Cathryn's Articles for Stepmom Issues and Relationships

Boundaries for Nice People- Part 1: What's going on?
Boundaries for Nice People: Part One-Observe and consider what’s happening.

By Cathryn Bond Doyle.

If you’re a nice person, there’s a good chance that you occasionally say “yes” when you mean “no” and that you keep quiet when you really want to speak up. You probably do this “for the sake of the relationship” even though it isn’t always in your best interest. This two-part article is intended to help you recognize where your boundaries may be weak and then to give you specific ideas for strengthening personal boundaries. By recognizing our feelings and behavior, WE can change and therefore minimize the negative impact others have on us. Next, we’ll focus on some of the reasons we’ve allowed our boundaries to be violated. We’ll also review some new ideas for setting clear boundaries to create the safety and the respect you deserve.

Anne Katherine has written 2 wonderful books on boundaries and I highly recommend them both. The first book is entitled “Where to draw the line.” On page 14 of this insight-packed book, the author defines boundaries as follows:

“A boundary is a limit. By the limit you set, you protect the integrity of your day, your energy and spirit, the health of your relationships, the pursuit of your heart. Each day is shaped by your choices. When you violate your own boundaries or let another violate them, stuffing spills out of your life.”

Many of us grew up with the “Golden Rule” and various sets of manners. Many of us were taught that we prove we love another by giving in, giving away, giving up or just plain giving of ourselves. At some point, we make decisions “to care or not to care” about being nice to others. Most of us have several sets of rules and resulting boundaries based on the level of intimacy we share with people. Whether acquaintances, friends, business associates, family, lovers, kids or complete strangers it’s common to have varying beliefs about what we will (and won’t) tolerate and how we’ll behave with others.

Many “nice” people do far more than their share in maintaining a relationship. “Nice people” are very good at caring for others and honoring the boundaries of others but are often not as skilled at setting and upholding their own. Setting boundaries is a skill…a skill that few of us learned growing up…a skill that we can begin to learn about and put into practice, this very moment.

Stress occurs when there’s a conflict between honoring a personal boundary and following all the guidelines of “niceness.” In an attempt to resolve this inner conflict, we may lower or lose our personal boundaries often at the expense of our own well-being. We do this trying to be “nice” and/or out of the fear that upholding our own boundary will threaten the relationship in some way.

Whether this happens with a complete stranger or the love of our life, when our personal boundaries are not honored it feels terrible. It’s a sick feeling or an angry feeling or a powerless, raging feeling and yet we do it anyway. Why is that? Why do we allow our boundaries to be violated? Why don’t we stand up for ourselves? How come we can be a powerhouse at work but crumble at home or vice versa? Why does the one we love get angry when we set a boundary to care for ourselves? And why are we afraid of our loved one’s anger? Why do we make avoiding the possibility of a negative reaction from another more important than standing up for our own self-respect and emotional safety?

Situations calling for stronger boundaries.

Paying attention to our feelings is a great way to discover when our boundaries may be weak or in need of our attention. Discomfort is a warning sign. Do any of the following sound familiar?

1. The sickening feelings, jolts of anxiety or fear that shoots through us are signals that our boundaries may be in jeopardy.

2.Overlooking someone’s behavior HOPING it will change.

3. Making mental excuses, or accepting verbal ones from another, without speaking up or asking for a change or amends in behavior.

4. Doing nothing to stand up for our boundaries “in the name of being polite or nice” when someone is rude to us.

5. Wasting time mentally practicing and preparing what to say to the recipient of our thoughts, in hopes we can come up with a version they will accept without getting angry, calling us “ridiculous” or withdrawing from the relationship in some way.

6. Experiencing that pathetic childlike feeling that comes over us when we repeatedly explain and re-explain our position with the hopes that if we keep talking, somehow the person we’re speaking to will see the sense of our viewpoint and “grant” us their blessing or permission.

7. Feeling hurt or taken advantage of after we open up or let down our boundaries in an attempt to show someone they could trust us.

Why do we allow our boundaries to be violated?

In a word, FEAR:

1. Fear someone will not like us.
2. Fear we’ll be punished in some way.
3. Fear we’re doing something we don’t have a right to do.
4. Fear we’ll be judged as selfish or mean.
5. Fear we’ll feel guilty.
6. Fear that if we don’t do as another wants, the relationship is at risk.

Boundaries or Blockages?

As we begin to set personal boundaries, we need new models for success and the courage to honor our own boundaries in spite of any imagined, implied or actual consequences. This is surely easier said than done, particularly since we’re often talking about standing up to friends and loved ones. If we do not consciously set healthy boundaries, we’ll most certainly create blockages in order to survive. Blockages, like an invisible solid oak door, do indeed shut out the undesirable behaviors, the problem is that “blockages” also shut down the love and caring between people. Boundaries, on the other hand, act like an invisible screen door, allowing the love to flow while still screening out the behaviors that are not acceptable or healthy for us.

The Kitten Story-Nature's instinctive healthy boundary setting example

Kittens provide us with a wonderful example of healthy “boundary setting.” In the first few weeks of life, kittens are learning about interacting with each other. Any time one kitten bites another too hard, the bitten kitten will immediately cry out and the biting kitten will immediately back off. The biting kitten now knows the boundary for safe play and the bitten kitten can relax, trusting that the biting kitten will honor this boundary and not hurt her again. They can play together because both of them honor the same rules. All is well. As they grow, their strength will increase and there will be more bites and cries, once again followed by immediate withdrawal by the biter and immediate forgiveness by the bitten one. This process is instinctual and works beautifully.

Because of the immediate and ever changing boundaries they continue to set with each other, they’re able to remain close and enjoy their contact. The bitten kitten is not angry at the biting kitten. The biting kitten doesn’t get upset and go away angry that the bitten kitten cried out in pain. Somehow they both know that the biting and the crying give them a quick and clear way to learn and set boundaries so they can play together in mutual safety and respect.

Ideally our relationships would include a similar process for setting boundaries:

1. The freedom to “cry out” when we feel pain.

2. The mutual commitment to back off immediately when hearing the cry.

3. The overarching goal to create safety in the relationship by seeking and then honoring each other’s personal boundaries.

Imagine how wonderful it would be to have the same freedom in our human relationships?

With a foundation like this, a relationship wouldn’t have to be perfect. We could be open and honest about our feelings and still remain “connected” to the one we love. Spontaneity could flourish without the fear of making a mistake or the concern that expressing our true thoughts or feelings would lead to an argument. If we’re not experiencing this level of freedom in any of our relationships, what can we do differently? We can begin to observe our behavior and how WE are contributing to weak or lacking boundaries. Powerful change begins by recognizing and acknowledging what we’re doing, forgiving (not judging) ourselves and then looking to the future. If we are willing to try a new approach or two or three, we’ll find something that’s effective.

Are your boundaries balanced?

This is a metaphor that has helped me gage my own boundary progress. First, imagine that every relationship is divided by a river and joined by a bridge. We each have our own side of the riverbank that we call our own. When we want to interact with another, we go to the bridge that we share. Ideally, most of our interactions will take place on the bridge, recognizing that an occasional trip to the other side occurs as needed and reciprocally. However, when our boundaries are unclear or not honored, we may find that rather than staying on our side of the river or meeting at the crest of the bridge, we’re spending more time on the other side of the river. Do we spend time on the other side seeking out the other person, hoping they’ll respond to us positively and/or approve of our actions? We may find we’re spending too much time and attention on the other person...time and attention that could be directed at ourselves.

Why would we do this?

Maybe we fear that if we don’t cross over the bridge, the other person may not seek us out. Maybe we’re anxious being alone on our side of the river? Maybe we feel that someone else should make the first move so we stay on our side and wait. Anxiety drives us to do things we wouldn’t do otherwise. Maybe running around on the other side of the bridge distracts and numbs our anxiety or fear. Numb feels better in the short term.

The next time you feel that “boundary discomfort,” check in and see where you on the riverbank and bridge of your relationship. Are you on the bridge, willing to meet the other half way? Are you running all over the riverbank on the other side of the bridge? Have you neglected your side of the riverbank…for the good of the relationship? Are you hiding on your side on the river? How would it feel to make the effort to go to the crest of the bridge and then wait there, confident that you’re holding up your end of any situation, refusing to make any more effort and willing to meet the other if they choose to join you?

Living with clear and strong boundaries

People in our world will react to our boundaries in many ways. Our healthy relationships will all encourage this growth and will be allies during this time of change. Some people in our lives will be threatened, other’s forced into taking more responsibility for their own lives and some will try to get us to return to our old ways. A friend of mine once told me that our “No” makes our “Yes” much more powerful. As we begin to take better care of ourselves and take charge of setting and honoring our own boundaries, good things begin to happen at many levels. We begin to feel better about ourselves. This increase in self-esteem and self-respect is palpable to others.

We begin to feel like wonderful, valuable, caring human beings. Healthy boundaries are something you too can learn to set and maintain. Getting started may feel a bit overwhelming so start with the small things, trust your gut and your intuition. You can do it! Be creative and courageous.

Review of Part Two-Specific ways to strengthen boundaries.

Part Two is filled with suggestions and examples of how to create strong and effective personal boundaries. In the meantime, begin to pay attention to your feelings. Look for patterns and circumstances that trigger discomfort. Get a copy of Anne Katherine’s book “Where to draw the line!” as it is filled with dozens of detailed and practical ways to react to specific situations. As you begin to say things like “This is what I need,” “This is my decision,” “You and I see it differently and I expect you to respect my choice,” and “This is not OK with me,” you are going to feel increasingly better about yourself.

©2001 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All rights reserved.
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