Boundaries & Relationships


By: Helen R. Friedman, Ph.D.

Your spouse is angry and you wonder what you did wrong. Your kids are rambunctious in the car and you blame them when you run a red light. Someone criticized you and you are angry because that ruined your day. Your parents expect you for dinner twice a week and you believe that you have no choice but to go.

Sound familiar?

All of these situations are examples of boundary issues. That is, they raise the question: Where do you end and others begin? Do you believe that others are responsible for your feelings and behaviors and vice versa? Do you sometimes say, if only my spouse, mother, boss, child, etc. were different then I would not have any problems? Who is responsible for your happiness? What is your part in your situation?

The bad news is that you are responsible for your plight in life. That is the good news, too, because if you create your own experience, then you have the power to do something about it.

So what can you do to identify and honor your boundaries?

First, in difficult situations ask yourself: What am I feeling, thinking, wanting, and willing to do? Your answers will provide direction for what you need to do next. For example, if you feel angry, the way out is to use it as a cue that you need something. Figure out what that is and ask for it, or otherwise seek it. Remember, it is easy to take a blaming stance and point the finger at others, rather than to look inside yourself. To courageously take stock of yourself is an essential and sometimes difficult task.

Use "I" language. Own your feelings, thoughts, needs, and wants. "You" language tends to make the other party feel defensive and angry. For example, in a situation where someone arrives half an hour late, contrast the following two statements: "I want you to call if you will be more than 15 minutes late" versus "You are irresponsible and inconsiderate." The latter statement is more likely to elicit an angry response than to motivate punctuality.

Stick to the facts. Resist the impulse to interpret another's behavior. In stressful situations, it is easy to attribute the worst motivations to the person with whom you are in conflict. Since you probably do not have the ability to read minds, interpreting another's behavior and then reacting to your assumptions without checking them out can further complicate matters.

Listen to the feelings, needs, and ideas of others and know that they are entitled to their opinions, just as you are entitled to yours. To the extent that you are comfortable or "grounded" within yourself, you will not be threatened by others' thoughts, feelings, and wishes, even when they are different than your own.

Learn to treasure rather than fear differences, because they are inevitable in all relationships. Differences do not need to result in unresolvable conflict, and they can make a relationship richer and more interesting.

Get to know, accept, and like yourself. Then when you receive criticism, whether positive or negative, you will maintain an even keel because your self-esteem will not depend on others' approval.

Respect your own boundaries. Do not say "yes" when you mean "no." If someone asks an invasive question, offers unsolicited advice, or is otherwise intrusive, offer a matter-of-fact, polite reply like, "that is my personal decision" or " that is between my wife and myself" as a way to indicate to go no further.

Take a look at limiting beliefs that you may have. Do you believe that a caring person never does anything that hurts or upsets another person? Or that you should not do something that makes you happy if someone else is upset about it? Or that taking responsibility for your own happiness is selfish? The less responsibility you take for your own happiness, the more responsibility you take for others' feelings, and the more they take for yours, the more blurred the boundaries become. In relationships between adults, there is a subtle discount in taking care of others; for it presumes that they are unable to do so for themselves. Ultimately, you alone are responsible for your experience, just as they are responsible for theirs.

If necessary, get professional counseling. Families with emotional abuse, alcoholism, child abuse, or other forms of dysfunction are typically characterized by blurred boundaries. For instance, the children might take care of the parents, the wife might blame herself for her husband's drinking, etc. If this is your family background, behaving as a separate, autonomous individual with clear boundaries may be difficult. Counseling can help you to more clearly define your own needs, wants, and values and to recognize your options. Although you cannot change other family members, you can change yourself, so that your relationships are more satisfying.

Remember, you are not your parent, spouse, child, or significant other. They are individuals separate from you. Your thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs are not necessarily the same as theirs. Do not assume that you know everything about those close to you because you have known them a long time. Wonder about them and ask. It is guaranteed to make for livelier, more fulfilling relationships.

Dr. Helen Friedman is a clinical psychologist in full-time private practice in St. Louis, Missouri. She has presented on mental health topics at national and international scientific conferences, as well as in the news media (USA Today, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, Psychology Today, Cosmopolitan, New Woman, Mademoiselle, Redbook, Salon, etc.). For 7 1/2 years, she hosted "PsychTalk," an award-winning radio program on KDHX. Dr. Friedman is an associate clinical professor in the Department of Community and Family Medicine at the St. Louis University School of Medicine and a former president (currently media chair) of the St. Louis Psychological Association. You may contact Dr. Friedman at (314) 781-4500.

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