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Boundaries: Knowing Where to Draw the Line


Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation posted an excellent blog about a year ago on boundaries, which got me thinking about mine and why I suffered so greatly in the past from having them crossed repeatedly. An honest self-assessment led me to this answer: I hardly ever established any.

Individuals had crossed my boundaries many times in life in various ways. I had an idea of what my boundaries were. In other words, I knew which kinds of behaviors I liked, disliked, wanted, and didn't want. However, I had a problem verbalizing those boundaries because I dealt with boundary guilt. Internally, I felt that:

  • This person won't like me or love me anymore if I set boundaries.
  • If I truly love this person, I won't set boundaries, or "true love" has no boundaries. 
  • I am selfish if I want or need anything or express my own desires.
  • A "good" wife/girlfriend stands by her partner no matter what. 
  • I am helpless, and there's nothing I can do about XYZ boundary being crossed. 

None of these beliefs is true, but we don't know that when we don't have a healthy concept of boundaries. Those of us who have an unhealthy sense of boundaries often end up in abusive relationships or situations where we dedicate ourselves to caretaking (and trying to control) someone with a dependency issue, such as alcoholism, substance abuse, gambling, etc. We feel responsible if our undying love doesn't "cure" them of their dependency or stop the abusive behavior.

The truth is that boundaries are a healthy part of any relationship. They must be established so that other people know how to treat and respect us. Not everyone has a healthy sense of boundaries. Just like us, they may not have had the opportunity to develop them. Therefore, other people may come into our lives with no idea of how to treat other people. We can't expect them not to step over a line if we don't draw one in the first place. On the other hand, once we clearly draw our line, we then have a duty to defend it. What may have been ignorance on the other person's part quickly turns into outright disrespect if he or she crosses it. At that point, we need not feel guilty about not tolerating the behavior.

Furthermore, we're not responsible for other people's behaviors, and there's nothing we can do, good or bad, to control how they choose to act. All we can do is focus on our boundaries and what we need to do to enrich our own lives. We cannot save or change anyone. Only "God" can do that. We can pray for other people and for ourselves, but that's about it. 

Establishing boundaries might require spending some time alone to familiarize ourselves with them. There's nothing wrong with grabbing an old-fashioned pen and paper and writing a simplistic list of what's acceptable and unacceptable. In fact, it might help to clarify them. It might help a boundary-deficient individual to get used to seeing and hearing his or her own voice. 

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