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Fence Or A Welcome Sign?

Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They're compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment. Dr. Brene Brown, "Rising Strong".

In the eighties a new self-help concept seemed to pop up a lot. The term that people tossed around to describe the notion was “personal boundaries.” The terminology may sound a bit jargony, dated, and not-quite-right, but the idea is useful.

The basic belief behind personal boundaries is that many of us could live better lives if we were:

1) able to understand ourselves – be aware of our needs, values, thoughts, and feelings, for example.

2) AND were capable of expressing those needs, values, thoughts, and feelings properly to others.

Healthy personal boundaries is being able to say what is okay and not okay according to popular social researcher and speaker, Dr. Brene` Brown. We learn to speak up for ourselves while being respectful and sensitive to the values, needs, thoughts, and feelings of others.

Let me give you an example of a person whose life improved drastically and quickly as soon as she understood more about personal boundaries.

Sheila’s profession is dentistry. She likes the technical side of dentistry, but sometimes has problems when it comes to dealing with people. It’s not that she doesn’t like people, she does.

What happens is that Sheila often fears expressing her needs around money. For example, even though her financial policy is fair and based on sound practice, she often disregards it because she wants to be kind or wants people to like her.

The end result is that Sheila feels taken advantage of, is resentful, and isn’t able to pay her bills. To top it off, she receives many more letters of complaints than letters of appreciation from her patients.

Once Sheila understood more about healthy boundaries and started practicing expressing her needs in respectful ways, she became much happier in her work AND began making the money she rightly deserved to be paid for the services she had provided.

Sheila is an example of a person whose boundaries need to be strengthened. Some people, however, need to loosen up their boundaries. They are too rigid.

Maybe you’re scratching your head and thinking about how you would know if you have healthy boundaries, or if they are too weak, or too rigid.

If you are “nice” but often feel angry, exhausted, and unheard; if you hear yourself saying “yes” when you really want to say “no,” perhaps you are being pushed beyond your limits. Your boundaries may be too loose or weak. You may give much more than you receive.

People in this camp generally think more about others than themselves.

If, however, you feel lonely, isolated, and have few friends; if people often call you “rude,” if you hear yourself always saying “no” when you may sometimes want to say “yes,” maybe your boundaries are too rigid. Maybe your behaviors keep people at arm’s length. Maybe you pick fights. Maybe you take much more than you give. People in this camp generally focus on their own needs and don’t give much thought to others.

People with healthy boundaries value themselves AND balance that with a concern for others. “Well boundaried” people (stay with me; if I ever think of a better way of expressing this, you will be the first to hear) have a good sense of mutual support, they both give and take, they are flexible.

Now here’s one of the most surprising findings Dr. Brown reported. In her research the well boundaried people were “absolutely the most compassionate"! This research really captured my attention.

Brown tries to explain this by pointing to her own situation. For many years she says she was “sweet,” but resentful. Now she is truly loving and generous, but not so sweet. She has learned to speak up, to say both “yes” and “no,” and to consider others’ rights as well as her own.

If you’d like to have healthier boundaries, here are a few suggestions:

1) Find out more information on boundaries, read a few articles. There’s much more to learn.

2) Keep your eyes open for a good role model – someone who isn’t a doormat, nor a diva. See how they conduct themselves.

3) Observe yourself. Do you seem to be more weak or more rigid with your boundaries? Or maybe you oscillate.

4) Take small steps forward toward healthier boundaries by saying a few more “no’s” if you want to strengthen your boundaries or a few more “yes’s” if you want to loosen your boundaries.

Say your opinion more, speak up if you’re on the weak side. Listen more if you’re on the rigid side. If you get overly involved in other’s problems, practice stepping back. If you rarely get involved in others’ problems, try giving a little more support. If you always ask for help, try doing something on your own. If you never ask for help, occasionally ask.

5) Don’t expect perfection. Establishing healthy boundaries is a life-long process.

I was recently re-reading Mending Wall by the American poet, Robert Frost. You may only remember the last line, but have forgotten the poem itself.

It’s a rather playful account of two neighbors in New England getting together in the Spring, after the snow has melted, to examine and repair the wall which divides their land.

Frost seems to be musing about relationships, community, and whether a wall between neighbors is a good thing. His rather rigid neighbor repeats a couple of time that “good fences make good neighbors.” Maybe or maybe not. My husband and I were delighted when our neighbor mowed a path between our houses.

Perhaps this is a good time for examining the condition of your “fences” – perhaps not literally on your land, but metaphorically in other areas of your life.

Do you need to draw some boundary lines? Do you need to carve out a “Welcome” sign on your gate?

I usually consider myself to lean more toward the softer boundaries side although my closest friends would probably disagree. However, recently I said to someone, “You have overstepped your bounds with me.”

This was a pretty big step forward for me. I’ve never expressed that sentiment other than when I taught eighth-graders years ago. I was prepared for a backlash. Instead I seemed to have gotten respect. Not only did I get self-respect, but also respect from the other person who simply replied, “Yes, maam.”

How might we journey to The Good Life by examining and mending your personal boundaries?

See Brene Brown explain how boundaries work for compassionate people


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