Some years back, I bumped into an old school friend who by the time we met had been married for two years. She told me how she and her husband had bought a house on the same street as her mother and she’d regretted the decision ever since. Her mother, she said, had to pass her house on her way home from work every evening. If she saw lights on in Joanne’s house, she’d taken to dropping in to say ‘hello’ and have a chat. However, the ‘dropping in’ had developed into a daily routine and had become a source of conflict for Joanne and her husband who like most newlyweds were longing to create a life of their own. To resolve the problem, the couple had resorted to arriving home and remaining in the dark until they were certain Joanne’s mother had passed by and gone home.
Another woman I knew, in her thirties this time, was living alone when she decided to give her mother a key to her home believing it an excellent idea on several different levels. However, it didn’t seem such a good idea when her mother took to putting the key in Fidelma’s front door and strolling into her apartment unannounced. On one such occasion, Fidelma had to scamper quickly out of her bedroom to avoid her mother opening her bedroom door and discovering Fidelma had company.
Niamh is constantly trying to build her business and it involves a certain amount of networking. Just recently, one of her valued contacts admitted while under the influence of alcohol, “I’ve always fancied you.” Niamh chose to deflect the conversation to another topic however, since then her married contact who used to call only occasionally with possible leads has since taken to calling her most nights and over the weekends. While Niamh wants only a professional relationship, she’s been feeling uneasy about the recent turn of events. Niamh is handling the situation now by avoiding her contact’s calls and responding to his voicemails by email apologising blaming her unavailability on meetings or family events.
Boundaries…what are they anyway?
Boundaries are the expectations we set around behaviour. We first learn about boundaries through our primary caregivers and they continue to evolve throughout life shaped by circumstances and events we encounter. Boundaries determine how we want others to treat us, how we will treat others, who can and cannot touch us. When healthy boundaries are in place they communicate to others we have self-respect, self-worth, and we will not allow others to define us. Boundaries are like the walls around a house or a picket fence around a garden. They are the lines we draw around us to protect our values and integrity, and having them in place is hugely important for both health and wellbeing.
What happens when we don’t express our boundaries?
If someone infringes on our boundaries at the very least, we can expect to feel upset, frustrated, angry or depending on circumstances, victimised. However, for as long as we avoid expressing our boundaries the intolerable behaviour continues. And while that’s happening, the impact to you could be emotional, physiological or both. Give some thought to how you feel when someone acts inappropriately towards you or when someone takes advantage of you. Does your stomach knot, do you become tense maybe even anxious? So, what do you do…avoid the situation at all costs? The problem with doing that is it leads to a loss or deterioration of family ties, friendships, and business relationships. And all because you felt unable to state your boundaries. It may be you want to avoid conflict or perhaps you’re a people pleaser, putting everyone else’s needs before your own.
Learn to say ‘No!’
Ask yourself the question, ‘whose life is this anyway?’ It is an essential skill to learn how to say ‘No,’ to place the trust in yourself that it’s okay to do so without needing to feel guilty. Practice if you need to so when the time comes around you state your feelings clearly, “Mam, it’s not okay to walk in without knocking on the door first,” or “Peter, I appreciate your support for my business, but I’d like you to stop calling me in my personal time.” Each one of us has a right to have personal boundaries and while the reality is some will happily respect them, others won’t. Regardless, the responsibility lies fully with you and no one else to take control of how you want your life to be.
Benefits of Healthy Boundaries
Never see boundaries as keeping people out of your life but instead as a way of limiting the kind of behaviour you’d rather not have in your personal space. So clarify what your boundaries are, state them clearly when necessary, and make sure you do whatever you need to protect them. People will have much more respect for you when you do. For successful cohabitation remember an intimate partner will have their own set of boundaries so you’ll need to do some extra work. Clarify boundaries that are acceptable to both of you, a common one is fidelity and when that’s done begin identifying those that are negotiable. When you’re clear about your boundaries, you’ll have a stronger sense of your own identity, your self-esteem improves, and best of all you’ll have much better relationships.