In part one of this series on Boundaries, I suggested that “boundaries in need of attention” may require EITHER strengthening or loosening. Part Two discussed “building fences,” my metaphor for strengthening boundaries. In this third and last part of the series, I’d like to address the potential for LOOSENING boundaries, or “making a gate.”
Having strong boundaries is a good thing – mostly. Strong boundaries mean you don’t go crashing around in other people’s business and you expect other people not to crash around in yours. Chances are, if you have strong boundaries, you are very independent and require little of others. Perhaps you don’t want to accept things from others because that then opens the door to want things from you. People likely admire your reserve, your strength, and your independence, and perhaps your professionalism.
If the strength of your boundaries is fully a good thing, then leave it.
Boundaries can be TOO strong, however. While people can be a hassle, and a source of discomfort and hurt, connecting with people is linked to happiness in many ways. CL Yen found in 2014 that people who were better connected with others in their life reported more significant levels of happiness. Conversely, people with few reported attachments rated higher for depressive symptoms (Yen, CL. Why are people with insecure attachments unhappy? International Journal of Psychology, 2014 Oct;49(5):404-8.), Another study asked people on a commuter train to connect with others, keep to themselves, or behave as normal. Those who connected reported an improved sense of well-being, though many participants across all three groups predicted the opposite, believing they would be happier if they were disconnected. The researchers concluded that “those who misunderstand the consequences of social interactions may not, in at least some contexts, be social enough for their own well-being” (Epley, N. and Schroeder, J. Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2014 Oct;143(5):1980-99.).
Ask yourself the following questions to see if perhaps your boundaries might be too strong.
1.) Am I lonely?
2.) Am I angry or resentful a lot of the time?
3.) Do I have trouble giving and receiving touch?
4.) Do I spend a lot of my time alone?
5.) Do I feel sorry for myself or feel martyrdom?
6.) Do I see others having a good time and feel angry or sad?
7.) Do I doubt myself a lot?
8.) Do I have trouble trusting others?
9.) Are there very few people who really know me?
10.) Do I tend to stay in my comfort zone and opt out of potential gain to maintain my comfort?
If you answered affirmatively for many of these questions, your boundaries might be too strong. You have protected yourself to the point of being isolated and you might be missing out on some meaningful connection.
WHY THE HIGH FENCE?
If you think you might need to construct a gate and let some people into your life more, first let’s respect the fence for the job it does to protect you and your relationships. Do you understand why you build such a high and strong fence around yourself? Kids who grow up without a lot of support learn to do for themselves. They also learn to be skeptical of others’ ability to do for them and therefore protect themselves from hoping that someone could understand and meet their needs. OR, sometimes we lack the confidence in ourselves to be adequate with people, and we go into a self-imposed exile to keep ourselves from disappointing others. OR, as Socrates once said, “Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.” Perhaps past hurts cause us to fear more hurt and we make a protective commitment to ourselves not to allow it.
Whatever were your original reasons for keeping people out, or keeping your distance, ask yourself how you will still feel safe if you have a gate. How will you justify the risk of opening yourself to others, knowing that there is potential hurt or strife involved? How will you comfort yourself when things don’t go as well as you hoped, so you don’t give up on people and remove the gate? I ask you to carefully consider these questions before changing anything and opening up a gate to others or yourself. While I do believe it will be worth it over time and that you can benefit from better connections in your life, you must respect your own fears that are the reasons for your boundaries.
Note that I use the metaphor of a gate, and I do not suggest you take down your fence. That is to show respect for the fence and the protective boundary it provides.
CONSTRUCTING A GATE
How do we put this gate into our fence? The first step is to understand and honor the important roles played by both the fence AND the gate. We make a commitment based on our belief that the gate is a good and healthy thing and we continue to honor our fence for the job it does to keep us safe from harm and disappointment.
Second, we have to look at our beliefs about people. As a mental health professional, I can tell you that most people are basically good. Anti-social Personality Disorder refers to a unique personality construct that is characterized by thoughts and behaviors that defy social norms and the harmony of living in community with one another. Someone with Anti-social Personality Disorder is generally not regarded as someone to be trusted with another person’s needs, as they are too busy meeting their own and will disregard yours in an effort to satisfy their own needs. It is important to understand that people with this disorder represent less than approximately 3% of our population, though they represent roughly 70+% of prison populations and in substance abuse clinics and can represent between 3-30% of people in treatment. What this means is that most people do NOT have anti-social personality disorder, and are therefore not so disregarding of other people that they should be regarded with suspicion and strict boundaries.
That being said, the third step is to choose wisely who, what, when, where, why, and how. As in Part Two in setting better boundaries, start with a small change and give it time to play out. Allow enough time to see how it goes and to get used to it yourself. Maybe it doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped and you need to fine-tune something about it. A change that reduces a feeling of protection should be made slowly and progressively, meaning increasing a little over time.
DO NOT use things going wrong as an excuse to shut construction down! Instead, look at what was learned from the interaction and how it gives you information about your fences and your gates.
In my work, we talk a lot about boundaries. Boundaries with clients protect our clients from feeling used by us and protect clinicians from feeling worn out by their work. However, some really meaningful interactions between therapist and client – and human to human – happened because someone stopped worrying about being self-protective and became generous of spirit. They took a chance and it was honored and appreciated. The taking of the chance itself was the most meaningful part of the interaction.
If you think your boundaries might be too rigid, you are probably right. With time, practice, and maybe some consultation with someone you trust, a balance between the privacy you need and the connection your spirit also needs can be achieved.
“And then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin