Table of Contents
Ideals and traditions
Many writers suggest ideal behaviors which people should strive to develop. Many people want to live up to spiritual ideals such as helping others, kindness, generosity and sharing.
They often forget, however, that most people they meet will be at a rather low level of emotional maturity and relationship awareness. People who live in fear, or with low awareness of the feelings and needs of others, cannot fully respect other people’s boundaries. Some people will consciously take advantage of perceived weaknesses or compliance of others. Some will not do this on purpose, but will find numerous justifications. Thus, if you try to be nice and help others, you may find that other people will soon start expecting it and asking for it, and in this way drain your time and energy. Such parasitic relationships lack balance and true pleasure.
You do not owe your time, love, or even friendship to anybody. Those are rather abstract terms, so we might be confused about setting boundaries and remembering what we want. You might feel more guilt refusing requests for your time than for your money. Our parents probably did not give money to anyone – but perhaps they wasted their time and energy on people they disliked, to avoid offending them. We may have learned indirectly, or even after direct instructions, to waste time in the same way.
I am not suggesting isolating yourself and only doing what is profitable for you. Being a part of a friendly community, spending time together and helping each other can be a beautiful, rewarding experience. Many communities, however, have rather rigid rules, unhealthy expectations and pushy communication habits. It is up to you to create a balance between being friendly and compassionate, and taking care of yourself.
Balance and blame
Sometimes the best way to help people can be to push them away, not to allow them to cling to us and waste our time and energy. In this way, we help people face themselves and their needs, find their own strength and develop independence. In contrast, serving their needs might only make them feel that it pays to be dependent. When we set boundaries, we express respect for and confidence in other people’s strengthand responsibility.
Even if you do not see anything unpleasant in some people, maybe you will not be attracted to them as potential friends. There is nothing wrong with this and you need not feel guilty by refusing to spend your time with them. It is important to understand that love and respect for others does not necessarily mean being at their disposal.
According to Deborah Tannen (author of “You Just Don’t Understand“), women are more in danger of neglecting their boundaries. This is partly because of a feminine tendency to maintain harmony and avoid conflict, and partly because our society expects women to give more and values their time less than that of men. Many people will find it easier to ask women for their time or services for free, than to ask the same of men.
Many people, especially helping professionals, have problems with asking to be paid for their work. They may prefer not to have to ask, or to try requesting donations. This might be a solution in a community of emotionally mature people. Yet most people in our society have not developed a sense of balance in giving and receiving, or they are too afraid of losing money to pay as much as you think your work deserves.
If you depend on donations, you can feel exhausted, depreciated and exploited, not to mention problems paying your bills. Money is a practical way to exchange goods and services with clarity and balance. People with limiting beliefs about money might criticize you for this attitude or try to induce guilt in you. They may call you a fraud if you do not provide free services. An interesting question is, would they give their own work away for free?
Mature, responsible communication does not necessarily mean making other people feel good and avoiding hurt. Often, avoiding honesty about our thoughts and feelings only postpones conflict and makes it worse.
For example, if we use lies or excuses trying to avoid unwanted requests, instead of saying “No” directly, those requests may well continue. Other people will not become aware of our true feelings and if we hope they would somehow intuit how we feel, we fool ourselves. People can distort reality in many ways, and are usually much more focused on their desires than yours. They may repeat their requests more frequently, until the situation escalates to either open conflict or avoidance and leaves a “sour taste in the mouth”.
Here is a basic rule: you are responsible for your own behavior, not for the feelings of others. That means: if you do your best to communicate with respect and integrity, there is no reason to feel guilt even if the other person feels hurt and perhaps blames you.
In a healthy communication, if one person refuses to fulfill a wish or a demand of the other, the other person can check if they want to change their demands and continue the relationship as it is, or want to change the type or intensity of the relationship and search for what they want in some other relationship. This can be done without hurt and blaming, as a natural process, if we see each other as equally important human beings with equally important needs, and communicate clearly. But if somebody can’t see you as who you are, and projects instead their expectations from a parent, partner or a child on you, they will feel hurt, disappointed, and will basically make their happiness depend upon your behavior, which is a recipe for suffering.
In any important communication, it’s wise to make clear what every person included wants, and is it acceptable to the other one(s), especially if we have an idea that we might have different expectations. We shouldn’t expect that other people should automatically agree to fulfill our desires only because we want them to, or that they should want the same type of relationship we want.
Fear and guilt
Setting boundaries is equally important in an intimate partnership as in other relationships. Many people burden their partners with high expectations and needs, and therefore do not respect their boundaries. On the other hand, some people may give their partners too much space and avoid expressing their requirements. They may call this love, while acting out of fear and neediness. Then suppressed frustration builds up until it either explodes or slowly erodes trust and intimacy. So why not to stop this process at the beginning?
Such lack of honesty is often due to a fear of abandonment. Many people learned early in their lives that, if they want to be loved, they cannot be who they are, or that love means that the needs of others are more important than their own.
How can we recognize healthy boundaries and when do we disregard them? Pay attention to your subtle emotions and translate them into words as best you can. If you do not listen to your emotions, sooner or later you might get psychosomatic warning signals.
Be aware that your boundaries might not be compatible with other people’s. This is normal and there is no need to blame anyone. Through honest negotiations, you can explore what sort of relationship you want in such a case. If some people avoid honest negotiations by criticizing, blaming or giving you silent treatment, reconsider how much time you want to spend with them.
If someone threatens our personal boundaries, it is not a good enough reason to react angrily, with either active or passive aggression. Anger and blame often signal suppressed fear and unresolved guilt, which we must accept and understand in order to deal with them efficiently.
It is important to differentiate between decisiveness and aggression, as well as between permissiveness and compassion. This may be difficult for people who were taught to suppress their needs and feelings. They may react out of guilt mixed with fear and anger, if forced to set boundaries. This often occurs after a period of hiding emotions, repressing anger and accumulating resentment.
Some people defend their personal boundaries decisively, yet also aggressively through blaming or criticizing others, even for the smallest of problems. The more aggression, the more suppressed fear and guilt you can expect. Such people are likely to have been badly insulted or hurt in childhood and decided to fight for themselves, but from a stance of “Do unto others before they do unto you”.
This attitude often comes from fear that they could not protect themselves without attacking or degrading others. Often they had strong role models for such behavior. This is neither self-love nor self-esteem, rather a different way of expressing the same problem.
Assume that people do not act with a conscious intention to insult or hurt you, except when openly aggressive or manipulative. If you understand that most people have not developed their consciousness of values and feelings of others, you need not react with anger (only irritation).
It is usually inappropriate to express desires or requests with anger and accusations. Otherwise, we risk pushing people into defensiveness, damaging potential quality relationships.
React on time
It is crucial to recognize, define and explain your boundaries, needs and desires to others early in relationships. If you avoid this, you may end up accumulating resentment. Most people did not learn to be sufficiently aware of others’ nonverbal signals and cannot recognize indirect warnings. In such a case, you might delay expressing your needs until an emotional or even physical crisis occurs.
Notice what stops you from calmly explaining to other people what you want and what is not acceptable to you, without fear, blame and anger. If you avoid making your boundaries clear, you will probably feel uncomfortable and limited in your communications. This may even lead you to push people away – blaming them for your discomfort rather than acknowledging your own emotions.
The more you disrespect yourself and your needs, the more you are likely to disrespect other people and their needs, even if only inside your mind.
Acknowledging our own mistakes
It is good to remember this when questioning your own behavior and demands. It is easier to notice when our own boundaries are threatened; it might be challenging to recognize when we intrude on other people’s boundaries. If we do not love ourselves, we may feel inferior when we recognize our faults and inappropriate behavior. Thus, we can be motivated to avoid questioning our motives. The more we accept ourselves, the more we can accept -and correct- our mistakes.
We no longer live in medieval conditions in terms of physical security, but our society is still both verbally and emotionally violent. Even if we do not express hostility, we may desire to. Fear keeps (some) people from being openly rude, rather than appreciating or understanding others. Violence may remain in our thoughtsor we may express it behind people’s backs. We may accept this as normal, or justify it in similar ways like people in the Middle Ages accepted and justified physical violence. To some extent, we are still in the Middle Ages, even if only mentally. To change something outside of ourselves, we must first recognize it within.
Self-criticism will not help us change how we relate to others. It can worsen the problem, causing inner conflict and suppression. Suppressed parts of ourselves then become stronger and more violent, seeking attention and recognition.
To recognize other people’s pain, we must first recognize our own. To understand how we hurt others, we must first become aware of how we hurt ourselves. We hurt ourselves every day, living lives we do not enjoy, remaining in surroundings we do not like, poisoning and neglecting our bodies, searching for something or somebody to save us from ourselves. This cannot change until we stop believing that people or circumstances dictate the choices we make and are hence responsible for us.