If you are a human who lives or interacts with other humans, alive right now during this pandemic, reading this blog post, you could probably use stronger boundaries. Boundary work can be hard and challenging. And - what a better time than approaching Fall in Toronto for a fresh, renewed, perhaps different way of thinking about and working with our boundaries!
As I am sure you have noticed, our roles are so enmeshed these days. For many of us, our roles as Worker, Parent, Roommate, etc., are all relegated to a single space. Although folks have been super creative with ways to demarcate space in the home, there are no natural transitions - boundaries - as there were in our prior lives. Or perhaps, you live alone, and are connected with a friend who is struggling right now, as many are. Perhaps you really want to help, but this friend needs more than you have to offer. If we are not careful, we may get caught up trying to be everything to everyone all at once, during trying times. What a recipe for burn out!
So how do we know when our boundaries are stretched too far? Often our best cue is our internal experience, particularly our Anger. Anger - and its various flavours of resentment, irritation, etc. - is our internal cue that there is something unfair, not right, going on, that we are not getting our needs met, that our boundaries are being penetrated. Perhaps you are giving more than you are receiving, for instance.
Folks I work with tend to have complex relationships with their Anger, which makes it really tough to greet Anger as the useful signal that it is, and to use it as a cue to assert boundaries. Perhaps you have seen Anger turn into attack, perhaps you've learned then that anger must be hurtful, and so have worked hard to distance yourself - perhaps unconsciously - from your own Anger.
It can help to differentiate Feeling from Action. The problem with aggression and attack is the aggression and attack - the behaviour - NOT the internal feeling of anger.
The problem with distancing oneself from one's authentic feelings is that: 1. You lose valuable information - i.e. that I am not getting my needs met, or something is unfair or unbalanced here, and 2. The feelings end up being expressed anyway in unexpected or uncontrolled ways. Because feelings have their own life force, and they will be heard and voiced eventually; they cannot be supressed forever.
I often witness folks working hard to suppress their anger, avoiding their own unmet needs in a (perhaps unconscious) effort to meet others' needs or gain approval, only to later explode (and then feel shame and regret). The explosion is just a symptom. The root problem here isn't the explosion, it's the ongoing suppression of anger and the inability to greet it as valuable and then to channel it into asserting boundaries.
The other problem people who struggle with compulsive helping tend to have with using their anger as a cue to assert better boundaries is that when they do, they feel guilty. And so, they avoid their anger and setting healthy boundaries so as to avoid this uncomfortable guilty feeling.
The thing is, this Guilt is probably NOT actually providing you with valuable information. It is likely just an old, backlash feeling. The task then becomes tolerating the guilt, allowing the anger, and setting the boundary anyway.
Because the thing about healthy assertive anger and good boundaries is that they don't hurt relationships. They sustain them.
A personal example from my work: I have policy in which clients are asked to cover the cost of the session upon cancelling with less than 48 hours notice. I do offer case by case exceptions in cases of emergency and illness. When clients cancel in less than 48 hours notice with no illness or emergency, I find myself slightly irritated - a version of anger. Were it not for this boundary - my policy - this irritation might fester within me, and accordingly, within the therapeutic relationship, perhaps unconsciously, and potentially hurt the work we are doing. The boundary helps me get what I need (predictable schedule, protection against lost income, etc.), reduces my feelings of anger because my need gets met, and then protects the therapeutic relationship.
Full disclosure - I have definitely experienced waves of guilt when enforcing my cancellation policy. What has helped me is to expect and normalize this guilt, connect with colleagues around it, and recommit to the notion that even as a therapist, my feelings, needs, and boundaries matter if this work is going to be sustainable. That by setting good boundaries, I am protecting the relationship from my (perhaps unconscious) resentments, contributing to the health of the relationship, (and maybe even modeling good boundaries?). It helps me serve my clients from my bounty, not from my scarcity.
A lovely re-write of the Giving Tree has been making its rounds recently on social media. Perhaps you have seen it. The original Giving Tree is a children's book that involves a tree giving all of itself to a boy it loves such that it is reduced to a stump and has nothing left to give. (Oddly, the giving tree is portrayed as happy, although it essentially ceases to exist. I prefer to think of it as - the giving tree is NOT happy, it is mad and sad as hell, but it is people pleasing and pretending to be happy so that the boy doesn't feel bad for literally running it into the ground).
In the re-write, the Giving Tree has better boundaries. The tree gives, and then finds its limits, and tells the boy - No More! At least for now! I need space and time to regrow, to nourish myself, to invest in my own roots and branches and fruit.
Note: The tree doesn't suppress it's anger, it doesn't complain, or cry, or attack. Instead, it comes to believe that it actually deserves to have its basic needs for survival and thriving met, and communicates its anger from that stance. And so, its communication is assertive and non-blaming. And the boy can hear it, and responds with respecting and meeting these needs.
As a result of the Giving Tree finding its voice, its assertive anger, and its better boundaries, it is able to sustain its growth over many years to come, offering fruit and shade and gifts to the boy's children and grandchildren. It's a win-win, in the long run.
So remember - good boundaries sustain relationships in the long run! And also - Listen to Your Feelings - particularly your Anger! They can offer you good information about what you need! Cultivate your belief that you deserve to have these needs met, and communicate from this place of deserving. This will help you channel your anger assertively, rather than either suppressing, complaining, or attacking. (Perhaps more on this in a follow-up post?).
Best wishes in negotiating your boundaries in this trying time! <3