Why Do People Have Difficulty Setting Boundaries?
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are the guardians of our self-esteem and self-respect. They reflect our core values and our need for safety and security and are a way to define our needs and wants, separate from others. They include being able to say yes or no and mean it- regardless of the consequences or ire that may be directed at us. Boundaries help each of us figure out and define for ourselves what we are both comfortable and uncomfortable with and how we would like to be treated by others. Setting boundaries and putting them into practice can be extremely challenging. And this is precisely why we need to have clarity about what we want and what ultimately works (and doesn’t work) for us— regardless of others’ wants, desires and expectations of how they may want us to behave. When we let others take advantage of us, we allow them to chip away at our self-esteem, which leads to more anxiety and depression, less interpersonal effectiveness, and increasingly poor self-esteem.
My Own Personal Confession
Even though I’m an overall excellent communicator and problem-solver, I too have difficulty setting boundaries in certain kinds of situations with certain types of people. What has helped me over the years, is to prepare for the ‘boundary conversation’ BEFORE the encounter. I practice out loud— what and how I am planning to communicate. This kind of practice (script) helps me come prepared!
Why Is It Difficult for Many To Set Boundaries?
Many people have difficulty setting boundaries because they haven’t figured out what their own boundaries are. They may be unsure of their own needs, wants, preferences and comfort levels, which make it difficult for them to know when or if a personal boundary has even been violated. Perhaps when growing up, there were no or few boundaries in your own family of origin. You may have never learned when someone crosses over your own sacred line because you haven’t yet discovered what that line is for yourself. This kind of clarity is a very important first step in our personal development, with far-reaching consequences in all facets of our life— emotionally, financially, sexually, spiritually, intellectually and in our relationships with others.
Research shows that when we align our behaviors with our values, we are more likely to flourish and get to the ‘good life’- the term positive psychologists use to describe a life characterized by mindful presence, connection and impact. Practice saying NO. Give yourself permission to live your life on your own terms- a life of honesty, integrity and self-respect- rather than being the ‘whipping’ man or woman for others demands, expectations and agendas. Remember- boundaries are the foundation of healthy relationships! Boundaries not only protect our time and energy, but they also help to protect our relationships. They make us examine our own limits and challenge us to communicate more directly, which helps to prevent miscommunication and misunderstandings.
Sharon, 35 and David, 37 are current patients of mine. They have been married for two years and have a baby on the way. From the beginning, David’s parents and siblings have been very insensitive and disrespectful of Sharon. They would laugh and make snide remarks and comments about Sharon’s Eastern European background and accent. When Sharon gave one of David’s sisters a gold bracelet, she discovered a group text on her husband’s phone ridiculing her for being ‘too nice’. In preparation for their wedding, David’s mother would routinely make hurtful comments about Sharon’s choice of dress and wedding venue. Not only did the family not give the new couple a wedding gift, but they even arrived late for the wedding. One doesn’t need to be a therapist to understand why Sharon wants nothing to do with David’s family. However, what brought this couple into counseling with me had less to do with David’s toxic family, but more to do about his reluctance to set boundaries for his family and confront them directly about their profound disrespectful and hurtful behavior toward his wife. Not only has he sat on the sidelines, saying nothing and enabling this destructive dynamic to continue, he continues to this day to deny and minimize his wife’s feelings- protecting his family at all costs.
My Individual Sessions with David
I have met with both David (and Sharon) individually for several sessions, as I often do, when doing couple’s counseling. Although David acknowledges (to some degree) his family’s disrespect of his wife, he still doesn’t seem to understand that his priority needs to be his wife and that he needs to stop denying, avoiding, enabling and minimizing his family’s behavior. I have offered on numerous occasions to have the family come in for some sessions with David and Sharon together or with David alone. Interestingly, it is Sharon who seemingly does not want me to meet David’s parents…even though she would not have to be present during the session(s). David has told me that he and his parents would gladly meet with me. However, since Sharon is so insistent that this not happen, my hands are tied (at least at the moment).
Best Possible Outcome
A family session with David and his parents needs to take place as soon as possible.
David needs to tell his parents how their comments and behavior have deeply wounded Sharon and have caused serious problems in their marriage. He needs to make it very clear that he will no longer tolerate them hurting his wife, who he dearly loves.
The parents need to acknowledge how their behavior has hurt Sharon and be willing to apologize and try to make amends.
The goal is to try and see if the relationships can heal and mend over time, especially since there will be a new grandchild arriving in a few months.
I worry that if this painful dynamic doesn’t change very soon, that the couple risks the demise of their marriage.
** Some of the details have been changed to protect the confidentiality of my patients.
Beatty Cohan, MSW, LCSW, AASECT, is a nationally recognized psychotherapist, sex therapist, author, national speaker, columnist and national radio and television expert guest. Beatty has been an expert guest in national television and radio for over 25 years and continues to offer her unique charismatic brand of positive energy and psychological analysis and commentary -- bypassing the usual trite psycho-babble and often politically correct blandness that dominates the mass media.
Beatty is co-author of For Better, For Worse, Forever: Discover the Path to Lasting Love, and host of ASK BEATTY, live every Monday night on the Progressive Radio Network. She has a private practice in New York City, East Hampton and Sarasota, Florida.
Visit Beatty at: www.Beattycohan.com
Or email at: BeattyCohan.email@example.com