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Boundary Basics

Boundaries are the BB cream of the self help world. Everyone needs them. They are essential…but sometimes we get it twisted because we think something is a boundary issue when it’s really not.

I’d like to introduce you to the concept of The Manual. Consciously or unconsciously, we all have manuals for different people in our lives—people we’re close with and complete strangers alike. We all have ways that we want other people to behave towards us and in general. That’s what The Manual is: our own list of things we want other people to do or not do in order for us to feel okay or good or safe or loved or appreciated or valued. When these people don’t comply with our manual, we get upset because (per yesterday’s blog post on The Consequences of Being in Emotional Childhood) we’ve placed our emotional state in the hands of another person, hoping that they’ll check off enough boxes on our manual so that we can get that feeling that we don’t know how to feel otherwise.

It’s never a great idea to hang your emotional hat on another person’s behavior—if you haven’t noticed, humans are kind of crazy. You do you, but when I was introduced to the concept that maybe I could be in charge of how I felt instead of hoping that nice emotions would be available to me based on how other people hopefully acted, I was V THIRSTY for detailed instructions on how to do this.

So a manual is a list of expectations we have of others, but what is a boundary?

A boundary is a decision we’ve made about what we will or will not tolerate in our life, out of self love. A boundary includes both physical and emotional treatment. A boundary is never about controlling or changing the other person. A boundary never needs to be dramatic, though it is often portrayed that way. A boundary is not a silver bullet that solves all of your self-respect-deficit problems. A boundary is not made in rage or with ill intent for the other person involved.

An example of a manual issue is that you expect your partner to guess what you’d like for your birthday, get it for you, give you complements at least once a week, and always remember to take out the trash; if they don’t live up to these expectations, you leave or threaten to leave in an attempt to control/change their behavior or as a retaliatory action because they refused to change their behavior.

An example of a boundary issue is that you have decided that you are unwilling to be around people who are being violent, using drugs, speaking towards you or about others in a certain way, or engaging in other behavior that you don’t want to be around, so if any of the above happens you simply leave (or you have another consequence that you act upon—not that you demand others act upon).

With both manual issues and boundaries, you never have to make the other person responsible for how you feel or what you do—you can and should always take ownership for that, and make sure that you like your reason for doing so. If you want to leave your girlfriend because she never celebrates Valentine’s Day and you think that makes you feel unloved (hint: it doesn’t), make sure you like that reason before you make that decision. If you want to break contact with your in-laws because at dinner they usually get drunk and end up fighting, sometimes violently, make sure you’re making this decision from a place of self-respect rather than from a place of trying to control them. Why does this matter? Because trying to control others never works, and is an unhealthy reason for making any decision. Make your decisions for YOU, like your reasons, and honor yourself enough to stand by them (aka when you make a boundary, know that it’s YOUR responsibility to keep it/enforce it when necessary).

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