November 17, 2015

TrishBits #15: A Bit About Boundaries

Good boundaries don't fence you in -- they set you free. -Trish Ring, Ph.D.

If you are surrounded by drama, it’s because you’re either creating it or allowing it.

If you’re dreading an upcoming family gathering because of your crazy Gran or your obnoxious cousin or because you just know that your mom will have plenty to say about your hyperactive child… then it’s time to practice boundary-setting.

Boundaries are invisible energetic lines that you set up as expectations for relationships. They are built out of your felt sense of what you need in order to take care of yourself. They may be provoked by other people’s intrusive behavior, but they are – really – all about YOU.

For example: Alice is the only unmarried female in her extended family, which is full of young marrieds with babies. She feels a bit ‘behind’ other age-mates already, because she’s single and not sure she even wants babies, but when her siblings and in-laws invariably start quizzing her at family gatherings, she feels even worse: inadequate, immature, unlucky, and just plain OLD, at 33.

Alice knows that she wants to set a boundary with her family – she wants them to stop harassing her. So, she tells them: “Hey, sweet family – no quizzing me about babies and boyfriends. OK? Got it? It’s a sore spot already. Let’s focus on other stuff – like my kickass career and how I just got back from China. OK?”

Alice’s family may or may not comply. Does that mean that the boundary didn’t work? Nope. It just means that Alice doesn’t have much help setting the boundary. It’s still there. If she honors it.

Honoring your boundaries sets you free from feeling trapped by other people’s expectations, manipulations, guilt-inducing demands, and just plain rudeness. You get to talk about what you want to talk about. You own your own behavior. You discover that you can love people and tolerate the tension that emerges when you don’t necessarily please them. You give them the chance to love the real you – not the fake, inwardly seething ‘you,’ but the Real McCoy.

How can Alice honor her boundaries if her dad pipes up with, “We’re just worried about you, honey. We want you to be happy. It’s time to settle down and give us some grandkids” – how, specifically, can she handle this seemingly well-intentioned but highly manipulative and tone-deaf comment?

First, Alice needs to see clearly that her dad’s comment is all about his needs and wants. The worry, the ideas about how to be happy, the yearning for a grandchild – normal, natural, but HIS. Not hers. It’s not her job to make him happy.

Then, she needs to find a way to manage her feelings in the moment, and heal from her disappointment in the long run. This takes practice and maybe some coaching. Focused breathing, imagery, cognitive re-framing, and Equine Coaching are great tools for practicing boundaries.

Third, Alice needs to act in a way that protects herself from the boundary violation. She has options – she can say, “Hey, seriously – enough, Dad.” Or, she can leave the room, with or without a jaunty wave or a sob. Or, if she can muster the emotional detachment, she can hug her dad and change the subject. There is no right or wrong way to honor a boundary – there’s just the ongoing task of knowing when it’s time to surround yourself with what you need, inside and out. And there’s the further task of taking responsibility for your own feelings and desires, rather than waiting for others to do it for you.

When you set boundaries with clarity, and honor them with your behavior, something magical happens: the family system shifts. When you refuse to take on the role of the troubled youngster or the harried, incompetent mom, or the ungrateful son, then the criticisms and demands of your family fall on deaf ears, and the old script loses its energy. You cannot have the same long, drawn out arguments if you refuse to engage.

Here’s the hard truth: If you are surrounded by drama, it’s because you’re either creating it or allowing it.

Read more here about boundaries and watching your word count – because the more you get caught up in explaining why you need a boundary, the less likely it is that you’re honoring your boundary.

And, Happy Thanksgiving!

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