A friend or family member asks for a favor, for you to give of your time, money or other resources to help her in some way. You agree. The asker then adds another request, to which you also agree. At the third favor, you say, “Now that’s where I draw the line.”
By drawing your verbal “line,” you have established a boundary with that person. You made a difficult but necessary decision about what you are and are not willing to do for that person.
Setting boundaries is sometimes a hard thing to do. Family ties, work commitments and relationship expectations carry a great deal of weight that pushes on us when we are approached or asked to do something — or be something — for another person.
“That is just what family members do for each other.”
“If you were a true friend, you would.”
“What kind of partner are you if you say no to that request?”
We put pressure upon ourselves to behave in what we think is a socially acceptable way.
Sometimes, we have convinced ourselves that we make ourselves more lovable and acceptable to others by what we do for or give to those others. Sometimes, others have convinced us that we are lovable and acceptable only based on what we do for or give to them.
We start to learn boundaries when we are babies. In infancy, we recognize no separation between ourselves and our mothers. As we grow, we learn our own independence and mastery over our environment. We learn that we can soothe ourselves and dress ourselves and feed ourselves. We learn what our parents will tolerate and what they will not tolerate.
If we had good, sensitive and responsible parents, they taught us that there were limits to what they would accept. They might have said to us, “You may not behave that way. We do not allow screaming at the dinner table.”
Good, sensitive and responsible parents also would have validated our own limits. When we asked not to be touched or declined to participate in some sport or activity, our parents, respectful of our boundaries, would have upheld our wishes. They wouldn’t have taken our preferences as a personal assault or reflection on them.
Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author of the seminal The Road Less Traveled, writes of love as separateness. “A major characteristic of genuine love is that the distinction between oneself and the other is always maintained and preserved,” Peck observes.
The parents who were not so good, sensitive and responsible could not maintain that distinction. They couldn’t respect and support our boundaries. They asked, “What kind of daughter are you to say no to your own mother?” or cajoled, “Go ahead and perform for our guests. You know how much it means to me.”
Messages such as these from our parents and other significant adults forebode our caving under the demands of the manipulative friends, bullies, heavy-handed lovers and overbearing bosses of later years.
Setting boundaries involves identifying who you are and what you want from life. Setting boundaries involves deciding how far you are willing to go with another person and what risks you want to take.
Setting boundaries means drawing lines not to keep others out but to keep your own wholeness intact. Draw your lines and communicate them clearly. Draw your lines and claim your life.