In the last post
we talked about where to set boundaries. We outlined several guidelines such as that the person who is the most affected by a decision usually should have the most say. It is possible to generalise from situations and come up with a whole host of guidelines like that one. While that is useful, I think it's time to start looking at the ideas behind where we set our boundaries.
If, for a moment, we accept the definition of boundaries as "where your rights begin and mine end", then where we set our boundaries hinges on what we consider to be our rights and what we consider to be the rights of others. For people who grew up in dysfunctional homes, this is often the first hurdle to overcome -- what they were taught about their own and other people's rights is completely off kilter.
Take the smoker in the previous post for instance. If he seriously believes it is his right to stink down another person's car and inflict his second hand smoke on the owner of the car, he has been taught those values somewhere, usually as a child. For instance he may have been raised in a family where adult males were allowed to do whatever they liked, no matter how much suffering it caused others. Sadly, this is not unusual. Not to play favourites here, it's also not unusual with families were adult females are allowed to relentlessly criticise everyone in sight and the only recourse other family members are allowed is to hide from the dragon if they can give a reason to hide that doesn't mention the verbal abuse. Either of these homes will cause the children who grew up in them to have very strange ideas about boundaries.
For people who grew up in dysfunctional homes, the first hurdle in setting boundaries is to even entertain a view of their own and other people's right and responsibilites that is closer to the consensus. Usually the problems can be summed up as a lack of reciprocity and equality. In our example of the passenger who wanted to smoke, if the driver and codriver see each other as equal, clearly the owner of the car is going to win out. If however the smoker sees himself as more important than everybody else, he will get into a snit when asked not to smoke. Inequality breeds unreciprocity and vice versa.
Some other examples of a lack of equality and reciprocity:
- an adult child is guilted into visiting her mother's filthy and stinking house and made fun of when there
- an aging mother uses her pension to bail her adult son out of one crisis after the other but the son never pays her back or even tries to get into a position where he would stop needing her money
- your partner expects you to pick up after her but never does anything around the house herself
Equality in this context means that our needs and feelings are considered equally important and that our rights and responsibilities are set according to our abilities.
As an aside, equality and reciprocity is something we should be able to expect from all our relationships but there are some environments where the chances of it actually happening are slim to none. The military and hospitals are just two of the more obvious examples of strictly hiearchical environments where might equals right. Sadly many other workplaces are also less than ideal in this respect. People who grew up in dysfunctional homes tend to not do very well in such environments. Their best bet is usually to get out of there and into an environment that is better able to support their recovery.
Knowing that your ideas about boundaries are screwy is a good first step. The next step is to unlearn the bad wisdom learnt in childhood. One useful tool to achieve that is to reinterpret childhood experiences in light of knowledge of childhood development. This can be done on your own but is better done in a safe and supportive environment such as with a counselor.
Questions to ask include:
- Where the expectations placed on you realistic for your age and situation?
- Where the reactions to your successes and failures in proportion to what actually happened?
- What did you learn from this event at the time and does it mesh with your current, adult values?
- Imagine that the same thing happened in a healthy family -- how would it play out?
Another tool that has helped many are lists of personal rights
that address the bad wisdom that children in dysfunctional families are often taught. Repeating individual rights that resonate with you such as "I have a right to expect honesty from others." as an affirmation or mantra is one way of using these lists that works for a lot of people.
Any methods that build a sense of self can also be useful. Among them are yoga, mindfulness meditation, credit lists, role play and self-esteem work. The idea here is to find out where your body, personal space and head space begin and end.