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The Importance of Boundaries

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"Whatever you are willing to put up with, is exactly what you will have."

-- Anonymous

It is never too late to learn about your boundaries. I am coming to believe that it is perhaps one of the aspects of living that most defines our maturity and facility for accomplishing our goals. Boundary issues are common to most of us; in fact, our personal boundaries are the basic, yet often invisible rulebook that guides all of our relationships. Our boundaries define how and what we communicate, what we give and receive, and even, in the most basic sense, provide the parameters for what we expect from others and life itself.

Boundaries reflect how we love ourselves and what we value most deeply. They impact our capacity at work, with authority, with our money and our sexuality. Knowing when we want to say yes, when we want to say no, what feels like self-respect and where our own needs start and end are the foundations that build the sense of boundaries that control our lives. Mine have long been porous, which is a generous way of admitting that my lines between myself and others, in family and even more so at work, have been fuzzy.

An old friend once told me that our boundaries are the truest measure of how we love ourselves. I thought I understood the meaning at the time. Raising four children should have bestowed on me a mastery of setting limits and protecting my personal space over the last two decades, but it hasn't. I am not alone in my struggle for healthy boundaries. Learning to define our boundaries is challenging for many people because they are fluid and change with our sense of ourselves.

In order to not deal with the changing nature of creating a true relationship between our selves and the people we love, people often over commit to rigid boundaries or under commit to any boundaries at all. This explains why many relationships swing between the doormat and bulldozer syndromes. On the one hand, we are accommodating to a fault, ever flexible and nice, which both makes us the self sacrificing loser in most conflicts and the self righteous victim. On the other hand, the bulldozer is ever conscious of his needs, but frequently unaware of the needs of others. Characterized by a strong sense of entitlement, this rigid boundary style tends to win at conflicts but loses respect and intimacy in their relationships, often without recognizing what they are giving up.

Sadly these extremes characterize many relationships, from intimate partnerships to family bonding and work contracts. Establishing a true center for our personal boundaries is not an education that most of us get growing up; rather we are hardwired with our invisible boundary rulebook instilled in us as our sense of self worth and esteem. It has taken me half my life to realize that I am a better friend, mother and partner to others when I am a friend to myself first. Drawing the line in relationships that are dysfunctional and unhealthy is the only positive response you can generate.

The weakest link for most of us in setting boundaries is that we never learned that setting a boundary is equivalent to letting go of the outcome in a given situation. In fact, this is the key distinguishing feature between healthy boundaries and manipulative relationships. True boundaries, once set, release the outcome. It is a true letting go of what is not ours. Often the way that I have done them with my children is when my boundaries are perceived as threats. Not letting go, trying to control the outcome is a form of manipulation that often gets confused as boundary setting in many relationships.

Another signal to rethink your boundaries is when you are unable to keep your commitments without constant resentment. I realized that as much as I do for others in the name of love, often the takeaway for those I am trying to love feels more like obligation. I don't want to love begrudgingly, I don't want the experience of my love to feel half-hearted; I want my efforts to show up to be authentic. Yet with so many constant and continuous demands, fatigue and overwhelm can often get the better of the love, and before I know it I am resentfully following through. Doing what I promised without the love. This is another classic boundary issue that ends up confusing everyone involved.

Giving up the self-sabotage, over-commitment and co-dependency that my porous boundaries have long fostered is a new path that requires daily attention and vigilance. The work of setting and keeping healthy boundaries is bound to the action verb of self-forgiveness. Learning to sense and articulate my own needs and choosing where and when to share them might well be the single biggest life change I can commit to.

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