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Keeping Clean Boundaries

Strong Relationships Balance Intimate Openness with Respectful Limits

by Deah Curry, PhD & Steven J. Wells

When I was a kid, the rules in our house were that everyone must be careful not to hurt mom’s feelings (as anything she disagreed with seemed to do). We weren’t to express anger, ask too many questions, or talk about interpersonal dissatisfactions. Instead, we learned that others’ needs were more important than our own desires, that it was impolite to share our own experiences, and that it was dangerous to let others know what we really thought and felt.

Many people seem to have grown up with similar dysfunctional family values —one reason that boundaries are a favorite topic of psychotherapists. Balancing openness, intimacy, and limits while own-ing our own "stuff" and letting others own theirs, are the hallmarks of the good bound-aries required in solid interpersonal inter-actions.

Learning to form strong relationships that are healthy in emotional intimacy and open in clear, respectful communication is not a trait that seems to be coded in our DNA — we’ve got to be taught. Therapy clients are frequently assisted in being open with their feelings without being mani-pulative, and to grow a strong enough sense of self to say no when appropriate. Porous Boundaries and Unhealthy Walls

Juana’s relationship problems revolved around over-compensating for feeling unworthy and flawed. Believing she was unacceptable and unlovable, she had trouble setting her own boundaries for fear that friends would walk away if she asserted her needs.

Once in a while, though, Juana found herself using her emotions to manipulate others into getting what she wanted, and thereby breached others’ boundaries in the process. She resorted to this tactic because she didn’t believe she would be accepted if she directly stated her own preferences. Her porous boundaries left Juana without a strong central sense of self.

The loneliness Dysis sought to heal in counseling stemmed from protecting herself in friendships by building thick emotional walls that kept people from getting too close. Afraid of rejection and judgment, she sabotaged several relation-ships with this strategy designed to keep from getting hurt.

Not able to risk being interpersonally vulnerable, she kept people at arm’s length, and made them work hard to get to know the real her — an effort that most didn’t bother to make. The unhealthy walls that Dysis hid behind robbed her of gaining the inti-macy in friendships that she craved.

Holding Respectful Limits

In order to hold respectful limits, we first must treat ourselves and others as if we all have value. This starts with believing that the way we feel and think is in fact very important. Self and other respect can be practiced by never saying things to yourself that you would never say to another person, and vice versa – such as "You don’t deserve to be happy," or "What you want doesn’t matter." When Juana learned this, her relationships began to improve.

Limiting negative self-talk and other-judgments plants seeds of clean boun-daries rooted in a clear understanding that we are all responsible for the ways we behave. We are not responsible, however, for the ways others behave or how they feel. Each of us must establish our own limits that protect ourselves without harm-ing others.

At times we might think that being respectful requires allowing others to walk all over us. Conversely, we may think that since others don’t respect us, we don’t need to respect them. Both these attitudes sabotage relationships. Good boundaries strike a middle path of balance.

Engaging in Open Communication

Beyond saying what you mean, assert-ing your needs and owning your feelings, engaging in open communication requires creating a space in your life for someone else. To do this we must be willing to be open and honest in discussing the details of our relationships. When things are going smoothly this isn’t too hard.

But when troubles or misunder-standings come, as they invariably do, we must be prepared to share our thoughts and feelings. Hiding or burying feelings, assumptions, perceptions, and needs under a blanket of self–effacement or recrim-ination may seem self-protective but in reality, it’s poor boundary maintenance. When Dysis learned this crucial principle, and began to share her thoughts and feel-ings more freely, her relationships improved.

Open communication doesn’t automatically assume that the other person is at fault. Speaking up for yourself is essential, and it’s necessary to listen care-fully, too. Voicing and checking out as-sumptions and perceptions, avoiding easy and harsh judgments, and being discerning in your conclusions are all part of open communication.

This is hard work. It’s difficult not to place blame or take things personally, and to approach situations honestly with be-ginner’s mind, always willing to see things in a different light when appropriate. It helps to be transparent and explicit in communication.

Don’t assume that the other person will see things as you do. Take risks in opening up. When allowing the possiblilty that we are wrong in our viewpoint, the challenging skill of self-reflection becomes necessary.

This can be learned, but we must practice it daily for it to be effective. These are the essential steps in establishing good boundaries, personal balance and relational intimacy.

"I" statements — like "I feel hurt by what’s happened here", or "I feel we need to talk this out so that it doesn’t build re-sentments that can linger for years and turn into a full scale grudge" — put voice to self-reflection and boundaries. They help us admit our own part in the situation and serve to courageously address the prob-lems.

Keeping clean boundaries and having respectful, open communication are on-going efforts that require allowing others to be themselves without compromising your own self in the process. These relation-ship maintenance skills take care of yourself first by being authentic, while also being caring of others. Knowing where you stand with your own needs and desires gives you the ability to do this.Having good bound-aries and open communication is available to all of us. We just have to work for it and stay honest with ourselves as well as others.

For details on how personal growth work with Dr Deah, might benefit you, see www.DeahCurry.net. To make an appointment, and for her Kirkland WA location call 425-814-9083 or send email to DrDeah@deahcurry.net. For more information about Steve, see www.StevenJ Wells.org.




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