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Setting Boundaries

written by: Kosjenka Muk

Ideals and traditions

Many writers suggest ideal behaviors which people should strive to develop. Many people want to live up to spiritual ideals such as helping others, kindness, generosity and sharing.

They often forget, however, that most people they meet will be at a rather low level of emotional maturity and relationship awareness. People who live in fear, or with low awareness of the feelings and needs of others, cannot fully respect other people's boundaries. Some people will consciously take advantage of perceived weaknesses or compliance of others. Some will not do this on purpose, but will find numerous justifications. Thus, if you try to be nice and help others, you may find that other people will soon start expecting it and asking for it, and in this way drain your time and energy. Such parasitic relationships lack balance and true pleasure.

You do not owe your time, love, or even friendship to anybody. Those are rather abstract terms, so we might be confused about setting boundaries and remembering what we want. You might feel more guilt refusing requests for your time than for your money. Our parents probably did not give money to anyone - but perhaps they wasted their time and energy on people they disliked, to avoid offending them. We may have learned indirectly, or even after direct instructions, to waste time in the same way.

I am not suggesting isolating yourself and only doing what is profitable for you. Being a part of a friendly community, spending time together and helping each other can be a beautiful, rewarding experience. Many communities, however, have rather rigid rules, unhealthy expectations and pushy communication habits. It is up to you to create a balance between being friendly and compassionate, and taking care of yourself.

Balance and blame

Sometimes the best way to help people can be to push them away, not to allow them to cling to us and waste our time and energy. In this way, we help people face themselves and their needs, find their own strength and develop independence. In contrast, serving their needs might only make them feel that it pays to be dependent. When we set boundaries, we express respect for and confidence in other people's strength and responsibility.

Even if you do not see anything unpleasant in some people, maybe you will not be attracted to them as potential friends. There is nothing wrong with this and you need not feel guilty by refusing to spend your time with them. It is important to understand that love and respect for others does not necessarily mean being at their disposal.

According to Deborah Tannen (author of "You Just Don't Understand"), women are more in danger of neglecting their boundaries. This is partly because of a feminine tendency to maintain harmony and avoid conflict, and partly because our society expects women to give more and values their time less than that of men. Many people will find it easier to ask women for their time or services for free, than to ask the same of men.

Many people, especially helping professionals, have problems with asking to be paid for their work. They may prefer not to have to ask, or to try requesting donations. This might be a solution in a community of emotionally mature people. Yet most people in our society have not developed a sense of balance in giving and receiving, or they are too afraid of losing money to pay as much as you think your work deserves.

If you depend on donations, you can feel exhausted, depreciated and exploited, not to mention problems paying your bills. Money is a practical way to exchange goods and services with clarity and balance. People with limiting beliefs about money might criticize you for this attitude or try to induce guilt in you. They may call you a fraud if you do not provide free services. An interesting question is, would they give their own work away for free?

Healthy honesty

Mature, responsible communication does not necessarily mean making other people feel good and avoiding hurt. Often, avoiding honesty about our thoughts and feelings only postpones conflict and makes it worse.

For example, if we use lies or excuses trying to avoid unwanted requests, instead of saying "No" directly, those requests may well continue. Other people will not become aware of our true feelings and if we hope they would somehow intuit how we feel, we fool ourselves. People can distort reality in many ways, and are usually much more focused on their desires than yours. They may repeat their requests more frequently, until the situation escalates to either open conflict or avoidance and leaves a “sour taste in the mouth”.

Here is a basic rule: you are responsible for your own behavior, not for the feelings of others. That means: if you do your best to communicate with respect and integrity, there is no reason to feel guilt even if the other person feels hurt and perhaps blames you.

In a healthy communication, if one person refuses to fulfill a wish or a demand of the other, the other person can check if they want to change their demands and continue the relationship as it is, or want to change the type or intensity of the relationship and search for what they want in some other relationship. This can be done without hurt and blaming, as a natural process, if we see each other as equally important human beings with equally important needs, and communicate clearly. But if somebody can't see you as who you are, and projects instead their expectations from a parent, partner or a child on you, they will feel hurt, disappointed, and will basically make their happiness depend upon your behavior, which is a recipe for suffering.

In any important communication, it's wise to make clear what every person included wants, and is it acceptable to the other one(s), especially if we have an idea that we might have different expectations. We shouldn't expect that other people should automatically agree to fulfill our desires only because we want them to, or that they should want the same type of relationship we want.

"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate." - C.G. Jung

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