I read the book Boundaries: When to say YES, and How to Say NO to Take Control of Your Life some time ago. However, it fell on the other side of the line between personal and business. While much of the stuff I read, as you might expect, applies to both my personal life as well as my professional life, I generally share my thoughts on the books if I think there’s a reasonable amount of business value. Somehow Boundaries just seemed more like personal maturity than professional maturity. That being said, I’ve been putting a bunch of other pieces together including things I read in Emotional Intelligence and ultimately decided that the growth that comes from Boundaries applies to both my professional and my personal life – and therefore it would be something to share here.
What is a Boundary?
A boundary is a clear dividing line. It separates you from others or what you will do from what you won’t do. It’s not a barrier – it doesn’t prevent problems – it simply allows you to see when there is a problem and allows you the clarity to know what to do about it. Boundaries are essential because they make other decisions about life, relationships, and interactions easier to process. Sometimes defining boundaries helps us to define who we are. It helps us to know what we shouldn’t take responsibility for.
One of the most common boundary issues with humans is codependence. Codependence is where someone doesn’t have boundaries between their own feelings and the feelings of someone else. They subjugate their feelings for the feelings of someone else. There are times where it’s appropriate to support others and to do things for them – but the key is that there are times. If every time you’re with someone it’s all about their needs and desires and feelings and never about yours, then you’re probably not being very honest with them or more importantly yourself. We all have some level of codependence; we’re social creatures after all. The problem comes when you’re always submitting to others.
There is a level beyond codependence that is enmeshment. This is where you literally cannot see where you end and the other person begins. If the person you’re enmeshed with is feeling bad you’re feeling bad. There’s no differentiation between you and them. It is relatively easy to see the problem with enmeshment – just because someone else is feeling bad, it shouldn’t mean that you must feel bad too. Boundaries are there to protect you from becoming so enmeshed in another person that you can’t have your own thoughts and feelings.
One of the warning signs for codependence is being a rescuer. Rescuers are constantly helping others out, getting them out of jams and binds. Of course, it’s morally good for you to help others so it’s sometimes a difficult line to walk between knowing when to help someone else and when not to. A good boundary here is whether it will harm you or not. It’s good to help others when you aren’t harmed (or are not likely to be harmed) in the process. If you loan a friend $100 and you can afford to do it – no problem. If you loan a friend $100 and you can’t pay your electric bill – big problem. I realize that this example is an over simplification, but the point remains.
I am a rescuer. I love helping my friends. However, I also know, from How Children Succeed, that I can’t always help my friends. Sometimes they’ve got to suffer through the situations that they’ve created so that they can learn. Rescuing someone from the consequences they created is bad, as you’re preventing them from experiencing the important life lessons that they need to learn. Conversely, rescuing them, or helping them, with situations which they didn’t cause can be good for both parties.
The book Thinking, Fast and Slow made the point about differential value of gains and losses. That is that a small amount of additional money doesn’t have the same impact as the previous unit of money – and that we feel losses more deeply than we feel gains. The same is true of supporting others. If you can do something quickly that would be difficult or impossible for the other person to do there is positive energy created in the relationship. If, however, you put more energy in doing something for someone than it is worth to them, you’re creating a deficit. Rescuers sometimes fall into the trap of spending more and more effort to do things for others. It may be the same thing that was done last week but this week it takes more energy. Eventually the rescuer is exhausted and the person that they’re rescuing is not that much better off.
Another challenge with rescuers is that sometimes the rescuer is doing the rescuing to avoid looking at the deficits in their own lives. They look at others and help because they can’t bear to look at their own vulnerability and fragility. When this is happening it’s more than a boundary problem. There’s a problem with the purpose for the rescuing. It’s not about altruism – instead, it’s about the rescuer needing a distraction.
Luckily I don’t struggle with every portion of creating good boundaries. Folks who know me won’t accuse me of being a peacemaker – that is, someone who has to have peace (tranquility in the language of Who Am I?) all the time. Boundaries are very difficult for a peacemaker because knowing what your boundaries are will create conflict. Someone will want you to go further than you’re willing. They’ll want you to give up more than you can. The great paradox with the peacemaker is that sometimes small conflicts allow you to avoid larger conflicts.
Consider how this works in terms of a rocket. It gets launched on its way to the moon but it’s a little bit off course, just a fraction of a degree. Correcting the course early on means a very small amount of energy to change the direction. As more and more time progresses the actual position gets further and further away from the real target. Making the course correction will take more and more effort as more time goes by.
Relationships are like this because we sometimes have small misalignments between expectations and goals and instead of working through the discussion – and potentially even conflict – we ignore the problem and allow it to get bigger with the passage of time. Sometimes it’s a minor annoyance like how the toilet paper is hung on the roll (and this is a minor thing, ladies) which becomes a big issue because it gets converted from a small item into a belief about how you feel about the other person or how they feel about you. If you’re like most men I know, the way the toilet paper hangs on the holder means nothing about how someone cares about you. It can, however, grow into an issue if not discussed.
In this case there’s a very minor chance of a conflict and yet many people won’t mention the frustration about the minor item for fear of a big blow-up. The irony of this is that it’s the lack of the small conversations that creates the big blow-ups. Small disagreements and negotiations about expectations up front can mean that the larger blow ups never have to happen. If you’re a peacemaker, then boundaries are going to be hard – but worth it – for the long term peace that you desperately want.
The book speaks of ten laws which are useful to consider:
- Sowing and Reaping – The other person in a relationship must reap what they sow, I cannot interfere in this process without harming them.
- Responsibility – I must be responsible for myself; and responsible to others. I cannot be responsible for others.
- Power – I have power over only myself and never others.
- Respect – I must respect others’ boundaries and they must respect ours.
- Motivation – Why am I doing whatever it is you’re doing – because I want recognition or because I’m trying to do the right thing? Our motivation must be right.
- Evaluation – I must evaluate the other person’s feelings, but communicate with them none-the-less.
- Proactivity – To grow and change I must proactively work on myself and my relationship with others – not be passive and then aggressive.
- Envy – Focusing on others outside of our boundaries isn’t healthy for me.
- Activity – I am responsible for actively creating and maintaining my boundaries.
- Exposure – To be effective boundaries must be known. They must be exposed to others.
One problem that I’m painfully familiar with – something that I want to highlight from the book – is the tendency for some folks to act and feel like victims. Certainly there are people who have been victimized and do deserve our sympathy and support for how they’ve suffered. However they must take their own responsibility for healing from those hurts. That, on the surface, can sound cruel, but it’s certainly not intended that way. It’s about taking responsibility for the recovery they so desperately need. There’s an old joke, “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is, “One, but the light bulb really has to want to change.” Unless the person who has been victimized decides to not be a victim any longer, a victim they will remain.
From my perspective, victimhood, or being a perpetual victim, is characterized by:
- A lack of ownership or responsibility for the wounds or the choices that were made
- Being defined by the events or circumstances that caused the wounds
- Inability to move through or past the pain
I’ll be talking more about this in a review of Beyond Boundaries: Learning to Trust Again in Relationships – however, for now, know that I believe that victimhood is a critical problem facing relationships both personally and in business.
One problem which is common to those with boundary issues is a lack of self-care. Self-care activities are those things which you do because they revitalize you, they energize you, and they make you feel better about you. Often codependents and rescuers see their desire for self-care as selfish. They shouldn’t need so much time to themselves. They shouldn’t need to care for themselves when others are hurting so much. However, if anyone fails to care for themselves, they’ll ultimately find that they become rundown and are unable to care for others. Without proper self-care, the short-term benefits of giving additional help will come at a massive cost, compromising the ability to continue to give over time.
One area of self-care which is particularly challenging is the need for space. While every human has a built-in need for social connection, we also have a need for space. The space we need allows us to think for ourselves, so that we can ponder our own thoughts without others intruding. Space is as necessary as darkness, so that we can see the light, and rests in music, so we can hear the melody. Space is essential for allowing humans to be human.
Ultimately and paradoxically, the greatest thing that one can do in order to support others is to insist on taking care of themselves. To keep the right mindset about supporting others we have to believe that we are well cared for – of course this is easier if we really are well cared for.
If you struggle with any areas of setting boundaries – this book may help.