Boundaries Revisited

Sometimes I blog simply because the act of writing helps me think. This is one of those blogs. It’s about boundaries with people close to us, tough love boundaries. I struggle with setting boundaries and sticking to them.  I first wrote about it here and then I talked about the It’s None of my Business: the Polite Boundary (one I like, obviously).

Lately I’ve been faced with a series of problems. None my own that needed my help. They involved loved ones. So, of course, you want to be there. But at the same time I found myself asking where’s the limit? How much of their problem do I have to solve? How much of my energy and time do I give? And what do I do when it’s the same thing over and over? Do I have any responsibility for a problem I did not cause and is not mine?

I go in circles: I feel bad when I draw the line, unassertive when I don’t. And mostly, why is it harder in some cases than in others? That’s the case of what I like to call The Tough Love Boundary and I think it has to do with two reasons.

The Emotional Tie

It’s easy to set boundaries with someone who is almost a stranger.  An irate boss or a rude coworker. Think of someone you don’t know at all, like a stranger in the street asking you for money. You’ll keep a distance, maybe tell them to get lost. Sometimes I give, others I’ve held up my hand and said No! loud enough to make sure they get it. I don’t care what they think. When you don’t know someone, you don’t care what they think of your limit setting. 

Equal Footing

If it’s someone you are emotionally attached to, it gets harder. If the person asking is on the same footing, has the same energy level, it’s easier to set a limit of what you can and can’t do. You’re both coming from a position of strength and on an equal footing. They ask, you limit. It’s a clear exchange.

“Hey, can you drive me to the airport?” (let’s say they never offer to pay for gas)

“No, sorry, my car is too unreliable/I don’t have the time/traffic scares me.” or “No, but I can drive yours so you won’t have to pay parking.” (my kind of compromise).

Here’s a real story, similar situation.

“Can you drive us to the airport?”

“You’re four adults. How are you all and your luggage going to fit in my car?”

“We can take my SUV, you can drive it back and leave it at your house for the week and come pick us up.” (they lived out of town).

“No. Do like the rest of us and pay the parking for the week.”

This is said without even blinking. How is it some of us can do this and others (me) cringe? This is obviously people on equal footing. They just had to drive there and park. It wasn’t leaving them in dire straits.

Feelings of Guilt

It’s harder when the person asking is coming from a difficult situation, is needy. You feel pity, compassion, guilt.  They may be lonely or sad. You help, it’s normal. But what do you do when they need too much? When there isn’t an end in sight? Or they keep repeating the same pattern?

I’m writing about this because I’ve have, until recently, been doing more than I could. More than I could give. And part of that was never getting any return. Most of us will do anything to help a loved one, but when there is never any return? Over years? When slowly, the problem becomes all mine and I’m doing all the work to solve it?

I’ve set limits with people who were very subtle and never asked outright. I offered my time, energy, ideas. It was my fault if I did too much and felt resentful. No one had asked me. Or had they, but in a more subtle way? It’s pointless to try to read into someone’s thoughts, usually in an attempt to lessen the guilt by labeling them as calculating. They seem stronger that way and you’re back on the equal footing. Regardless, I’ve learned it’s ultimately about me. Where do I stop?

The Savior Complex 

Before I go further let’s talk about another possible reason that pushes some of us to always be in the helping position: the savior complex. And I talked about it in the blog titled The Unhelpers.

Sure we enjoy helping and doing good. But in an extreme manifestation it’s a savior complex where you need to help, asked to or not, convinced that your solution is the only one. Often wanting to take complete control. Underlying all this is a self-esteem and validation issue.

That isn’t what this blog is about. But if you want to read more, you can google  Savior Complex or White Knight Complex.

The Limit 

Let’s stay with the more common need for a tough love boundary. Eventually there are so many demands so many needs to be met that the limits of time and energy are reached. We can say we’re burnt out or need a mental health break. It’s easy to use this excuse, it’s somewhat out of your control. You’re not setting the boundary, it just happened. You’ve given all you can, unselfishly. But the downside is you’ve exhausted yourself.

But what about setting a boundary before you reach that point? I struggle with guilt and being seen as selfish. But there are a few questions I’ve used in order to determine if it’s time to set or reset a boundary.

Is it Time?

Am I always seeing the same pattern? It’s OK to help someone out of a tight spot; it’s actually completely normal and you hope they do the same for you. But is it always the same situation that’s cropping up? Does it feel like a film on repeat?

Does it seem as if you are taking care of everything? You’ve been asked (or offered) to help and now it’s a one-man operation and you’re the man?

Did you caution against doing or not doing something and now you’re being asked to fix the (predictable and undesirable) outcome?

Are you beginning to feel frustrated or resentful? Used? Are you getting angry with them? With yourself? I’ve been there, I’ve done all that. It’s not a good place to be. And it’s definitely the time to set a boundary. It’s an even better time than doing it in a moment of anger or exasperation. Something as simple and direct as “Look, we’ve been through all this before I’ve said everything I could say to try to help you I simply can’t go through a repeat.”

Here’s another question, to paraphrase Janet Jackson, What have you done for me lately? This is another tough question to ask because I feel selfish, as if I’m keeping score. But it’s one I’ve asked myself a lot. Is the giving and helping a one-way street? This inequality undermines the relationship. 

Two Techniques

The hardest part of setting this boundary is finding the courage to simply do it. I’m not particularly big on confrontation just because I don’t want to hurt people. But then I feel I’m not being tough enough or standing up for myself. It’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

If, like me, saying no is difficult, you can opt for setting less drastic limits. You can reduce the time and energy you invest without completely opting out. Not answering an email or a text right away or returning the phone call because you’re waiting to be in a better frame of mind or less hurried is completely acceptable. You can cut never ending therapy sessions by being clear that you only have so much time to talk.

Tennis Ball

I learned a trick a psych major friend called the tennis ball. Visualize yourself playing tennis with the other person. Your job is to return the ball. The ball is the problem, or the favor they need. Don’t take the ball in your hands and hold on to it. Return it. Fast. Find solutions that don’t include you. Back to the airport example.

“X was supposed to drive my to the airport, but we had an argument.”

“Did you ask if they’d drive you anyway? Do you think they’ll leave you stranded? Are they still mad?”

“Oh, I don’t want to ask. I’d rather find someone else.”

“Inquire about a shuttle. Or a bus.”

“Could you drive me?”

“Can you ask around? I can’t afford the gas and it cuts into my time/the traffic is crazy/driving out there makes me nervous.”

The Volume

The second technique I learned at work and was called the volume principle. Basically when someone talks louder/insists harder you match them. In the exchange above the unwitting helper hasn’t said no outright. When the ask became direct, they rebutted the request as directly as it was asked. It’s clear they don’t want to assume the time and cost. The asker can negotiate, or try another solution.

Do you recognize yourself on one of these categories or somewhere on this continuum? How do you resolve this situation? The Tough Love boundary is probably the hardest because it brings up issues of guilt and a sense of duty because of  our emotional attachment to the person. There are no clear answers and our way of setting limits has to be one we’re comfortable with. Let me know yours.

Photo by Alexis Chloe on Unsplash