apel: (anger)
This post consists of a long list of sound boundaries. The purpose of the list is to get you to think about possible boundaries for yourself. You can pick up one boundary at a time and imagine what your life would be like if this boundary was yours. Would it feel comfortable? Would you feel guilty? Might it be liberating? Or perhaps isolating? See it as a smorgasbord where you can sample the boundaries that appeal to you. There may be equally healthy alternatives to these boundaries, sometimes they contradict each other and there are scores of other possible boundaries that haven't even been addressed. But it's something to use as a starting point.
long list of boundaries )
It would be interesting to hear what boundaries others have set in the issues raised and also other boundaries that might be added to these. While the list will never be complete, it could certainly be more complete than now.
apel: (Default)
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.
apel: (Default)
In order to follow a serene lifestyle we need to set boundaries and enforce them appropriately in our social context. This post is looking at where to set those boundaries.

Going back to our earlier definition of boundaries as "where your rights being and mine end", it seems obvious that your boundaries should be placed around the things that belong to you: your body, your stuff, your home, your thoughts, your beliefs, your feelings etc. If your boundaries intersect with somebody elses, there is going to be conflict. That's a reason for not setting your boundaries too far out. If your boundaries don't allow others to walk on the side walk in front of your house, you are going to get into endless arguments without any hope of any final decision in your favour. It's just going to be a constant drain on your energy for no good cause.

On the other hand, sometimes it's unavoidable that your boundaries will intersect with those of others, for instance if you live together with other people. In those cases there will be conflict, that's inevitable. Two or more people will always have different opinions about everything from what way to put the loo roll to the level of tidyness required to have visitors. What isn't inevitable is that these disagreements turn into shouting matches or that one person always "loses". Your boundaries can play a very important role in solving conflicts.

What was said about not setting our boundaries too far out, also applies to less physical boundaries, such as our example with the bride and the veil. In fact we can generate a rule of thumb there: your boundaries should only concern things that directly affect you. Clearly what the bride wears doesn't directly affect the future mother-in-law so for her to have boundaries around it is only going to cause unnecessary grief and drama. Another useful guideline following from our bridal veil example is that the person who is the strongest and most directly affected, gets to make more of the decisions. However who is the strongest and most directly affected isn't always black-and-white. Let's have another example to illustrate that.

Say that on a rainy day, two people are travelling somewhere by car. One of them wants to smoke. Simply looking at the situation of a person smoking in a confined space with another person present may lead us to say that clearly the smoker is the person most affected by their smoking, so they should get to decide. However second hand smoke is very unpleasant and has been shown to have detrimental health effects. So the situation isn't all that clearcut.

If we introduce the variable of who owns the car, the situation changes. Say that the owner of the car is a non-smoker and that she never allows smoking in her car. I would say that that closes the case, there won't be any smoking in her car. But she wants to maintain a positive relationship with her codriver so she suggests that they stop at the next service station so that her codriver can have a smoke and she can buy a soda for herself. What the driver is doing here, is offering up a compromise that would satisfy the needs of both her and the other person. If all the codriver really wants is to have a smoke, he will agree to her suggestion and maybe even offer to buy her soda, thereby returning the gesture of good faith. If however the codriver has gotten into a snit about not being allowed to smoke in the driver's car, he may well rebuff the offer and give her the silent treatment for the duration of the trip.

Considering that the car belongs to the driver, she is well within her rights to enforce a no-smoking policy. The smoke would not only affect her badly but also remain in the car for weeks. Clearly the codriver is in the wrong if he thinks it's his right to smoke in somebody else's car against their wishes. Pretending that the driver has insulted him by not allowing him to smoke in her car, is controlling behaviour. From the preceding we can draw the conclusion that if a compromise is offered that would satisfy the needs of all parties and it is rebuffed by one of them, the object for that person is no longer to fulfill their needs but to assert their dominance - to control.

In this situation the driver has several choices, depending on where her boundaries are as regards to the behaviour of people in her car. For instance I knew a woman who ground her teeth and drove more than a hundred miles while the person who she was giving a lift to was accusing her of one horrible deed after another. I would have told the shouting person that she could choose to shut her mouth or be set off at the next service station. If she wouldn't do that, I would enforce my boundaries. There's another important guideline: never make threats unless you are fully prepared to follow through on them. If you do make threats without following through, people will soon learn to take advantage of it. It's also not good for the ol' integrity. On the other hand I would accept getting the silent treatment and just turn up the car radio because I'm pretty impervious to it. In the following exercise you get to decide what you would do.

Exercise: Imagine that you're in the situation as described above and play out different scenarios in your head. Where would you set your boundaries, depending on the other person's behaviour? Would that change if the codriver had another type of relationship with you? Lover, friend, family, stranger, supervisor, intern? Carefully note how you feel depending on where you set your boundaries and how you enforce them. Keep in mind that this is all in your head (or possibly your journal), the people who you cast as the smoker in this scenario aren't harmed in any way by your thoughts.
apel: (Default)
Before we go on to more examples, let's back up and get our theory straight.

The things we can do with boundaries are:

  • set them

  • enforce them

  • violate them

When setting boundaries, we can set them in a place that is appropriate for us, too far out or too close to us. How we enforce our boundaries can be consistent with where we've set them or we can over-enforce or under-enforce. Here's a table that shows the options we have and some likely consequences.
  Boundary Setting
Enforcing Too Close Appropriate Too Far Out

Few boundary violations but will still feel like a victim.

Allows enmeshment.

Care-taking behaviour.
Inconsistencies are crazy-making to self and others.

Doormat behaviour.

May feel like a victim.
More likely to have boundaries violated needlessly,
drama queen.

All the problems of boundaries set too far in.

  Allows emotional intimacy.

Doesn't allow people to take advantage.

Allows others to live their own lives.

Detaching with love.

Inconsistencies are crazy-making to self and others. Perceived as strident and over-zealous. Over-zealous, criminal behaviour, bully

This seems like a good place to point out that trying to be perfect when it comes to boundary setting and enforcing is counterproductive. I've seen people who thought they had to be perfect take years before they got the hang of their own boundaries whereas those who allow themselves to make mistakes usually only take a couple of months before they're comfortable with the basics. It's expected that you're all over the table when you first start to become aware of your boundaries and to set and enforce them consciously.
apel: (Default)
A lot of people are not great at knowing when their boundaries are being violated and/or when they violate other people's boundaries. Some signs to watch out for:

  • defensive posture -- hunched up shoulders, protecting the stomach, headaches

  • anger -- lashing out or wanting to lash out

  • boredom and numbness -- yawning, looking at feet or ceiling, not knowing what you feel

  • helplessness and confusion -- confused looks, upset stomach

  • resentfulness and obsession -- continuing arguments in our heads, fantasizing about getting even

Any of these may mean that somebody's boundaries are being violated. They could also be a sign of something else, such as eating something that doesn't agree with you. :-)

So far we've talked about boundaries in pretty abstract ways. But one thing that people who are new to the concept keep wondering about is what boundaries are "normal". There isn't really one answer to that but the general principle is that if something doesn't harm any person or community, then it's OK to do that and it should fall outside your boundaries. This is going to be a lot clearer after some examples.

Let's start with a pretty clear-cut example: One day when you come home after work, you find your landlord sitting on your couch, waiting for you. This is a clear violation of your right to privacy in your home and most country's laws do not allow it. In this situation you are entitled to get mad at your landlord and yell at him to get out. If they don't leave, it's time to call the police. You're not entitled to assault them. That's another principle of boundary violation: two wrongs don't make one right, i.e. when one person violates your boundaries, that doesn't necessarily entitle you to violate their boundaries.

Most countries have strict laws for how and when you are entitled to defend yourself and your property by force. While those laws are meant to ensure that we live in a civilized society without vendettas, in places with ineffective police forces they cause a lot of problems. A famous example is the elderly English man who was sent to prison for shooting at a burglar in his house. He lived alone in a remote and isolated farmhouse and had been burgled repeatedly. He had tried relying on the police but they had failed to prevent further burglaries. It's hard to fault him for wanting to enforce his boundaries with violence when his community failed him so miserably, particularly since the people who had repeatedly burgled him were aware that he had threatened to shoot the next burglar he found in his house.

So there we have another principle: the law of the land and your personal sense of boundaries may not always agree. In those cases, you get to decide whether to follow your own values and take the consequences, or to follow the law and live with the inconsistency. This brings us to another useful concept: core values. A core value is a value that you will not act against for love nor money. One example would be a woman who finds the patriarchal notions behind the traditional bridal veil so repugnant that she refuses to wear a veil at her wedding even when her future mother-in-law has a tantrum about it. For this hypothetical woman her feminist ideas about freedom of choice are a core value. She may find it unfortunate that her future mother-in-law can't deal with it but she would feel much worse if she would to wear the veil than if her future mother-in-law never spoke to her again. She is standing up for her core values.

In the example with the veil, the future mother-in-law is being controlling, i.e. she is over-reaching her own boundaries. Whether the bride wears a veil or not doesn't actually harm the mother-in-law or affect the wedding negatively in any real way, so the mother-in-law has no legitimate right to try and force the bride to wear it.

More examples in the next installment.
apel: (fluffy)
Thinking and believing come pretty close to each other, and in fact there are lots of people and organisations that will tell you what to think as well as believe. There's a whole industry devoted to it, advertising. But in interpersonal interactions there are also lots of opportunities to tell somebody what they should think. I personally think that one of the hallmarks of a person in recovery is that they don't tell others what to think, believe or do.

Because the boundaries in "head space" aren't as obvious as the ones in "meat space" a lot of people think it's perfectly acceptable to engage in virtual mind wars. This seems like a good place to introduce the concept of controling. People who are controling try to control other people by, you guessed it, telling them what to think, believe and do. Nobody likes controlling people and the reason is that they violate other people's boundaries habitually. Some people are so controlling that they have a hard time saying more than a sentence or two that isn't controlling in one way or another. A lot of the time controlling people will mix their opinions about what you should and shouldn't do with criticism of what you have done, intend to do or had intended to do twenty years ago.

Controlling people get intensely uncomfortable when other people don't do as they told them. They often show their discomfort through self-destructive or other-destructive acts: lashing out at people, staying up all night and binging on sweet foods, driving recklessly, destroying property of the person who disobeyed them etc. Controlling people may or may not try to use physical force to control others. They may yell, hit and threaten the people they are trying to control. They may also use passive-aggressive tactics such as acting like a martyr, the silent treatment or overspending of communal resources. Some controlling people only use offensive enforcing methods, some only the passive-aggressive ones and others use both.

It is very common for controlling people to only try to control some of the people in their environment while letting themselves be controlled by others. Some controlling people also only try to control others in certain context such as in situations where they themselves feel judged or other types of high-stress situations.

Depending on how vested a person is in their controlling lifestyle it may or may not be possible to get them to stop controlling you but it requires a very secure sense of your own boundaries. With some people it's just not possible. They will always see it as their right to tell you what to do and to criticise you for anything up to and including the way you breathe. It is your right to not have anything to do with such people.

I'm going to talk about how to know when your boundaries are being violated and what to do about it in later posts.
apel: (Default)
Let's move on to more subtle boundaries. We have boundaries for how we let other people influence what we think, believe and do. We'll start with the "doing" first.

In some situations, other people get to tell us what to do. If we work, for instance, we have supervisors who tell us what to do and often also how to do it, when to do it and how to dress while we're doing it. If our boundaries are set so that we get upset when this happens, we're always going to get into trouble at work. On the other hand, there are plenty of situations in which people may try to tell us what to do but it's in our own best interest to keep our own counsel. One example is a situation that repeats itself with some frequency in communities like LJ: somebody talks about a problem they have with another person and several other members of the community encourage this person to do something drastic such as sue, quit their job or end a relationship when there are clearly much more appropriate options available.

Again we have different boundaries for different people. It's very important to keep those clear in our heads, or we may cause ourselves and others lots of problems. It's also important to keep in mind that we may need to apply different sets of boundaries to the same person in different settings. So while a supervisor can tell us what to do in the workplace, if we meet them in the supermarket and they tell us to buy rutabagas we're entitled to tell them to take a hike.

Moving on to what we believe, I can't come up with any situation in which I would allow another to dictate to me what I believe. But I know for a fact that there are lots of people who think they have the right to tell me what to believe and also people who think they are obligated to believe what some people tell them. The most obvious examples are missionaries who will tell others that their spiritual belifes are wrong and that the missionaries have the only true belief. Religion aside, we can find similar attitudes in other areas of human interaction. There's the used car sales person who takes it personally when you don't believe their porkers. There's the confidence artist who pretends to be hurt when you aren't taken in by their spiel. And there's the alcoholic who stomps off in anger when you don't believe that they haven't drunk today.
apel: (Default)
Now we've talked a bit about boundaries as they apply to our bodies so let's move toward more esoteric boundaries.

Still staying in the physical realm, we have territorial boundaries. It's often been said that "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins" but if we look at that statement critically, it doesn't hold up. Most people would feel that their boundaries had been violated even if the fist stopped inches away from their nose. We all have what we consider our personal space, the air around our bodies. It's always brought up when discussing different cultures how Nordic people get uncomfortable if you're less than 3 feet away whereas somebody from South America may feel that you're stand-offish if you're as far as 3 feet away. There are also personal differences and, as discussed before, we apply different rules to different people. We're also frequently in situations where we can't enforce our personal space boundaries. This is one reason why a lot of people hate public transport with such a vengeance -- pressed up against others like sardines in a can, they can't enforce their boundaries. Being unable to avoid situations where we can't enforce our boundaries is also a reason why living in densely populated areas such as cities increases the background stress levels in a lot of people.

Another type of physical boundary is the boundary we apply to our spaces. This is another boundary that is enshrined in law: breaking and entering, burglary and trespass are all violations of our territorial boundaries. It's not uncommon for people to move out of a house that has been burgled because the memory of the boundary violation makes them fearful of experiencing boundary violations of the same or other types.

Different attitudes to territorial boundaries are a frequent source of irritation in the workplace. For instance, there's the person who thinks it's OK to barge into your office and sit down on your visitors chair without as much as a hello. Then there's the person who thinks that just because they were in the office on Saturday it was OK to spill Coke all over your desk and not wipe it up after them. And then there are people who will go home for the rest of the day when they discover that somebody borrowed their stapler and put it back to the left of their pen stand instead of in front of it.

Territorial disputes in the office are a mine field. These disputes often take on the air of kindergarten conflicts. That's probably because it's at kindergarten age that we start to learn about boundaries. "Yes Hillary, you can use the crayons but only if you put them back nicely in the box and put the box back in the drawer." "No Larry, it's not OK to borrow Harry's bucket if he says you can't have it even if he isn't using it. It's Harry's bucket, not yours." Unfortunately this is often also the only time in life that we talk about boundaries as such. That means that the only languages we have for talking about boundaries is the baby talk of kindergarten or the psycho babble of self-help books. I fervently wish that boundaries were discussed more in mainstream society so that I could point at them in a mature and professional way and without sounding like I've been watching too much Oprah.

It also means that if the people we learn about boundaries from don't have a secure sense of their own boundaries, we're going to get very conflicted ideas about our own boundaries. Sometimes that's very obvious as when we're forced to submit to the dreaded bear hugs of an elderly relative and pretend we like it. Sometimes it's not so obvious as when a parent tells their children to share their things whether they want to or not.
apel: (Default)
So I've been hinting about a post about boundaries for a while. Here's something. This is very, very basic. I've found that boundaries aren't often discussed as such. Because of that people have all kinds of unexamined and self-destructive ideas about them.

Let's start by defining what personal boundaries are. The most common answer to this question is "where you begin and I end". That gives you an idea but it's pretty simplified. Another way of defining boundaries is "where your rights begin and mine end". That's a little bit better and it will do for now.

There are a whole range of personal boundaries. If we start with the most concrete, we all have physical boundaries. For instance we don't like it when strangers touch us. This brings up another point, our boundaries are set at different places for different people. You may find it wonderful when your partner thrusts her tongue in your mouth but that's not something you would allow J. Random Stranger to do. It's considered appropriate to apply different boundaries to different people and also to have them be context dependent. So while you may think that it's wonderful when your partner rips off all your clothes at home in your bedroom, you'd be less than thrilled if she did it in full view of everybody at a work-related social function.

But our boundaries are even more fine-tuned than that. They depend on our mood in that very instant. People may joke about it but "not tonight, honey, I've got a headache" is boundary setting. It's considered entirely appropriate to follow our feelings when it comes to setting boundaries, no matter how fleeting those feelings may be. That's particularly important when it comes to boundaries for our bodies. It's also considered appropriate to set boundaries with how people do something to us. "You can't touch me if you're that rough" is perfectly acceptable. Even "that doesn't turn me on, please stop it" is fine. We're never under any obligation to allow another to do with our bodies as they see fit. If we don't like it, we can always say stop. It may not always be in our best interest, for instance at the dentist, but we are always entitled to say stop. There are a few exceptions involving the judicial system but outside of that we're always entitled to our physical boundaries.
apel: (Default)
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