A Worthy New Year’s Resolution: Healthy Boundaries

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Every year people make New Year’s resolutions related to health and fitness, many of which are difficult to sustain. While improving one’s diet or increasing physical exercise are admirable and needed changes, many people could also benefit from a positive change in social skills, namely, improving interpersonal boundaries.

Many people who enter into psychotherapy demonstrate poor boundaries with people in their life.  They may have difficulty saying “no” or may let others take advantage of them. These are some basic signs of poor boundaries. But there is more to boundaries than learning assertiveness.

Interpersonal boundaries can be thought of as an invisible fence between a person and everyone else in the world. This fence marks what the person is responsible for and what they are not responsible for. On their side of the fence lie their own behavior, speech, thoughts and feelings. On the other side are everything else, including others’ behaviors, thoughts and feelings, as well as the traffic, the weather and the nightly news.

People cross this boundary in a number of ways. Some people overstep the boundary by trying to take responsibility for other people’s happiness, feeling like it is their job to make everyone happy, therefore, they believe they must always do the right thing, cook the right food, say the right things. These people tend to be very anxious. They may also spend a lot of time thinking about things they cannot control, like others’ feelings (“they might get upset”), others’ thoughts (“they will think I look stupid”) or larger issues (“Why do politicians do that” or “what if there is a car accident?”).

Some people cross this boundary in a way that leads to excessive anger. When people try to make others do things that they want them to do, they are likely to get frustrated. If Bob wants Joe to do something, like mow the lawn, he can ask him to do so, and even explain why it would be good, but he cannot make him do it. If Joe decides he doesn’t want to mow the lawn, Bob may be tempted to try to make him do it, which will lead to being frustrated because he can’t really make him do it. He may then become more insistent and louder, and end up getting angry. Many people with chronic anger problems have this dynamic happening.

Anger produced by overstepping boundaries can end up reinforcing itself. If Bob continues to push Joe to mow the lawn and gets angry, or even abusive, Joe may feel pressured to comply and eventually give in. This, then, teaches Bob that his aggressive angry behavior can get him what he wants, which increases the likelihood that it may happen again in the future, perpetuating aggressive behavior.

Sometimes people also under-step the boundary. Those with anger problems often blame others for their anger; “I wouldn’t be angry if you hadn’t done that. You made me angry. It’s your fault.” While it may be true that Bob got angry at Joe’s behavior, Bob is always responsible for his own anger. There is a whole series of thoughts and beliefs that occur inside Bob that filter the situation and leads to the anger about the situation. It is not Joe’s behavior that created the anger, it is how Bob handled the situation. When people take responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings they will see that they cannot blame others for their anger.    

Reducing chronic anger and anxiety often involves recognizing this boundary. Becoming aware that no one is responsible for other’s thoughts, feelings or behavior means we can stop trying to make them do anything, and therefore feel less frustration and anger. It means we can stop worrying about what others think or how they feel. It means letting them be in charge of their behavior.

Having health boundaries means taking responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors and not blaming others, or the world, for our choices or feelings. While people do respond to circumstances, and past experiences do mold people, they have the choice to stop and think about how the past has molded them, what choices they now have and what would be the best action. This thinking and decision making is an act of healthy boundaries, an act of responsible self-determination.

So, this new year, perhaps practicing healthy boundaries would be a good resolution. Instead of trying to make others comply, allow them to be responsible for themselves. Instead of worrying about others’ thoughts and feelings, respectfully do your thing and let them handle their own stuff. Instead of blaming others for our anger, be thoughtful about options and choices that are on our side of the invisible fence.

For those who need more intense treatment for mental health conditions MyMichigan Health provides an intensive outpatient program called Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program at MyMichigan Medical Center Gratiot. Those interested in more information about the PHP program may call (989) 466-3253. Those interested in more information on MyMichigan’s comprehensive behavioral health programs may visit www.mymichigan.org/mentalhealth.


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