March 17, 2000
Boundaries distinguish each
individual's "territory," the place where personal responsibility
begins and ends. The self is the the only area over which an individual has
any control. Angry people and codependent people both have weak boundaries. They
do not control themselves. This is unfortunate. Loss of boundaries, loss of
control, loss of choice, loss of freedom, loss of self...are a package deal.
You are personally responsible for everything
inside the boundaries that define "me" from "not me." Everything! You
are responsible for your feelings, your values, your behavior, your thoughts, choices,
insights, beliefs, limits - everything! That is fortunate. Why wouldn't you want to have
control? Would you trust someone else to raise your children? To choose your wardrobe,
your furnishings, or your mate? To run your business, your home, or your marriage?
Because you set the limits, you are
personally responsible for protecting yourself. Your duty to yourself and to your Maker is
to take care of yourself and not allow others to trespass. This includes cultivating your
ability to say "no," to others even if your actions disappoint them or hurt
them. The good news is that since you are responsible for yourself, other adults are responsible
for themselves. Always! They have to deal with your limits. You have to deal with
theirs. People have a real hard time with this concept.
Common Boundary Questions
Lets take them in order:
Isn't it my responsibility to make my
partner happy? No. Not only isn't it your responsibility to
"make" another happy (or miserable, or anything else), but you simply can't
do it. You don't have that kind of power. (Unless, of course, your partner
gives it to you.)
Go out of your way to treat your partner
well! Knock yourself out...do all sorts of wonderful things! However, despite what you do,
you are only responsible for your own feelings. Your duty to yourself is to be
aware of your own motivation and expectations, your delivery, how you feel, and everything
else about your actions. Your partner's reaction to you is your partner's
responsibility. Even if they try to pin their reaction on your actions, their
reaction is their responsibility. Period. End of story. For example, a verbally
abusive husband who spends much of his time trying to create a safe environment for
himself by controlling his wife (and treating her poorly in the process) is not
responsible for his wife's feelings. She is. She lets him violate her boundaries.
Now the pair can continue their mutual boundary violation ad nauseum: he can blame her for
his woes and she can guilt him for hers. And on and on the story goes...
In reality however, the abusive husband
ultimately answers only to himself and to his Maker. The usual price is the loss of self,
the loss of inner peace, symptoms, etc. The wife, who discounts her feelings and makes
excuses for her husband's mis-behaviors, is also responsible to herself and her Maker. She
pays much the same price for selling out.
With or without self-awareness,
each person has chosen to put themselves in the position they are in. When the
angry husband is mad that his "ungrateful" wife did not react to his kind
efforts as per his expectations, that is his problem. If his wife allows him to
make it her problems, that is her problem. This co-dependent relationship style
really complicates matters. According to these assumptions, the couple might seek marital
counseling so the wife can learn to be appreciative of her husband's kind acts. There is
an assumption that there is something wrong with her for being unappreciative.
Each person is obligated to live up to their
partner's expectations - for their partner's emotional well being. This is analogous to
Jean asking Paul to do her laundry and Paul asking Jean to do his. Paul has to remember
that her pure cottons never go in the dryer and get lightly starched. Jean has to remember
that Paul's dress slacks only get dry cleaned. Will she get mad if he missed a pure
cotton? Will she think he messed it up on purpose? Did he? Does she get back at him by
throwing a silk tie into the washer? Yuk, yuk, yuk! Does this make any sense?
Wouldn't it be much easier if each person simply did their own laundry?
Isn't it selfish to set limits?
No, no, no. In fact, it is destructive not to set limits. Who
will take care of you if you don't? Who knows more about what you need, or don't need,
than you do? It is unfortunate that the word "selfish" has such a bad
connotation. Perhaps we need to think in terms of "selfcaring." Then we may more
appropriately ask, "Isn't it self caring to set limits?" You bet!
How can I set limits and still be a
"good" person? How can you not? By the way, what is
a "good" person? (The word I prefer is "integrity.") How do you
feel when you've been sooo good, that you have been taken advantage
of? Do you hide your angry, resentful feelings, smile and pretend - often even to yourself
- that all is OK? Or, do you let your anger out on the next poor soul who crosses your
path? How can you possibly feel good about yourself if you carry so much luggage?
Why do I feel guilty when I try to set
limits. Because you are well-trained to believe that it is
your responsibility not to disappoint others, to please, protect, "make" them
like you, etc. There are cognitive techniques that can effectively help stamp out
Not all guilt is irrational. Each situation
needs to be examined. What is the individual's underlying motivation? An example is the
jealous, insecure husband who did not want his pretty wife attracting male attention in
his flashy convertible. He "set limits" on her use of his car despite his not
needing it and despite her responsible driving record. Since he was trying to control, he
has every reason to feel guilty (assuming Mr. Ego would ever admit it).
Sometimes I know what's best for my
partner. Isn't it my job to care for them? Absolutely not!
Care about your partner; do not care for them. Big difference! They have
the right to make their own choices, including choices that you believe are wrong. You may
state your opinion once, even twice. Then you need to drop it. Stop trying to control
them, fix them, guide them. Spend your energy controlling yourself, including
learning to tolerate your partner's choices. You don't have to agree with your
partner's position. You do have to respect it.
Roger's Rotten Boundaries
Controlling Roger was dating Stephanie, a
codependent lady who was crazy about him. One of Roger's numerous and ever increasing
complaints about her had to do with her hairstyle. Roger found it dull. Eager to please,
Stephanie let Roger choose a new cut and color for her. Stephanie's hair was more
important to Roger than it was to Stephanie - since Roger saw Stephanie as a reflection of
himself. One day Roger took Stephanie to a function where she met many of his friends.
Although Stephanie was lovely and well-coiffed, Roger felt embarrassed that she was not
more beautiful, stylish, outgoing and social. Roger thought Stephanie made him look bad!
He felt diminished in his friend's eyes and angry at Stephanie.
Here is where Roger's boundaries failed:
Later, Roger began recognizing some stuff:
That Stephanie was not right for
him - and why she was not. Although Roger knew it all along, he did not
trust his feelings and could not put them in perspective. He confused himself, mixing
up legitimate inner impulses with defensive inconsequentials (such as her hair), and
giving all equal weight!
He is slowly recognizing that what
really bothered him about Stephanie was her lack of boundaries, i.e., her
inability to recognize her limits and stick to them - no matter what (as in "True to
thyne own self"). He simply didn't trust her. And, his mistrust was not unfounded.
How could he trust an individual who sells out? Despite her best intentions, her position
on any given issue may change anytime! There is little basis for emotional trust, despite
the fact that she is a trustworthy individual.
As Roger's boundaries firm up, he can begin
to remove blame he puts on himself - blame that does not belong to him.
Specifically, he can dump his notion that there is something wrong with him for being
unable to love a great gal (she is) who (still) adores him. Yes, there is "something
wrong," but it is not what he thought, and its not all about him.
Roger continues to work on self-awareness
and self-control. He's much better at self-acceptance these days. No longer needing to
kick himself as much as he used to for having thoughts and feelings he hates (he can own
his negative stuff!), he opened the door to his inner-self. As his inner impulses become
more and more accessible, he can begin to know.