Setting Boundaries with Difficult People
Maybe the world has always been this way, but in recent years, there seems to be a wide-spread trend toward self-centeredness. Not only obsession with what the self wants or needs, but a total lack of consideration for the wants or needs of fellow humans. Often this occurs within our own families. Whether life has always been this way or not, setting personal boundaries will help you keep your sanity and may improve your relationships.
The word “boundaries” is often misinterpreted. If you think of a personal boundary as an impenetrable wall, then you might believe that having a boundary means you shut others completely out of your life. That is not what I mean by a personal boundary. From my perspective, a personal boundary is like a fine, mesh screen. If you pour water through the screen, all the water passes through, but any dirt or particles in the water, will be caught in the screen and will not pass through.
Let the water represents the difficult person in your life, and the screen represent your boundary. The screen would only allow the loving aspects of the other person to come through and not the toxic behaviors. A boundary can be something you establish within yourself so that you do not allow yourself to be impacted by someone else’s negative behavior. Physical separation from another person, is another version of a boundary and may be appropriate in some situations. Boundaries are as different as the people who set them and can be revised as the circumstances change.
Think of someone in your life who makes unreasonable demands on your time and ignores the fact that you have other work and personal obligations. It could be an aging parent who needs transportation to doctor appointments. One way to set a boundary, would be to have an honest, loving, and calm conversation in which you tell your mom that you are only available to take her to appointments on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. You ask her to schedule all appointments for those days. You might also ask that she give you at least a 48 hour or more advance notice whenever possible. The boundary clearly identifies when you can be available, and this should make it easier on your mom when she sets up her next appointment. The boundary should serve to reduce frustrations for all concerned and still allow loving feelings to flow between you.
Sounds simple, right? In reality, it is simple, it’s just not easy. Typically, the problem arises when, in this example, we expect our parent to graciously accept the new boundaries and comply, without any resistance or push-back. Sometimes it works that way, but more often, the opposite is true.
The people in your life are accustomed to you having certain reactions to their actions. No one likes change, so they are going to unconsciously, do everything they can to get you to “change back” to the way things used to be.
Example: Mom calls you on Thursday afternoon, one week after your “boundary discussion”. She says “Oh, by the way, I have an appointment with my doctor at 10 a.m. tomorrow morning. Can you drive me there?”. That’s when you throw your hands up in exasperation and say, “I knew setting boundaries wouldn’t work!”.
Boundaries don’t work, when we mistakenly believe the other person will understand and agree with our boundaries. It just doesn’t work that way. One of the most important aspects of boundaries is to recognize that it is our responsibility to safeguard and implement our boundaries even when there is resistance. The truth of the matter is that we should expect resistance. Each of us lives in our own version of reality, so it is unreasonable to expect another person to see things our way, “like” the new boundaries and cooperate, even if the boundaries are ultimately for the good of everyone.
In the example above, you may have to hold firm to your boundaries and gently remind your parent, over and over again, of your available dates before she finally stops setting up appointments on days you are not available. You may also have to learn to let your mom be “disappointed” in or upset with you for a little while. Consider all the times in the past, that you have been disappointed by someone, but somehow got over those feelings. Your parent has the same resilience as you, and she will become more cooperative when she realizes that although you love her dearly, you must also take care of your own needs. It is at that point, that your relationship with that parent will actually feel more connected and loving.
If you have questions or comments, please post them below.