Many people have problems with boundaries. In pattern formation, boundaries are an extension of safety. During development, boundaries (rules) are limits that parents impose on children for their protection. For example, a young child does not understand the danger of streets and cars. So a parent places limits on where and when a child can approach a street. To ensure safety, the caregiver teaches the child safe methods for streets, such as holding someone’s hand and looking both ways. A child, who is well trained about streets, reaches up for someone’s hand when she approaches it.
Problems arise when the training is either poor or excessive. Years ago, I worked with a head-strong five-year-old whose mother did not have time for him (poor training). I liked him. He was bright and independent – too independent. Unfortunately, his parent did not teach him to understand risks. As a result, he did whatever he wanted in his neighborhood. In his world, he discovered the risks, and negotiated them for himself. One day his football went into the street. Without stopping, he raced between two cars to get it. He was struck and killed by an oncoming car. It was a sad and tragic event that happened because the boundaries were poor. While his parent was absorbed in her life, the choices belonged to my young friend – choices he was too young to make without direction. Caregivers must control children until they can make safe and productive decisions for themselves. Because young children do not know the dangers their actions might produce, grownups have to be in charge. So how do you handle boundaries in life when you received either too little or too much control growing up?
The first and most common option is for a person to continue the pattern that they learned as a child – healthy or unhealthy. If it was healthy and offered problem solving opportunities, it does fine. If, on the other hand, the caregiver was over-protective or under-protective, the person faces a dilemma. As an adult, do I keep my caregiver’s limits my whole life or do I change them? Being personally healthy requires making individual decisions and owning the responsibility for them. In safety, it means assessing what the risks and rewards are for an action and deciding how to proceed. When you decide, you are in control of your life. This answers how a person creates self-control. What happens in relationships with others?
The same decision applies to relationship boundaries. As a person becomes confident about abilities to make decisions independently and retains responsibility for the outcomes, this confidence means behaviors show self-control. Emotions are expressed in an adult way, not like a child. Emotional statements are factual, about specific feelings, and expressed without fear. The goal is to keep a personal boundary and control yourself. There is no desire to control another person. Other people have the right to make personal decisions for themselves. Keeping consistent boundaries demonstrates clear personal limits. Once consistent self-control exists, you decide how you want to care for others. This decision includes how you can or cannot extend your boundaries to help others, when to accept or reject another’s actions that are unhealthy for you, and how you choose to close or open your boundaries to others.
So what is the best way to help others with boundaries? Keep your own boundaries in good repair. To do this, you have to ask yourself when an emotion arises, “Does it belong to me?” We are social beings and sense other’s feelings particularly from people whom we care about. It is easy to become absorbed in other people’s drama when you are not deciding who owns it. The best help anyone offers another person is to give them responsibility for their decisions and keep responsibility for our own.