Personal Boundaries

This post comes more than a week late, but I simply didn’t have time or the mental capacity (or both) for summarizing the last therapy session any earlier, even though it was a rather important one. I hadn’t seen my therapist for five weeks at that time because he’d been forced to cancel the previous appointment due to serious staff shortage at the hospital. Even when we met, I could immediately sense that he was under a lot of stress and appearing more tense than usually – fortunately he told me about the reasons behind it, so I could put everything in context and didn’t start believing that I was causing this tension…

We started out with a short discussion of the reasons behind my BDI-II score rising up to 16, which basically was poor stress management. Too many different demands that I tried to satisfy and subsequently hardly any time left for myself or activities I enjoy. My therapist has a good metaphor for this. “If you’re running out of ink, it doesn’t help if you try writing faster.” You can’t give more than 100% in the long run and if you’d need, say, 150% of your current energy levels or available time to get everything done, you need to prioritize and drop the least important points off your list.

After this, which took up only a few minutes of the allotted hour, we moved on to the situational analysis and the topic connected to it, personal boundaries. Some people have too few boundaries, some too many, some struggle indirectly with boundaries because they can’t communicate them effectively. I personally can keep strangers at distance, but have a hard time preventing people whom I’m emotionally close to from “infiltrating” me – as a result, I’m prone to neglecting my own needs in order to please the other person if they press me to do so. When I first entered therapy, I felt I could attend to my own needs only because my therapist had given me “permission”: it seemed an entirely selfish act, especially in the light of my relative lack of productivity. My therapist still reminds me every couple of weeks to not forget doing something I enjoy, because otherwise I probably would, and that I need to defend my own position.
Then, there are personal boundaries of a different kind, where a violation would cause not merely stress and exhaustion, but where a person’s entire well-being or even existence is at stake: physical, emotional or sexual abuse; being manipulated into doing something dangerous or illegal, or something diametric to one’s moral beliefs. Those are not problems I’m confronted with very often – fortunately! That doesn’t make discussion of them any less important, though.
The first reason for respecting personal boundaries which comes to my mind is self-protection, and obviously it is a very important point. But my therapist also highlighted another aspect: you need to establish and defend your boundaries in order to protect your relationships with other people as well. The moment you “allow” another person to go beyond your limits, the seed for that relationships demise is planted.
[Disclaimer: I am aware that in some cases, there has never been room for making a decision in the first place. Victims of sexual abuse, rape or physical violence, to just name a few, certainly didn’t allow such a crime to happen. These scenarios are expressively excluded and the reason why I used quotation marks.]
Close relationships can only be healthy if boundaries are mutually respected. Without them, a power gradient is introduced into the relationship that will more likely than not destroy the personal bond, or at least damage it. To facilitate an example: if I let myself being talked into making money illegally by a partner or close friend – maybe because s/he is in serious financial distress – I put myself not only in danger of being found out and facing legal consequences, but I also give others the power to manipulate me further down the road. “If you don’t help me, I’ll report you to the authorities!” – “Just this once more! You can’t say no, you’ve done it before!” – “You’ve done it for your ex, why not for me?”
Too often, we have a hard time saying no because we fear negative reactions. I certainly do, and that is why my therapist went on talking about how a refusal might temporarily anger another person, but as a long-term consequence establishes respect. They’ll know you as a person of integrity and as dependable, which in return is very desirable (at least to me).

It certainly was an intense and rather serious session, but I’m glad we had it. I’ve been focusing too much on the guilt I usually felt when not obliging, as if I wasn’t allowed having my own opinion and principles. The desire to please (more on this here and here) is very strong and I have to stay conscious of the fact that I am not only allowed, but under any circumstances must have my own personal boundaries.