07/02/2010 08:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

And You Thought Arizona Had Boundary Problems

Years ago I recognized I had a problem with boundaries. As I began to get more centered, I realized that learning to set boundaries for myself was imperative.

As children we supposedly learn to protect and take care of ourselves through defining our space -- physically (sexually), emotionally and mentally. My boundaries were more porous than the border between Mexico and Arizona. I had to sit in an aisle seat in the movie theater because I felt people encroaching on me. I felt responsible for everyone's emotions except for my own.

I think underneath it all, I was afraid of setting boundaries because if I did, people would abandon me. Talk about scaring myself. But I hadn't yet realized my own worth. Once I did, I was willing to risk, knowing that my respect for myself and my own empowerment was more important than anyone else's approval. So, now came the fun part -- learning how to establish boundaries.

They say that life is a matter of balance. Getting close or maintaining your distance, becoming involved versus minding your own business and having opinions in contrast to remaining neutral are just some of the decisions we all face pretty regularly. As it becomes more personal, we might call it "getting involved" versus "remaining aloof" and maybe even "falling in love" or "running away." Sometimes, the way to maintain our boundaries is obvious, and sometimes it is subtle. Sometimes we are spot-on and at other times we miss the mark. Nevertheless, however you look at it, learning how to establish boundaries and how to maintain them is a life skill well worth developing.

Some of the toughest boundaries to establish and maintain have to do with close personal relationships, especially those involving friends and family. One boundary issue is avoiding or limiting enmeshment. Our good friends at Encarta define enmeshment as "to entangle somebody or something in something from which it is difficult to be extricated or separated." If the boundaries in healthy relationships are like the spines and covers of books on a shelf, then enmeshed relationships look like the threads in a tightly woven rug. In the first case, while the books are all together, the separation between volumes is clear. In the second case, it's really difficult to tell where one thread ends and the next begins. In the first case, I can take a book off of the shelf without disturbing all the others. In the second case, if I pull on a single thread, the entire rug may become unraveled.

As I mentioned above, boundaries are for protection. When a boundary violation occurs, protection erodes. In order to please others, we lose sight of the boundaries and end up leaving ourselves defenseless. We end up saying yes to virtually all requests out of fear of rejection and abandonment. In doing so, we can end up tolerating abuse or disrespectful treatment. I wonder, which is really worse.

In an effort to avoid conflict with others, we create internal conflict and sometimes actually increase conflict with others. The thinking is distorted because we see ourselves as all powerful, thinking we are making others happy and leading them to like us; and yet, at the same time, powerless, because we lose our sense of who we are, what we feel, need, want and think.

It's taken a while and I am still working the process, but here are four characteristics of healthy boundaries that I've learned so far:

  • Other people's problems are theirs not yours. You don't have to solve them or rescue anyone.
  • Freely give yourself permission to say yes or no without guilt, or fear.
  • It's not wise to take things personally or make them personal. (It's not about me!)
  • There is never a healthy reason to tolerate abuse or disrespect.

Developing healthy boundaries involves taking care of yourself first. Believe me; I know how tough that can be for a people-pleaser and care-giver like me. The process begins with self-exploration and examination, so that you know what you like, need, want, as well as being absolutely clear about what you won't tolerate in a relationship. It's best to set healthy boundaries as early on as possible so that everyone involved knows the rules and what is considered okay and what is not. For that to happen, here are four simple guidelines:

1. Get honest with yourself. Learn to recognize your true feelings, and once you have, be honest with others. That goes for your opinions, too. You are entitled to have them, and they are as valid as anyone else's.

2. Be direct. Ask for what you want and need, and if you don't get it share how you feel, authentically, without blame, with ownership for your feelings and thoughts and respect for others.

3. Get clear on what you are responsible for and what is not your responsibility. Do not take on what is not yours. People who don't have respect for boundaries will most likely push the hardest on yours.

4. Don't underestimate other people's ability. People can do well without you over-extending yourself.

As someone who has always considered herself (and been called) a loving, caring, giving, person, it took me a while, but I learned that having boundaries and putting myself first was not selfish, cruel or unfeeling. We need to take care of ourselves first to be able to take care of anyone else. This is sometimes not as easy as it sounds, but it is worth doing.

I look forward you hearing your thoughts.