One day, my cousin Lauren received a rude shock. Her mother-in-law, who was visiting from out of town, had taken it upon herself to “reorganize" her home. She had emptied all the kitchen cupboards and moved the items to new locations. Then she redecorated Lauren's English country den with a “prettier" wall hanging of a Day-Glo orange tiger. This sounds outrageous, but it's true!
A friend tells this story: “My husband's aunt came up to me at a family party and in a loud voice said, ‘Why are you not pregnant yet? Don't you like children?'" Make no mistake, interpersonal boundaries were crossed.
What's your limit?
Anne Mahoney, a clinical psychologist in Calgary who specializes in group dynamics, says this is a limit that we set to keep ourselves safe. “It can be physical, emotional, mental or spiritual," she says. “Think about when someone stands too close to you, and you instinctively step back. You know it may be a boundary violation -- of any type -- when you feel discomfort and threatened."
Boundary violations are common. Not everyone, after all, draws the lines in the same places. Some of us are “huggers," while others are more physically distant. And we communicate our boundaries in different ways, too. Personal questions may be fine to you but inflict your sister with a case of the squirms. People from different cultures may also have different ideas of what is appropriate behaviour.
One thing is certain: When boundaries do get trampled, there's bound to be trouble.
Draw your line
Most of us react in one of two ways: we either withdraw and become anxious, or get angry and overreact. We may also worry about hurting the other person's feelings, without regard for our own. Some of us even blame ourselves for another's transgression; for example, we might think someone's unkind comment is our own fault -- “I deserved that."
Mahoney suggests taking responsibility for your own boundaries. Figure out what you need. Communicate it clearly and effectively to others and stick to your guns. (That, of course, is easier said than done.)
Here are four common situations and tips from Mahoney to help you hold your line without crossing one yourself.
1. The backyard barbarian
You've just brought out the potato salad, and you're sitting down -- at last -- for a family dinner alfresco. Your next-door neighbour picks this exact moment to lean over the too-low fence and embark on a long-winded discussion about hornworms.
REACTION 1: You smile coolly, but inside you're a red-hot cauldron. You say, “Oh, those darned yellow jackets!" and move your chilly chili inside.
REACTION 2: You lose it. You tell him in no uncertain terms that the next time he puts his nosy nose over your fence, you'll hand it back to him on a platter.
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS: When you allow yourself to get angry, your judgment gets clouded. Recognize that your neighbour does not intend to ruin your evening.
HOW TO DEAL WITH IT: Calm yourself down by taking deep breaths. In a firm and composed manner, tell your neighbour clearly what you need. “We are just sitting down to dinner and need some family time. I'd love to visit with you later, when the dishes are put away and I can relax and enjoy our conversation." If he still doesn't get the message, be firm and tell him, “I cannot visit with you during the dinner hour. Please wait until after we're through." If he still doesn't get it, realize that you risk offending him for good if you take an even stronger tack. Decide which is the lesser of two evils: a “buddinsky" or withstanding the silent treatment.
Page 1 of 3 -- Find out how to deal with space invaders on page 2
2. The workplace wanna-know-all
She pops into your office whenever she feels like it and starts chatting about her personal life. Even worse, she feels entitled to know everything about yours.
REACTION 1: You wind up confiding more than you intended and feel like a jerk. To add insult to inappropriate, you now have to stay late to catch up on the work you neglected while she gave you the scoop on her hot date.
REACTION 2: Whenever you see Wanna-Know-All Wanda heading your way, you avoid her. You sense she is hurt -- and has no idea what she has done to offend you.
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS: We spend most of our waking hours at work. No wonder many people consider the office a prime place for socializing. People like Wanda have trouble separating the social from the professional and understanding that her frequent chats are out of place in the workplace.
HOW TO DEAL WITH IT: Neither avoiding Wanda nor letting her take over your day will help you solve this problem. Both tactics add tension to your already stressful day and interfere with your ability to work. Instead, take Wanda aside and tell her clearly what your limits are. “I simply can't take the time during the work day for extended chats. I'm also not comfortable sharing details of my private life at the office." Repeat as necessary. If your colleague responds badly to your comments, keep in mind that you are not responsible for disciplining her or for looking after her psychological well-being. Your role at the office is to get your job done. If she keeps behaving unprofessionally, let your supervisor deal with her -- you're probably not the only one perturbed by her overly chatty nature.
3. Three's company
Your best friend from high school just moved back to town. You're thrilled to see him, but he thinks every spare moment is playtime -- with you. He doesn't notice that you have a family and other social obligations. He shows up unannounced and says, “Since you're not doing anything, we can go for coffee together!" When you try to tell him you have plans of your own, he acts resentful and hurt.
REACTION 1: You draw away from him, becoming more aloof and distant. You even turn out the front lights and hide in the bedroom.
REACTION 2: The next time he shows up unannounced, you angrily tell him to get a life or get lost. You've now lost your oldest friend in the world.
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS: Some people don't have clear boundaries of their own, so they tend to misread boundaries. They think that everyone in a group must do everything together and act the same way.
HOW TO DEAL WITH IT: Sit your friend down when you have some time alone. Describe to him clearly and calmly how his behaviour is affecting you. (He probably has no idea!) Then lay some ground rules: call before dropping by, make plans for getting together with you in advance and no late-night phone calls -- you need your sleep these days! Next time he shows up unannounced, tell him you're busy and can't see him. Don't even bother reminding him of the rules. He knows them but is testing to see if you will stick to them. He'll learn to respect your boundaries once you do. You might also mention you heard about a new singles program at the community centre and encourage him to check it out -- without you.
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4. A law unto herself
Your mother-in-law criticizes your clothing, hairstyle, the way you raise your children -- even the kind of toilet paper you buy. Caught in the middle, your husband shrugs and sighs, “She means well.”
REACTION 1: You start to dread, even avoid, family get-togethers. You brace yourself for the obnoxious comments and are never disappointed -- they show up as regularly as heartburn after her over-spiced hot pot. Frustrated, you start taking potshots of your own, criticizing her at every turn. You also take out your anger on your spouse for not supporting you.
REACTION 2: The next time your mother-in-law makes an offensive comment, you blast her one. You tell her to mind her own beeswax, and, by the way, she has lousy taste in fashion to boot. She bursts into tears and the family picnic is ruined. And now your husband is upset that you told off his mom.
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS: Families are systems. When one individual in a system has unhealthy boundaries, others will find it difficult to change their boundaries. But you can't ignore it or let the fear of hurting the other person stop you from protecting yourself. That will cause worse problems in the long run. If the relationship is important to you, you'll have to find ways to minimize the conflict.
HOW TO DEAL WITH IT: Ask your spouse to speak with his mom first. He may be able to soothe her anxiety and help her see how her “good advice” is backfiring. If he can't -- or won't -- speak to her, you have to. Be kind, but firm. Give her an example of the comment you find hurtful, then ask for her help in solving the problem. Don't expect instant results. But if your mother-in-law continues to behave in a demeaning manner, you can limit your contact with her until she smartens up. We all have the right to be treated with respect and dignity.
Set your boundaries
Many of us have difficulty setting our own boundaries or recognizing when they have been crossed. If you grew up in a home with rigidly defined limits set by others or fuzzy boundaries that change all the time (your father usually laughs at your irreverent humour, then you get scolded for being disrespectful) you might not know where your own limits are.
If in doubt, Susan Gifford, a registered clinical counsellor in Abbotsford, B.C., says to pay close attention to your physical and emotional reactions. “Your heart may speed up, your stomach may get a big knot and your head may start to pound. You may also get an emotional signal (big or little). You may feel scared, anxious or uncomfortable.”Anne Mahoney, a psychologist, agrees. “Notice what event triggered the reaction,” she says.
Boundary violations and solutions
Some of the most common violations and what you can do about them.
Violation: Your darling child loves to listen in on telephone conversations.
Solution: Explain why certain conversations are private and compare them to the special times you share with her. Assign a clear consequence for repeat offences.
Violation: A fellow mom asks you to do her PTA work for her -– on the hush-hush.
Solution: Tell her that you'd be happy to collaborate as long as your name also goes on the report.
Violation: Your boss expects you to answer your pager without exceptions.
Solution: Tell you boss that family time is important. Turn your pager off during times when you are not available for work.
Violation: Your university girlfriends always rely on you to organize social plans.
Solution: Next time you get together, see if you can plan your next event on the spot. If not, ask one of the others to do the organizing, since you did it last time.
Violation: The neighbour borrows your garden tools and leaves them out in the rain.
Solution: Chalk this one up to experience. Now that you know he is not trustworthy, don't lend him tools in the future.
Boundary: Personal space
Violation: The student on the 6:30 a.m. bus to the city thinks it's better to chat than rest.
Solution: Ask him politely to keep his voice down and explain that others are being disturbed.
Do you get frustrated by the little things? Read about the 10 ways to laugh off embarrassing situations.
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