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  • Dr. Matt Davis

Boundaries—or How to Cope with being a Compulsive Caretaker

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by the people closest to you, you may want to learn more about boundaries.

What are boundaries?

Wikipedia says that boundaries, or limits, are, “guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.”

Why is setting boundaries so hard?

Normally the people who test your boundaries are the people you are closest to—your family, friends, even your kids and spouse! Sometimes it feels wrong to ask for distance because it feels like you should want to have these people close. However, not setting boundaries has disadvantages of its own. Many people feel overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility of caring for those around them, sometimes even physically. Some find that they do not have the time or energy to take care of themselves, sometimes to the point of compromising their own physical health! For example, how can a busy stay at home mom of 3 ask her husband to help more with the kids when he is already tired from his job and doing things around the house? Changing this can be hard because in close relationships we all tend to adapt to those around us and settle into predictable routines with predictable expectations for each person. Asking for a change upsets this natural balance—but it is very possible to do!

Where do I start?

The first thing to do is to pay attention to the way you are feeling and to honor what that means about your situation. This doesn’t mean that your idea of how things should change is the absolute best way, but it does help you identify what is important to you, which is the first building block of good communication. Once you know what is bothering you the most, you’re ready to communicate. Find a good time to have a conversation: when the kids are in bed, or when you normally talk with your parent or adult child. Let the person know how you are feeling—be specific! Don’t say: “You always ask me for things that you know put me in a difficult position.” Instead try, “Last week when you asked for my help again paying your rent, it left me feeling taken advantage of.” The idea is that you want to communicate how much you care for someone, as well as the importance of your new approach. This will ideally lead to a productive conversation about what is important to you, as well as what may be the best collaborative approach to your situation.

What if the person doesn't respond well?

You can’t always predict how someone will respond to setting a limit, though often they are not thrilled about it. Think about kids: the first time a parent enforces a new rule (“If you throw that ball in the house one more time it gets taken away for a week!”) no kid is going to go along with it. It’s common to test limits, especially when they are new. The best thing you can do is say, “I understand your concerns, but this is something very important to me right now.” And then the best thing you can do is to BE CONSISTENT! Every kid knows that when rules are inconsistent they can get away with anything—and often parents pay the price. This brings up another good point, which is that often boundaries are good for the people you draw them with, encouraging them to take appropriate responsibility of their own and to discover their potential.

Help! I’m having trouble!

Drawing and maintaining boundaries is not easy. It helps to have someone outside the situation to help you look at things objectively, because it is easy to lose track of where you are going in these sometimes messy conversations. Find a trusted friend, family member, or therapist to bounce things off of and help you in your process of redrawing the lines in your relationships to optimize your own happiness and to re-stabilize your relationships. Contact me today if you’d like to start this process with someone who has been through it many times personally and professionally.

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