Saturday, July 17, 2010

What the heck do you mean, "Create Healthy Boundaries"?

One of the cornerstones to the work I do with my clients focuses on the necessity of creating healthy boundaries, both with them selves and with others. I’ve worked with people both in individual sessions on this concept, as well as in a class/group that has now lasted nearly three years.

It’s a complex topic. What the heck is a “Healthy Boundary”? And, how do I apply it to my life? These are valid questions, and ones that we explore during our time together. Boundary issues often show up when discussing relationships. We want to give so much of ourselves to those we love that we forfeit our own needs in the process, often times not even allowing ourselves to become aware of them in the first place. Working on becoming aware of our needs, finding healthy ways to set healthy limits both with ourselves as well as others, and taking care of ourselves first (before anyone else) is the goal of this work.

1st - Work on becoming aware of your needs.

2nd - Find healthy ways to set healthy limits both with your self, as well as others.

3rd - Take care of your self first (before anyone else).

Tonia was in her sixties, with bleach white/blonde hair that went down her back and frizzled at the ends. She was one of the most religious people I had ever met, full of rigid expectations for how she should live her life and how others should behave. She used this rigidity to feel safe, because she did not know how to say “no” to others requests or how to acknowledge and then make requests around her own limits.
In the group, we discussed how you become aware of a limit that you might have. I explained to them that, “Feeling angry, resentful, or uncomfortable are red flags for knowing that a boundary of yours (a limit) is not being honored.” After this basic discussion, Tonia piped up with a relevant question, “After you realize you’ve stepped over a boundary then what do you do about it?” Tonia’s exasperation was evident. She had spent so much of her life trying not to make anyone angry that she couldn’t possibly conceive of the idea of telling them “no”.

My answer was short and to the point, “You make a request.” I asked her to give an example of a place in her life where she was feeling frustrated or not at ease. She explained that her son had been expecting her to take care of the grandkids since there was a fourth baby on the way. Although Tonia enjoyed her grandchildren she was also exhausted and was unable to pick them up when needed, etc. She also was feeling overwhelmed and concerned that her own stress levels were getting too high.

“So, how do you feel about telling your son, in an appropriate way, that you can no longer take care of the children due to physical limitations,” I asked.

Tonia scoffed at this idea. “I can’t just not be there for him! He needs me too much. What would he do if I wasn’t there for him and the kids?”

“It’s your choice.” I reminded her. “You can continue to take care of the children. Or, you can set a healthy limit. It sounds like you have a good idea what your limits are. Now, the challenge is you either listen to them and take care of yourself, or not. Either way we have to deal with the consequences of our choices. Which consequences are you ok with dealing with? Which choices would keep you from a breakdown?” Without my trying to ‘tell her’ how to go about it, Tonia was able to then feel a sense of control over what was the right way for her.

Less than a month later, Tonia came to class to share that she had finally told her son that she could only take care of the children two days out of the week. She exclaimed, “I feel so happy with what I’ve done! I really feel like it was the right thing to do. And, funny enough, my son was able to find someone else to take care of the kids the rest of the time. I think I’m really enjoying this boundary-stuff.” She smiled, but then quickly looked concerned. “Now, if I could only figure out how to set a limit with my daughter-in-law. She is so dang selfish!”

“Remember,” I reminded her. “You can’t control anyone else’s behavior. You can only make requests. If they do not honor your request, then you have to take actions to take care of yourself. So, given this statement, does it help to know what your request will be?”

“Oh, yes.” She said. “I think I’ve got a good idea.”

Tonia became one of my most devoted group participants. She also became less rigid with her expectations of others and of her self. It was a great process to watch, not to mention a relief. I was, after all, one of those she had pretty high expectations for, and she wouldn’t hesitate to let me know from time to time!

Goal for this session: Becoming more aware of how to use healthy boundaries in your own life!

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