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The Power of Boundaries

Matthew Cuddeback, LCSW

For many of us a time will come in our lives in which we realize that someone is taking up too much of our emotional real estate. Whether it is a family member, friend, co-worker, or someone else you interact with often, it is important to remember that you get to choose how you interact with them. You have the power to implement more boundaries to better maintain your mental health if you choose.

When things are not going well in my client’s lives, I often remind them that nobody is going to come into their lives and fix everything and advocate for them. Who is going to look at your hard work at your job and decide, unprompted, you deserve more money and a promotion? A problematic partner isn’t likely to tell you they have been unfair and are going to change unprompted. A family member isn’t likely to suddenly express that their overdependence on you isn’t healthy for you and change all their problematic behaviors. The only person who can do these things for you, is you. You are of course not to blame for these situations, but you can, in many situations take some control over it and that is by advocating for yourself.

Of course, this is not easy and can result in some difficult consequences, but if there is someone in your life who has taken a toll on your mental health it is worth weighing the pro’s and cons of implementing more boundaries. You may no longer get to see that group of friends as much if you tell someone in that group that you cannot interact with them the way you have been. A family member may develop an opinion that you’re selfish if you decide you cannot continue to help them financially. Your co-worker may try to influence people’s opinions of your professionalism if you tell them you are no longer going to cover for them when they are late to work. It is important, as a first step, to weigh these possible consequences and be honest with yourself about them, and then choose how to proceed.

Once you have made the choice to install more healthy boundaries there are two crucial areas to ensure your plan is effective, consistency and repetition. Let’s use an example; let’s say you have decided that your sister has been taking advantage of your generosity and you are going to create healthier boundaries. You then have a discussion with her to let her you’re your plan for change, because the way you have been interacting is not good for either of you. Most likely she will not like it, people tend to feel much more comfortable and secure with clear boundaries and expectations but getting there is rarely comfortable. Now, you let her know the rules. It may look something like this, “I cannot continue to keep your secrets from mom because it takes a toll on my relationship with mom. I am also no longer able to give you money like I have been.” Now, she will likely become defensive and when that happens you can expect insults and misdirection. Don’t get distracted from your key points and don’t take the bait when she says something that really gets your blood boiling.

This is where the consistency comes in. You can’t bend or break the rules or it all collapses. For example, let’s say you know she is struggling financially and her phone isn’t working. You feel bad and think you could give her money to get a new phone. While your generosity is admirable, it nulls your whole plan and becomes confusing for your sister. If you help her with the phone, next time she needs help with rent, she is going to ask why the phone is okay but a roof over her head isn’t. Now you can’t help but think she has a point, and you’re back at square one. Repetition is important because you will need to remind her frequently what the rules are. The more you do the sicker she gets of hearing it and stops asking for money.

Implementing boundaries is difficult and all of us are incredibly adept at finding weaknesses in boundaries. This means you may need to choose to revise them or stay consistent, but don’t give in. Over time it will become healthier and more comfortable for both of you. It may feel cruel at times, and is worth considering if you are being unfair, but it may also be completely appropriate. Your sister won’t like that she can’t get money from you anymore, but in the long run she will see the weight of her decisions and need to take care of herself. She will also appreciate that she at least knows what is acceptable and what is not, even if she may not be aware of it or admit it. You don’t have to allow people to treat you in unhealthy ways, if you have decided it has become too problematic, you are absolutely allowed to create some new, healthier rules.

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