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Setting Boundaries: Clearing a Space for Healing and Personal Growth

Written by Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC

Do you frequently imagine that other people are the problem? If you do, you may need to become more centered in your own life and in your own process in order to find joy. While working on inpatient psychiatric and addiction units, I began to notice how many of our Patients alluded to problems ’caused by’ others. When I went into private practice, I was even more aware of how often the session focused on someone who was not in the room and yet whose behaviors were having a tremendous impact on my Client. Here are some examples:

  • I’m here because my husband is having an affair.
  • The professors at my college don’t like me and give me bad grades.
  • My son is on drugs, and we can’t stop him. He is destroying our family.
  • My children never come to see me. I’m all alone.
  • If you had my family, you’d drink, too.
  • No one appreciates me.
  • My teenager constantly insults me.
  • My boyfriend frequently acts as though he doesn’t care.
  • My mother belittles me and destroys my confidence and self-esteem.
  • My best friend calls me at 2:00 AM when she knows I have to get up at 7:00 for work.
  • My boss is abusive, and my colleagues screw up all our group projects.
  • My father abandoned me when I was a child, and now he expects me to take care of him.

These statements and others like them indicate to a therapist that a Client may have given up her power, her effectiveness as an individual, to someone else. People who make statements like these may often spend the majority of their time feeling victimized by others. They may spend a lot of time trying to get another person or persons to act in a certain way or not to act in a certain way. In other words, they cease living satisfying lives as their energy goes into manipulating others.

This is not a good idea for two reasons:
1) YOU CANNOT CHANGE ANOTHER PERSON. There are very few things that I will say unequivocally, and this is one of them. YOU CANNOT CHANGE ANOTHER PERSON. If you will think how hard it is for you to change when you really want to change – to start dieting, for example, or to stop smoking or drinking – you will quickly realize how impossible it is for you to change others.
2) While you are “working on” another person, trying to change them, your own life is going by un-lived.

Manipulating others is an exercise in futility. It is insidiously frustrating because, at random times, other people appear to do or be what the manipulator wants. This strengthens the manipulator’s illusion of control. Then, when the person that the manipulator seeks to control reverts to a more normal state (i.e. they go back to being themselves), the manipulator may feel defeated and worthless.

Keeping in mind that we cannot change someone else, what options are available to us to keep the behaviors of other people from having a negative impact on our lives? The answer may be twofold.

A primary task in therapy is centering in one’s own life. The most important person in your life is you. No matter how much you are involved with your mother, brother, lover, boss, or wife, you must take very good care of yourself. Look at it this way – if anything happens to you, you will not be very helpful to those you wish to support. Motherhood is difficult for this reason. We have to love and teach our children, but there is a fine line between conscientious child care and the destructive abandonment of one’s own health.

There are times when we have to be available to young children, but there should be planned times for a Yoga class or an hour with friends. The most beautiful gift that a parent can give a child is a happy, healthy parent. This frees the child to engage in her own process.

A second task is the establishment of boundaries. Boundaries are dividing lines, internal or external, that mark the limits of something. In a psychological context, boundaries mark the limit between behaviors that we will accept in other people and those that we will not. Boundaries keep other people from having a negative effect on our lives. Equally importantly, they keep us from invading the personal ‘space’ of other people and from inappropriate involvement in their lives.

Some examples of boundaries are:

  • I will not remain married to an unfaithful spouse.
  • I avoid abusive relationships – both intimate relationships and friendships.
  • If you are on drugs, you cannot live in my home.
  • I do not spend time with toxic or destructive people.
  • There are topics that I don’t feel comfortable discussing with casual acquaintances.
  • Please do not phone my home after 9 PM.
  • I do not date people that I work with.
  • I honor my Mother because she gave birth to me, but she is too destructive to be with. I just send her cards and emails.

It is easier to establish boundaries with colleagues and acquaintances than it is with family members and close friends. Some of my Clients harbor beliefs that they have to accept anything family members say or do. This can be unhealthful. Many people carry wounds inflicted by members of their family of origin that prevent them from fulfilling their life’s purposes and from finding their joy.

A good test for boundaries is the way that other people make you feel. If someone makes you feel bad about yourself – insufficient, unloved, used or abused, unworthy, unsure of yourself, or unattractive – you might be emotionally harmed by that person. It might be time to set and enforce boundaries.

It is also a truth that people who are unkind to others are usually acting that way because they don’t like themselves very much. Criticizing or belittling someone else helps them avoid looking at their own issues. It is important to understand that and not allow them to affect you. Just understand that their unkindness is not about you, and “let them go by”. I will blog about that later.

A book about boundaries that I like very much is:

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Cloud and Townsend. You can get it online or order it in bookstores.

If you think that boundary issues are affecting the quality of your life or if you have questions about boundaries, please come and talk to one of us.

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