawing attention to myself, perhaps. I tried to act magnanimous, but the perceived insult remained in my head for a long time, and my self-esteem suffered tremendously.

In the previous post, I discussed a rude tram driver who overreacted to my traffic violation. Outwardly, my actions were the same as they were when I was a teen. I remained quiet, not willing to make a fuss over something small. But this time, my self-esteem and my happiness were completely unaffected.

Someone who no longer needs their defences can still say no. They can still refuse requests, walk away from a difficult person, or call the police on a violent drunk. However, their actions are fuelled by wisdom, practicality, or perhaps courage. Not fear, not weakness, not sadness.

This ultimately returns to same question raised at the start of the series: when do we raise our defences?

And the answer is simple: when we will be hurt.

Comments (1)
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Albert, I always admire the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of your posts, and the fact that you don't reduce things like setting personal boundaries to generic truisms. Your suggestions are all very helpful--I especially like the idea of engaging in reflection that takes into account not just where you aren't being respected but also the places where you aren't respecting yourself or other people. I think that oftentimes, the world mirrors to us how we treat ourselves and others, so rather than reducing the issue of setting personal boundaries to one of being constantly victimized by others, it's a good idea to get beyond yourself and also note how you might be overstepping others' boundaries too.
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