THE BLOG

Border Defense for Personal Development

07/07/2013 09:16 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2013

Boundaries are as vital for us as they are for nations. Just as nations have political or natural borders, we are bounded by skin, but it's the psychological violations at the fringes that are the hairiest for country and person alike. A foreign warship off the coast can create an international incident just as our lack of personal boundaries can cause us severe distress. When we get too invested in things going on outside of our skin, we can suffer. When our boundaries are violated, we can experience anger, disappointment, resentment, and a host of biological symptoms including stress, depression, anxiety, headaches, nausea, and digestive problems. We literally swallow our bitterness or discomfort to benefit or comfort someone else.

Our personal boundaries define us as individuals. In the best of all possible worlds, we have a clearly articulated set of beliefs, guidelines and social conventions that identify us as a person. When our boundaries are lucid, those we come into contact with understand our boundaries and know what will happen if they are breached. Having good, clear boundaries is essential to authenticity and healthy personal development.

Our boundaries with others are absorbed like osmosis in childhood. When we are raised in a family where healthy boundaries are maintained and respected, we soak them up like a sponge. Similarly when we grow up in a family where boundaries are not respected and constantly violated, we don't learn where the other person ends and we begin. You may have a boundary issue if you have ever had a friend or family member who feels like a huge energy drain. The reason we allow people to walk all over us, or allow them to manipulate or coerce us into doing something is complicated. The result isn't: We open the door and let them walk right in.

When we ignore our own self-care, we worry more about what other people think about us. We have poor boundaries when our mantra is, "I'm not happy until you're happy." It's like a country allowing gangs and the mafia to set up in our towns and cities. Weak boundaries leave us vulnerable to the needy people in our lives wanting more and more. We might have good boundaries with certain people in certain situations. Chances are equally good that we have lousy boundaries with some people in other circumstances. Our job is to notice situations where we feel trampled, used, angry, even humiliated and to make note of them. Is there anything that links these incidents together, like a belief or a social convention?

The reason we lower or ignore our boundaries is complex and they have to do with our beliefs around being accommodating, being helpful, an inability to say no, wanting to be liked, or being a good team player, son, daughter, mother or father. We also get wiggly boundaries when we put other's needs ahead of our own. Our suffering might manifest itself as a hit to our self-esteem, we could be out of pocket, or inconvenienced in some way. In other words, when our boundaries are porous, it hurts us because our needs are ignored.

In my practice, I notice those of us who have weak or variable boundaries tend to have a low awareness of our needs. Being unaware or our needs makes it much easier to put other people's needs before our own, especially when they make a compelling case for them.

So, make an inventory of your needs and beliefs. They will help you define where to draw a line in the sand. If you have a habit of reflexively saying yes, start getting in the habit of saying, "I'll get back to you on that." Buying a little time will give you the opportunity to figure out what your needs are in the situation and maybe to become aware of a belief that is getting in your way. After all, if we can't help ourselves, how can we help others? We still have a choice about who to help and the context we help them. It's about having choices rather than operating on autopilot.

Takers can't take anything from us unless we give it to them. Having good boundaries is a balance of our needs and beliefs and what we can do to support the other person. We are authentic and genuine when we are in harmony with ourselves and the other's boundaries.

Nations with firm boundaries tend to have fewer problems because those who might test them know it's not worth the trouble, or the consequences would be dire. They go after more vulnerable countries. Those of us with good boundaries are less likely to have difficulty with boundary violations because those close to us know how far they can go, and understand what the consequences will be if they push too hard.

Once we become aware of our boundaries and monitor them carefully, we will find we are more respected. We won't get bizarre requests of our time and resources, and if we do, we'll know what to do. We won't worry so much about being liked by others. Putting ourselves first isn't selfish. As the old proverb goes, "good fences make good neighbors." When you respect your boundaries, others will respect them too.

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