Creative Counselling: Defending Boundaries
In this month’s Creative Counselling, Marie Bruce looks at setting and maintaining boundaries
We live in a world of blurred lines. These days there isn’t a clearly defined line between private life and professional life as there was in the past. Suddenly it’s all one and the same. While mobile phones and the internet are very useful inventions, they have also chipped away at our freedom. Now, it is as if the whole world expects to be able to contact you at all hours of the day and night. Your boss might phone you on your days off, expecting you to go in at the drop of a hat, or to discuss work issues in your own time. Friends and family might expect you to respond immediately to their messages on social media. It can all become rather overwhelming and netiquette isn’t as prevalent as it should be.
All this blurring of lines leaves you open to being taken advantage of. If your boss thinks it is acceptable to contact you at 10pm in your own time, this can make you feel enslaved to the job. Likewise, if your mother-in-law is forever on the phone or dropping in to see you at all hours with no warning, it can have a negative impact on your relationship. It might seem as if these are little more than petty annoyances, but in this month’s column, I want to show you how they can lead to dangerous levels of interference in your life and why it can make you more susceptible to predators.
Crime is fuelled by opportunity. Ask any police officer and they will tell you that many criminals are looking for easy targets – the laptop left on the car seat unattended, the window left open while the house is empty, the handbag swinging temptingly from a shoulder. Crooks don’t want to have to work hard to commit their crimes. They just want to grab and go and enjoy their loot. So it makes sense to limit their golden opportunities by making their lives as difficult as possible. This begins with boundaries.
The topic of boundaries comes up again and again in the therapy room and for good reason. Boundaries are important. I would go further and say that they are vital to living a happy life. There is a saying that goes “Good fences make good neighbours” and it is absolutely true. Without a fence, your space becomes their space and this can cause problems. Crossing boundaries can start wars on a global scale – think of Hitler invading Poland. Crossing personal boundaries can mean sexual harassment and abuse. Crossing property boundaries can mean theft, burglary and financial loss.
Creating visible boundaries is relatively easy. Put up a new fence, put a chain on the door and locks on the windows, have an alarm fitted and so on. This clearly marks out your territory and affirms it as your own. What’s more, it makes the criminal’s job more difficult and they are likely to seek out an easier target instead, so the boundary has been effective just by being there. But what about the invisible boundaries? These are frequently the ones that people struggle with the most, yet they are just as important, if not more so.
Predators and bullies look for soft targets, and by that I mean to say that they are looking for someone who has few personal boundaries, or who doesn’t know how to defend and uphold the boundaries they do have. Often, manipulative individuals will test your boundaries early on in a relationship, in small subtle ways, to see if you capitulate to them. If you do, they will take that as a sign that they have found an easy target and will proceed accordingly. One ploy that is frequently used is to try and get you to drink alcohol, or more alcohol, when you really just want to call it a night and go home. Or they might wheedle and charm their way into your home, your car, your life – and then set about destroying it from the inside. They might take advantage of your good nature, borrowing money, goods, services and so on, but never paying you back. These are all classic signs that someone is testing your boundaries. They want to see if you will stand up to them, stand your ground and stick to your guns – or not. They know that if you capitulate to them once, you will capitulate again. And again. And again. This marks you out as someone who is easily led and easily manipulated.
If you recognise yourself in any of this, then please don’t worry for all is not lost. You simply need to create stronger invisible boundaries and learn how to uphold them. Think of it as creating a magical force field, wherein no-one can come close to you unless you want them to, unless you give permission. No-one will manipulate you because you uphold your boundaries politely but firmly.
To begin with, you will need to define your boundaries in your own mind first, so write out a list. What is important to you? What rules and values do you want to live by? Your boundaries might include such things as no smoking in the house, not getting drunk or not drinking alcohol on work nights, junk food only on Saturdays. It might mean no one-night stands, no borrowing or lending money, no carrying debt over from month to month etc. Your boundaries might include always putting the chain on the door before answering it, turning off your phone at 6pm for more family time, no work talk on date nights and so on.
Once you have created your list, begin to implement it by putting your new boundaries into practice and develop them as a new habit. Next, learn how to uphold them. This is the fun part, because now each time your annoying boss or overbearing in-laws try to cross the line with you, I want you to see it as a Boundary Drill and say something like “No, that doesn’t work for me. I’m not doing it.” This is a strong statement that maintains your boundaries and brooks no argument. If they try to bully you, simply repeat the phrase and end the conversation. Do NOT give in!
Defending your boundaries in this way is likely to come as a shock to people, especially to those who disregarded your right to autonomy, but it will also force them to respect you, your time and your wishes. Starting small – by standing your ground with friends, colleagues and family members – will help you to build up more confidence in your ability to define and defend the boundaries you set for your life, which in turn will make you less susceptible to the predators and bullies out there. It will increase your autonomy, giving you a sense of control and achievement.
Just remember that “No.” is a complete sentence. Take back the reins of power and start living your life on your own terms, safe in the knowledge that your boundaries are clear, strong and very well defended. Until next month, stay safe and well.