Why Personal Boundaries Matter
Learning to Create Boundaries for a More Productive LifeLauren Zander, Chairman, Handel Group
The Handel Group is a global Executive Coaching and Life Coaching company creating personal and professional breakthroughs with clients all over the world.
We hear a lot of talk about the importance of personal boundaries, but somehow we forget to listen. For example, how about the mom who works long hours at the office all week and spends her evenings and weekends caring for her family, with nary a break for herself? And then there’s the dad who always says yes to requests from neighbors, relatives and friends — even when helping them intrudes on his own plans. Life coach and regular Daily Health News contributor Lauren Zander told me that the real reason boundary issues are rampant is because many people fear they’ll be perceived as selfish if they say no to a request. But, in fact, they simply don’t understand what boundaries are… and why they matter.
Lauren started by clarifying what it actually means to “have boundaries.” Boundaries, she says, show that you respect and honor your own needs. Inherent in that, of course, is that you know what your needs are and how to communicate them honestly to the people around you. It doesn’t sound difficult, but life has a way of complicating the matter. “People are enamored with the idea of being loved and appreciated,” says Lauren. “When they get kudos for doing something, the praise and appreciation temporarily override the boundary that performing the action may have crossed.” Take, for instance, a person who can’t say no when the boss makes a special request for a Saturday at exactly the same time as, say, a child’s piano recital. Yes, it is sad to miss the child’s event, but the request from your boss engenders seductive feelings of being important, irreplaceable and needed. You can guess whose need gets met. Another example: The husband who would never take time for himself to play tennis after work or on weekends thrives on the accolades he gets for being so committed — not to mention the bonus of soothing his guilt about how many hours he is away from home during the week. And it’s not just working parents who have boundary issues, but also caregivers with sick spouses or those of us with aging parents who are slavishly committed to meeting the needs of our loved ones, even at the cost of time for ourselves. Truth be told we’re all better caregivers if we set some parameters for taking care of ourselves, too.
However, the issue of personal boundaries is not — or should not be — a judgmental one, says Lauren. At its base it has to do with choice. A martyr, for instance, is the classic example of a person who has no boundaries… always doing for others, never doing for self. But if the martyr genuinely likes leading a life of sacrifice, well then… perhaps that is the right choice for him/her. Boundaries don’t make you a better person, but there is a catch — they will likely help you feel happier, healthier and more fulfilled. “There is something that feels noble about being a martyr,” says Lauren, “but it certainly isn’t any fun. And being a martyr is self-limiting and frustrating — it leaves little room for you to truly experience who you are as a person.”
FINDING YOUR BOUNDARIESPersonal boundaries always involve relationships and they usually have to do with time, says Lauren. Consequently, evolving personal boundaries requires investigating the dynamics of your close relationships. Do you ignore your own wants and desires to meet those of others? Or are your boundaries so powerful your needs always take center stage? (Interestingly, it is a common pattern in marriages for one partner to have few or no boundaries and the other to be demanding, expecting everything to go his/her way.) Many people, though, fall somewhere in between… having some boundaries, but perhaps not enough. Adding several more might well improve the quality of your life.
Perhaps you are thinking, this sounds good, but how do I discover what my unmet needs are? You’re used to living your life this way. You are not alone — fortunately there is an easy way to uncover those unmet desires. When you next become frustrated, annoyed or whiny, take a moment to pay attention to what exactly triggered those dark feelings — the odds are good it tapped your well of unmet needs, says Lauren. This need may not concern anything particularly big or important… it may be as simple as getting an hour for lunch out of the office… or an opportunity to go out with friends every few weeks… or to take a nap on a weekend. A boundary protects something that nurtures and replenishes you and adds to your feeling of having energy for life, rather than being burdened by it.
BOUNDARIES IN ACTIONOnce you identify your unmet needs — and determine that you would like to set boundaries to protect them — you will need to discuss this with those who will be affected by it. They need fair warning about changes you will be making. Often a boundary defines a need so small others are quite willing to go along — working parents, for example, often long to be left alone for 30 minutes after work to decompress, while caregivers may need an afternoon off per week to catch up on their own lives. Other boundaries might cause more of a stir. If you can’t bear being responsible for all the household laundry all the time, yes, there will be some moans and groans, but hang in… you have started down an important path to becoming a stronger self.
Boundary setting is an excellent exercise for marriages and other relationships that involve a great deal of interaction. Explain that you are doing an exercise in finding and meeting your personal needs… ask for feedback… and make it a joint project that will benefit you both. Being open about what you want and need will foster closeness, love and respect, says Lauren. Success will require negotiation as well as agreeing to respect and honor the other person’s boundaries, even those that have no meaning for you.
The ability to set boundaries is an important component in designing the kind of life you want. Defending your boundaries helps achieve that goal. It also brings clarity to your identity, your actions and your relationships. And all of this is why boundaries matter.