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Doc@DrIrene.com


 

What's Wrong With My Boundaries?

by Dr. Irene

Updated 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

bulletIsn't it my responsibility to make my partner happy?
bulletIsn't it selfish to set limits with others?
bulletHow can I set limits and still be a "good" person?
bulletWhy do I feel guilty when I try to set limits?
bulletSometimes I know what's best for my partner. Isn't it my job to care for them?

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 irrational guilt.

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:
bulletHe does not like Stephanie's reserved style - and wants to change it. (He's allowed not to like it and even let her know that. Nevertheless, Stephanie's style is Stephanie's business despite her active participation in making it Roger's business.)
bulletHe makes a host of unfounded assumptions he places on himself and others. (Irrational thinking, Rog.)
bulletHe feels better about himself when he thinks his friends are impressed. (Who cares what they think! Roger, what do you think?)

Roger would serve himself better by concerning himself with his own issues.
bulletSpecifically what bothers him in his relationship with Stephanie? (Guaranteed it has little to do with hair and personal style.)
bulletWhat is his motivation in dating Stephanie?
bulletWhat are his thoughts and feelings?
bulletIs he in control of their expression?

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. 

Roger: never forget that trust is the cornerstone of love. You never really were that far off base with Stephanie - or with mom - were you? But, trust really resides in the self...

As you take charge of yourself, you no longer rely on others for emotional "trustability." It doesn't matter what anyone tries to dump on you. You simply don't take it.  

As your boundaries develop, other people's boundaries no longer matter...

More about taking responsibility here. 

A reader's post on boundaries here.

Recommended Reading

A great book...try not to let the religious stuff get in the way. Cloud & Townsend's Boundaries: When to say Yes, When to Say No, To Take Control of Your Life  is available here from

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