When You Give, And Others Take
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Bamboo Counselling - Wai Lan Yuen, MBACP
14th January, 2012
It is somewhat ironic that people who are used by others often end up feeling useless. There is clearly a huge difference between willingly offering yourself and unwillingly being taken from.
If you wonder why you feel used or ignored, it may be helpful to think about whether the people around you know what what your boundaries are. How would you feel if you came home to find that someone had climbed over your fence and was sunbathing in your garden? Shocked, anxious, or perhaps filled with outrage? These are natural reactions when we know that a boundary has been crossed.
In the same way, people hold emotional boundaries which need to be protected from trespassers. Did you feel uncomfortable when someone stood too close while talking to you, or shift nervously when a person held eye contact for a little too long? Your body is telling you that somewhere, a boundary has been crossed.
Why Worry About Boundaries?
Boundaries define and underscore our individuality. They clearly mark the behaviour that you will and will not tolerate from others.
Having few or weak boundaries usually results in feeling powerless. As ‘people-pleasers’, we are likely to bend backwards to the point where we blur into the background. We allow others to call the shots until all that anyone can see of us is a shadow of who we truly are.
At the other end of the spectrum, we may be so rigid in our boundaries that we expect others to meet our needs without any consideration or awareness of what it might cost them to do so. This may result in others labeling you as bullying, domineering, unreasonable, aggressive or intimidating.
Having boundaries that are too flexible or too rigid means that one party will always be giving or taking more than the other. This does not reflect the true balance of a healthy, loving and mutually respectful relationship.
Examples of Boundary Violations
There are many ways in which people can cross a personal boundary, such as:
- sexual, physical, verbal or emotional abuse
- intruding on someone’s privacy without permission
- interrupting someone after they told you not to
- a friend ‘forgets’ your request to call you if they can’t give you a lift
- making an inappropriate joke at work
- sharing someone’s private information without their consent e.g. gossiping
Can some of these be justified as innocent mistakes? It isn’t unusual to hear the cry of “Oh, she’s far too sensitive” or “He just can’t take a joke!”. Unfortunately, if you have ever felt mistreated by someone, you will know that your hurt feelings won’t disappear simply because it was unintended. In an ideal world, we would all inherently know each other’s boundaries. However, the difficult truth is that much of the time, we don’t have a clue what other people need, and we make vague assumptions based on our own perspective.
It’s Not My Fault!
There is something comforting about the idea of wringing our hands because others are insensitive towards us. But whilst we can’t choose how people treat us, we do hold responsibility for our own behaviour. If you own a home but leave it unfenced and unprotected, it is inevitable that some people will interpret this as an invitation to come in and do what they like, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. In the same way, an unboundaried heart is vulnerable to the trampling of many feet.
By telling others where you stand, you will invite them to understand you better. By teaching them how to treat you with care and respect, they will begin to value you, and you will begin to value yourself too. It is a vital step in taking responsibility for your personal well being.
When Boundaries Clash
Inevitably, behaviour that one person considers harmless, another will find shocking, upsetting or even offensive. I remember many years ago when a colleague told me a joke whereby my ethnicity was the punchline. An awkward silence fell upon the onlookers, who sensed that somewhere a boundary had been crossed. My colleague later said to me, “It was only a joke.” It was to him. To me, it wasn’t.
Because we have varying ideas of what is reasonable, our personal boundaries can prove challenging and difficult to others. Friends or family may find it hard to accept that we are no longer going to drop everything to visit them. Colleagues may feel antagonistic when we ask for tasks to be done.
For the boundary-setter, it can feel intimidating to say ‘no’ or “I want”. We worry how people will react. That is why some of us laugh nervously whilst talking about something painful, or refuse to cry during a funeral - although we may desperately need comfort and empathy, we hide behind a mask because we worry how others will respond if we show our true feelings (if I don’t laugh, they’ll worry about me... if I start crying, they might fall apart).
For this reason, boundary-setting can feel like a risky business and truly tests the strength of a relationship.
So What Do Healthy Boundaries Look Like?
It is important to remember that setting a boundary is not an attempt to control the other person (although some people will certainly accuse you of that!). Setting healthy boundaries is about:
- setting limits on how you expect to be treated (“It’s not okay to talk about me behind my back”)
- not tolerating remarks which, to you, are offensive
- being clear about who can touch you and clear about your personal space
- speaking up when you feel someone is treating you cruelly (“You are embarrassing me in public”)
- telling others what you expect so that they aren’t left guessing or making assumptions
- knowing what is okay and not okay for you, and letting people know this
- remaining mindful of other people’s boundaries (“I need you to tell me what you’re feeling, but I know it’s not easy for you. I want to find a way where we can both communicate.”)
How to Set Boundaries
It will require discernment on your part as to the most tactful way to set boundaries with someone. It can be useful to explain how their behaviour makes you feel before telling them what you need. This may help them understand you better. They may even be surprised because they hadn’t realised that their “harmless” behaviour affected you.
For example: When I say “no”, I feel annoyed that you won’t accept my answer and you try to change my mind. I’d like you to accept that I can’t always give you what you want.
Imagine how different people in your life would react to the response above. How and why might you have to modify the wording? Try to think of other ways to set this boundary, in a way that feels more comfortable or natural to you.
Bear in mind that regardless of how carefully you say it, some people will not be ready or willing to accept your boundaries. Unfortunately, this will leave you with the difficult choice of whether to back down, find a compromise or say goodbye.
Points to Consider
1. Check if your boundaries need work
- Do you find it hard to say ‘no’ to people? What might be the consequence of saying ‘no’?
- Do you ever feel angry or anxious but unable to speak up? What stopped you? What do you wish you could have said or done?
- Do you ever help someone, even after they’ve said they don’t need it? What does your decision say about your boundaries and your attitude towards their boundaries?
- Do you tend to ask for help, or do you wait for people to offer you help? What are the possible consequences of doing either?
2. Know your limits
- To you, what is acceptable behaviour? Can you think of someone who would disagree with your answer?
- What is unacceptable to you? Can you think of someone who would disagree?
- Can you think of a time when you experienced unacceptable behaviour but said nothing? How did you feel afterwards?
- How can you remind yourself of your limits when you need to?
3. Evaluate your self-esteem
- Think of someone who is able to ask for what they need, without coming across as selfish.
- What is your definition of selfishness? Where did you develop this idea from? How do others define it?
- How much do you feel you are worth, compared to the worth of others in your life?
- In what ways does your level of self-worth show itself in what you do and say?
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