Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Worthy of repeat - Boundaries!!!!

Having practiced psychotherapy for more than two decades, I’ve noticed that certain themes or topics seem to be perennial. I infer that these themes are reflective of certain common human foibles.

The theme that has come up again is in the top-ten “golden oldies”, maybe in the top five. Can you guess what it is? If you guessed BOUNDARIES, you’re right!

Before I wrote this column, I checked in past blogs thinking I’d probably written before about this and sure enough I had. Almost one year ago I wrote a small commentary called, “Uhhh…. Can You Say No?”. I’ll try to not be redundant in this commentary but if you find this of some interest then you may want to click the link to read that posting also.

Some of you know too well that I apparently enjoy using shocking analogies and metaphors. I always say I do it because it creates a more enduring impression. It’s probably equally if not more true that I do it for the reason my mother always suggested – I just like getting others’ attention. With that admission out of the way, let’s begin.

Recently, I’ve talked with people upset about feeling violated because others (family and friends) either don’t notice boundaries or their boundaries are too permeable – too diffuse.

This morning, Jane (not her real name) tells me that a sibling feels free to make “constructive criticism” about Jane’s parenting methods.

I can’t think of anyone I know who kindly receives such unsolicited critiques. Why does the sibling feel free to poke their nose – especially uninvited, into concerns that are Jane’s?

The answer is _______________________ .

  1. wanting to be helpful 
  2. wanting to appear superior 
  3. diffuse interpersonal boundaries.

If you said 1, you may be correct – but I doubt it. If you said 2, you may be right and if true, the person is a jerk. If you said 3, I think you’ve won the brass ring!

(WARNING – shocking analogy follows.)

Let’s take the above situation and change one quality about it to see how it might change your answer.

This morning, Jane (not her real name) tells me that a sibling feels free to make “constructive criticism” about Jane’s sexual behaviors with her husband.

Why does the sibling feel free to comment on Jane’s sexual activities with her husband?

The answer is _______________________ .

  1. wanting to be helpful 
  2. wanting to appear superior 
  3. diffuse interpersonal boundaries.

In the latter example, I think most would recognize that opining about another’s intimate activities is violation of normal boundaries. It’s a no-brainer.

In this morning’s conversation, Jane was quite understandably insulted and justifiably angry. These are normal and healthy responses after being violated.

It was interesting that soon after Jane related her sister’s major misstep, she went on to tell me about how she (Jane) sometimes calls her mother to k’vetch about her (Jane’s) husband.

I asked Jane if she would ever consider discussing with her mother the dimensions of her husband’s (Dick – excuse the pun) reproductive anatomy. Jane appropriately said she wouldn’t dream of disclosing such personal and inappropriate information.

In my comments referred to earlier, I quoted Robert Frost’s familiar maxim, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But it is true that all good fences don’t look the same. Like so much in life, boundaries are described as being a spectrum from too permeable and flexible on one extreme to too rigid and completely impermeable on the other extreme. Usually, neither extreme is good (perhaps there are some exceptions). At times, my own boundaries have been too permeable. Other therapists (usually those more psychoanalytically inclined) have chastised me because they believe I disclose too much of a personal nature during the course of therapy with my own patients. I believe that patients should have unrestricted access to their own medical records. HIPAA laws dictate otherwise. If I want to maintain my employment at the Clinic and retain my license, I have to put HIPAA laws above my personal opinions.

My patients/teachers who are members of Alcoholics Anonymous remind me of the danger of being too private. They tell me that one is as sick as their secrets. (A variant of this says, “You’re as sick as you are secret.”)

How do we know if our boundaries are too much one way or the other? The simplistic but very true answer is, if it causes a problem it is a problem.

In my example cited at the beginning, Jane’s sibling’s sense of boundaries is too diffuse, too permeable. The result is Jan is angry, hence it is a problem. Jane’s complaints about her husband put too much burden on Jane’s mother, hence it’s a problem.

The permeability of ones boundaries should be adjusted based on communicating clearly with the parties involved. Instead of giving unasked for advice, ask first if it is wanted. Consider the “Golden Rule”; how would you want to be treated.

I conclude this short reminder about boundaries with a book recommendation. The book is written for women but is equally applicable to men. The book title is:

My Answer is No . . . If That's Okay with You: How Women Can Say No with Confidence" by Nanette Gartrell, MD

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