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Clarifying Boundaries

Are Your Boundaries Working?

The term boundary gets tossed about quite a bit these days, with many believing that a boundary is meant to help us keep others out of our business, or to make them behave in certain ways. It’s as if we believe that the term has some kind of magical power, in that if I put my boundary up, you will do what my boundary requires.

But boundaries are not meant to keep others out as much as they are meant to keep us in. That is true because when others are violating our space in some kind of way, it also means that we have not been able to define where they stop and we begin in some kind of way. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule. But for the most part the whole point of having boundaries is so that we can contain ourselves within the parameters of where I stop and others begin.

Many of us do not know where we stop. And we do not know where others begin. We think that others can make us mad. We believe that others can make us do things. We think that others can make us think, feel and believe things. But others do not have that power. What is actually happening when I think that another has made me do something is that I have agreed to do that something to please them, to bow to my fear of them, to appease my guilt feelings or even to survive. I have chosen to do that something because I thought I needed to do that something. An appropriate boundary then, would be to recognize my own power to choose and to choose according to my own authenticity.

I could also have chosen not to do that something, or to do it partially, or to do it later. I have the power to choose what I will do. And I have the power to recognize, assimilate, confront, differentiate and integrate my own thoughts, feelings and beliefs. No one else has that power. An appropriate boundary then, would be to recognize and begin to utilize my own power to do those things.

It is true that I can lay down a boundary for others as well, but it will generally involve a behavior change for me first. So for instance, suppose the issue has to do with the number of phone calls I receive from you each day. You may call me several times a day, and I’ve previously felt obligated to answer every time you call. But I’ve complained to myself about this long enough now, so I want to do something about it. I can start letting your calls go to voicemail. Or I can simply tell you that I’m going to have to cut down on the number of times I talk to you each day.

The problem with boundaries is that we tend to think that if I’ve told you that I can’t talk to you that many times a day, you are supposed to do what I want and stop calling so many times a day. If you do not do that, I feel stuck, perhaps even obligated to going back to receiving your calls. Then I might say that boundaries don’t work. The truth, however, is that the boundary was meant to activate my behavior first. I told you that I was going to have to cut down on the number of times I talk to you each day. Now I have to do what I said I was going to. What you do is what you do. But my boundary was meant to activate and motivate MY behavior. Perhaps after not being able to talk to me several times a day, you will develop a new habit and stop calling me several times a day. But until then, it is still MY job to take care of me, by doing what I said I was going to do.

Boundaries are meant to contain us within the reality that we are 100% responsible for our own lives. They are not meant to force others into compliance with our wishes.

More from Andrea Mathews LPC, NCC
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