I’ll bet you’ve heard this plea a number of times in your life. In fact, I bet that you’ve heard it recently, even though you are in the “senior” part of your life. Of course, not everyone uses these exact words. But, have you heard something close to one of the following?

“I really thought you loved me…”

“We’re family…”

“That’s the gratitude I g­et…”

“Please…just this once, I promise…”

I’m sure you can think of others. What these sayings have in common is that they are barriers to maintaining healthy ties to your family, friends and associates – not to mention keeping your self-respect!

The Importance of Maintaining Healthy Boundaries

One of the things that makes “holding the line” difficult is the nature of the relationship we have with the people involved.

When we’re dealing with a close family member, there’s usually a lot of emotional history involved. We’ve often seen the other person at his or her best—or their worst. Throughout illnesses, divorces, job losses, as women, we have been socialized to think, “I need to help when I’m needed, no matter what and, if I don’t, what does that say about me?”

Healthy boundaries can also be tricky to maintain in a workplace or community setting. At a job, where values like “a friendly workplace environment” or “teamwork” are encouraged, you might not have complete control. For example, let’s say you meet up with a new coworker.

Perhaps they share an office space or have a desk nearby. You might begin a casual conversation, followed by a shared lunch or coffee break. A series of innocent personal disclosures are exchanged, like where you live or what your family does. Soon, this new workplace connection is seen by one or both as a “friendship.”

Moving forward, you might find that your new office mate wants to socialize outside of work. That’s no harm in that, right? It depends. Have you had a chance to reflect on how much you really have in common, based on your core values? Is this someone with whom you want to spend several hours of your time, after you’ve already done a 9-to-5 stretch with them, during the day? Is it possible that you feel friendly toward your coworker, without necessarily wanting to be friends? If so, how should you handle this?

This first case, seems pretty borderline. Maybe you want to be friends with them and maybe you don’t. Let’s look at a more extreme example.

Have you ever had a coworker who is overly personal and chatty – perhaps inappropriately so? I’m talking about the kind of colleague one who gives you details about his or her sex life that you—ugh!—would really rather not hear about.

Or, perhaps your coworker begins asking for frequent favors in the form of cash, rides home or assistance with his or her job duties. My guess is that you’ve run into people like these and found them hard to deal with. Since you have to face them daily, the situation can become uncomfortable, to say the least.

Relationship Boundaries Aren’t Just Important at Work

The same scenarios can emerge in other settings, such as at church gatherings. Again, the internal messages can start playing about how you “Have to be nice to this person.” You wouldn’t want to risk being seen as lacking compassion, would you?

Have you ever had a neighbor who thinks nothing of dropping by at odd times? Is this person oblivious to your statements that “now isn’t a good time?” You have a right to be too busy to spend time with him or her.

Then, there’s the perpetual drama queen or king. The substance of their “friendship” consists of “crisis” calls or messages, followed by dramatic venting. They may even give you the desperate ending, “I’ve gotta talk to you. Please, PLEASE call me!”

Relationship Boundaries Aren’t Just Important at Work

Perhaps hardest of all to deal with are family relationships. For example, many of us are struggling with our adult children. Of course, there are people who have legitimate physical, cognitive or mental health obstacles to being fully independent. On the other hand, there are plenty of people whose lives have become tangled messes because of their poor choices.

It’s far too easy for moms to think “I have to help. I can’t let him wind up on the street.” This scenario, no matter how far-fetched, is taken as inevitable.

Ok, so, we’ve talked enough about the problem. What’s the solution? How can we build appropriate boundaries with our colleagues, acquaintances and family members?

First, it’s important to remember that the need to establish and maintain healthy boundaries is not really about the other person. It’s about you. Here are a few starting points to consider:

Boundaries Are Not Barricades

Having boundaries does not mean that you have you cut off relationships with anyone—unless your personal safety or well-being are stake.

Imagine a nice white picket fence around your yard – the kind with a latched gate. The “yard” is your life, time and resources. The “gate” will be open to people at your choosing. The “fence” is a metaphor for the limits you place upon others’ ability to impact your life, especially with situations described above.

Be Conscious About What is Acceptable

At a time that is private and uninterrupted, examine what’s important and okay to you. Reflect on what your values are, in every aspect of your life.

This will help you to define your boundaries, so that you don’t get blindsided by someone whose “requests” escalate into demands, usually with subtle (or not so subtle) emotional manipulation.

Hint: remember the statements at the beginning of this article?

Use Time to Your Advantage, but, Don’t Put Difficult Discussions Off Forever

If you need to speak with someone who’s been taking advantage of you in some way, schedule a time to address it. Pick a time that will be uninterrupted, use “I feel” statements as needed, and ask that the person let you get through your concerns before responding.

Prepare Yourself Emotionally

Depending upon the nature of your relationship, be prepared for whatever the emotional response will be. Anger, denial, tears or a profuse apology – these are all typical responses. Let them own it. It doesn’t belong to you.

Be Specific About Your Expectations

Be clear about what behaviors you want the person to change. Then, be vigilant with your newly-established boundaries. Even if the person does agree to alter his or her behavior, it’s your responsibility to monitor the situation for any relapses. No one is going to call them on it but you. After all, no-one takes your life as seriously as you do.

Decide How Important Each Relationship is to You

This one factor will guide you as you decide how to hold each person accountable for his or her behavior. It’s also a measure of what you’re willing to recognize as unchangeable in this relationship. It’s balancing your heart and your head.

What kind of boundary issues have you dealt with in the past? What were the outcomes? How did “drawing the line” make you feel? How did it affect your overall well-being? Please join the conversation.

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