Saturday, August 2, 2008

Emotional Boundaries:

Emotional Boundaries:
To Be OR Not To Be... Yourself
An article by Chad J Angotta M.A., M.F.T.

Do you often feel like others take advantage of you? Does your spouse demand that you meet his or her needs at the expense of your own? Do your friends expect you to help them when they need it, but rarely return the favor when you're in need? Do family members ask for favors or demand that you help them regardless of whether it causes you to violate your own values? These are all examples of emotional boundary problems. When they occur often enough, they present a significant threat to one's emotional well being.

Countries establish clear geographic boundaries and maintain their sovereignty by protecting those boundaries, controlling who is permitted to enter and by determining the rules and laws that apply within their borders. People need to do the same thing in order to remain whole and emotionally healthy.

Emotional boundaries are one of the most important aspects of emotional health and well being. They define us and help us define our relationships with others. Clear boundaries make it possible to choose the kind of relationship we will have with another person. Poor emotional boundaries often cause us to have relationships thrust upon us as a result of blurred emotional lines between others and ourselves. This can cause us to lose sight of who we really are.

Having clear boundaries allows us to present who we really are to others and hold that identity as relationships progress. This allows for conscious and healthy choices about the way we interact with the different people in our lives. Poor boundaries create ambiguous relationships and open up the potential for distorting our own self-concept in order to accommodate someone else's needs and expectations.

Codependence is one of the clearest forms of poor emotional boundaries. In a codependent relationship, one expends tremendous energy accommodating someone else's needs and expectations to the point of denying the true nature of the situation and the emotional and physical toll it's taking on everyone involved. (See "Codependent No More" by Melody Beattie for more info on codependence.)

Low self-esteem is another cause of poor emotional boundaries. When we don't feel good about ourselves we are more vulnerable to being manipulated or Co-opted by others with their own dysfunctional agendas. We may accept compromises to our values and expectations because we don't feel worthy of demanding what we really want.

Creating clear and healthy emotional boundaries requires that we truthfully examine and define who we are. What are our real values, our strengths and weaknesses, our realistic life goals and expectations as well as our wants and needs. Part of this evaluation includes confronting the uncomfortable truth about areas where our lives are out of sync with our personal values.

Celebrating and reinforcing those areas where we are happy with our lives and satisfied with who we are builds self-esteem and improves our emotional boundaries. Developing assertion skills is another very important part of being able to maintain those boundaries. The better we are able to recognize personal boundary violations and assert our values, the less likely we are to be taken advantage of. (See "When I Say No I Feel Guilty" by Manuel J. Smith for more info on assertion.) It takes time and honest self-evaluation to develop strong and healthy emotional boundaries. Try to get a clear idea of how others presently perceive you. Take a close look at your family and love relationships as well as friendships. Watch carefully how you enter into new relationships, especially if you're single. If there are boundary issues, they will inevitably appear in one or all of these areas.

Unfortunately, many people may attempt to violate our emotional boundaries due to their own needs and emotional issues. If we are unable to recognize this when it occurs, we may be negatively effected by those relationships. If a burglar tries to enter our home, we take action to prevent it, but all too often, when someone attempts to cross our emotional boundaries, we are unable to recognize what's happening or have developed a pattern of cooperating with this personal violation. The result is usually conflict, frustration and more damage to our self-esteem.

Part of the problem is the way inappropriate emotional boundaries are depicted in our culture. We're taught to push through other's boundaries to win at sports, succeed in business and even to win the affections of a lover. Women can be especially vulnerable to this cultural effect in regard to romantic relationships. The fantasy so often promoted by the media in films, books and TV is one of men breaking through a woman's emotional boundaries in order to win her heart. As romantic as this may appear, the reality is that the relationship being established is out of balance and less likely to be healthy for either party.

The good news is that we can redefine ourselves. We all have the power to change and to take steps to move our lives in more positive and healthy directions. The time one invests in the process of boundary building will pay important dividends throughout our lives. Clear boundaries help a person avoid unhealthy relationships of all kinds. They help us steer away from unethical situations. They help us build good self-esteem and feel more in control of our lives. They protect us from others who would harm us and even from our own negative thoughts and impulses. There is a certain peace and serenity that comes from knowing who we are and being able to hold to values and perceptions of ourselves that are important to us. This is what it means to have strong and healthy emotional boundaries.

If you'd like to explore this topic further, take a look at the book "Boundary Power" by Mike S. O'Neil and Charles E. Newbold. This workbook will help you take many of the steps necessary to understand emotional boundaries and improve your own. There's no time like the present to enrich one's life and one of the most rewarding ways to accomplish this is to develop better emotional boundaries.

Article Updated 1/18/01

by Chad Angotta

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