Dear Maria,

I wonder why it’s so hard for most of us to have firm boundaries? In last week’s column, the letter writer was having a hard time with that. Why is it so hard to do?




Dear Muddled,

Remember when the toughest boundary to find was the one between the couch and the “hot lava” floor? Or keeping the ball in play, or the safe space between cracks on the sidewalk? Our parents and teachers were charged with making boundaries clear for us — play/eat/sleep here, don’t touch this, don’t get too close to that. Through their guidance, and plain old experience, we learned where the boundaries are that keep us safe.

That learning curve extended to relationships, too. As children, we had a keen intuition about who was safe to be around, or not. Yet, we were encouraged to “play nice.” We had to mind adults and others in authority, whose dictates could be arbitrary or unfair. We were encouraged to show affection to people we didn’t particularly like. As we grew, we lost touch with that inner guidance. Pleasing others and getting along were praised, encouraged, and rewarded. Speaking up and stepping away set us apart, and being accepted is critical to social beings like us. Our boundaries got trampled on like a muddy path in the spring thaw.

and-the-day-came-when-the-risk-it-took-to-remain-tight-in-the-bud-was-more-painful-than-thAs grown-ups now, we find ourselves in situations like last week’s letter writer. Perhaps she wonders how it got this far, when all along she was working hard to keep everything pleasant. Maybe that’s the core of the issue. Boundaries are tough, because we’ve learned to place other’s needs — or our own need to be perceived as kind — ahead of our own. Women, especially, are expected to do this. We’re so used to it, that we can’t even see that we’ve made keeping everyone else happy more important than our own health and well-being.

That’s backwards. Just as the flight attendant will tell you to secure your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else, so too we need to tend to ourselves before we have anything to give to others. writes:

One feature of a healthy sense of self is the way we understand and work with boundaries. Personal boundaries are the limits we set in relationships that allow us to protect our selves. Boundaries come from having a good sense of our own self-worth. They make it possible for us to separate our own thoughts and feelings from those of others and to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do. Boundaries allow us to rejoice in our own uniqueness. Intact boundaries are flexible – they allow us to get close to others when it is appropriate and to maintain our distance when we might be harmed by getting too close. Good boundaries protect us from abuse and pave the way to achieving true intimacy. They help us take care of ourselves.

Setting and maintaining these boundaries is a daily challenge. It takes time away from our busy lives to reconnect with that inner sense of self. Then, once that discovery is nurtured, we venture into our relationships protecting that sense of self as we would our own child. It takes courage to ask for what we need in relationships. The people we encounter will be at varying abilities to honor these requests. Some will go. Others will understand, and stay. We run the risk of losing the people who don’t get it. But, ah, the freedom on the other side. It’s like launching ourselves over the family room floor, clearing the hot lava below, and landing on the couch, safe and sound.

Readers: Tell us about what works for you in setting boundaries. Let’s support each other in these efforts!

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.