Thursday, August 24, 2006

Healthy Boundaries

Tonight we were talking about healthy boundaries, and I guess that covers everything from backyard fences to “Would you please take your hand off my shoulder?” to not feeling guilty when someone you love makes a mistake. Some boundaries require discussion and agreement; some boundaries should be assumed. You don’t touch a person unless you know your touch is welcome AND touching is not a harmful act. You do talk about how to handle finances and come to an agreement. “Pay me back when you can” is not a healthy boundary for most people.

When I was younger I borrowed money from my mother with little intention of paying it back. She didn’t ask for terms and conditions; she just handed me the money. However, she kept track of all those “loans” down to the penny, and, when she was angry with me, she brought up my debts. Finally, we talked about money and agreed that I could ask for money, she could give it or not, but the money would be a gift, not a loan. Of course, the week she died she knew exactly how much money she had given me over the past 55 years.

The other side of that was that I did not learn how to be truly independent until I was 50 years old, and she had no money to loan/give me. That would have been much less difficult lesson at 20 or 30. But, neither of us had healthy monetary boundaries. She used to laughingly complain that I would give people the shirt off my back and hers too. And, she was right. I didn’t separate my money from her money.

Growing up without healthy boundaries left me with no notion of how to set healthy adult boundaries. I let people have sex with me because it made them happy, and their happiness was my happiness. I felt guilty when my closest friends erred in their judgment, and I shared the emotional consequences of their decisions. I still tend to empathize too much with people I know well – and sometimes with those I don’t know at all. I can sense a person’s pain or anxiety standing in a check-out line, and sometimes, I carry that pain away with me. I am compelled to speak compassionately to that person.

What seems to be love beyond the call of duty may really be my lack of healthy boundaries. I get sucked into situations easily. I am learning that “No.” is a complete sentence; I don’t have to explain; I don’t have to listen to arguments; I can just say, “No.” I have to practice doing that in front of a mirror so that I can make it convincing. The assertiveness training that I took back when that was popular didn’t help much then, but I use those techniques now to maintain the boundaries I have recognized and set.

I can still be manipulated (and, believe me, I can still manipulate), but I am more aware of when that happens. I try to use the first person singular, “I”, instead of the first person plural, “We”. That helps me with boundaries. But, it’s hard; I still try to think like the other person; I try to solve others’ problems whether they want my help or not. Gradually, I’m learning to keep my mouth shut. I don’t make as many snap decisions as I once did.

Still, I mostly go with my gut feelings, and sometimes I have to backtrack to set those boundaries that I could have put in place in the beginning. Tough love. Sensible love. Unfortunately, love is a wild thing and cannot be controlled. Jesus modeled the example I try to follow: He said to the man who couldn’t walk, “Take up your pallet and walk.” He didn’t say, “Put your arms around my neck and I’ll carry you.”

2 comments:

Toewalker said...

“No.” is a complete sentence...

This, in retrospect, seems such a simple thing, doesn't it. Yet it took me decades and more than a little coaching from a very loving partner (who had already done the work) for me to learn what healthy boundaries really are. Fortunately it was in time for us both to instill in our son what healthy boundaries are and that it is an act of self-love (a very necessary one) to maintain those boundaries, even when the person being kept at a distance is a parent.

Thank you for this. Would that we could all have known it much, much sooner.

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