By Lalitha Sridhar
Developing strong boundaries will protect your dignity and self-respect and safeguard you from external imposition. It is the secret of healthy, wholesome interaction.
Years ago, I recall an editor of a magazine claiming that a peon was bent on harassing her. A peon? I couldn’t understand what she meant. How could she, a larger than life, competent, senior member of that organisation claim to be harassed by a person who, in corporate lingo, was a mere underling, puny and weak even in physical size?
‘He makes it a point to come in when I am in my room to sweep and clear the bin,’ she pointed out. ‘I have told him several times that it annoys me, but he continues to behave like this.’ ‘ Here was a peon who wanted to make his presence felt, walk in when she had visitors, cause an interruption as she conducted interviews, and simply annoy a senior staff member under the pretext of doing his duty. He wanted to invade the boundary she had set for herself with her seniority.
What are boundaries? Boundaries are our psychic space that separate us from other psyches. They give us our mental integrity and identity, just the way that our bodies give us our physical integrity and identity. When our boundaries are not effectively drawn or maintained due to insufficient psychological maturation, our integrity and identity is threatened. Ashwin Murthy (name changed) used to feel humiliated each time his boss asked him to run a personal errand for him. Yet he was too intimidated to say no. Eventually he quit, preferring to change his job rather than draw his boundaries with the boss.
Weak boundaries create insecurity and fear. Says John Bradshaw, author of Healing The Shame That Binds You, ‘An ego boundary is an internal strength by which a person guards her inner space. Without boundaries a person has no protection. A strong boundary is like a door with the doorknob on the inside. A weak ego boundary is like a door with the doorknob on the outside.’
A person with weak boundaries finds it hard to distinguish between her psychic space and that of others. The thoughts, feelings and reactions of others impact her powerfully. She is very other-directed, requiring approval, acceptance and love. Her inability to defend herself causes her to be exploited and her dignity assaulted, which further damages her sense of self and ability to create boundaries.
Because the space between her and the other is ambiguous, weak boundaries make her inappropriately responsible. She blames herself for the actions and feelings of others and suffers from guilt pangs and regret. She is therefore vulnerable to manipulation. Anjana Choudhury’s (name changed) relationship with her father has always been a troubled one. A man of strong views and opinions, Anjana found it hard to stand up to him. Although unhappy at home, she has moved in to take care of him after the death of her mother, because she felt too guilty to think of other options.
Weak boundaries cause us to be self-protective, defensive, withhold from risks, and stave off intimate relationships, for we are afraid of losing ourselves in the merger. Dr Dayal Mirchandani, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, says, ‘Sometimes people with poor self-esteem have very rigid boundaries. You need to be flexible and adapt to circumstances.’
Self-esteem is a crucial component of boundary setting. The fundamental reason for poor boundaries is a shaky sense of self. Our inability to love and accept ourselves as we are, prevents the creation of the authentic identity and integrity upon which rest our boundaries.
A grounded, secure individual will easily know when to halt or politely divert an intrusive conversation. Somebody more eager to please and less secure may not because the built-in devices for emotional health and self-protection are faulty. However, it is always possible to retrieve self-esteem and to reverse the vicious cycle of poor self-esteem and weak boundaries.
In the book, Restore Your Magnificence, Dr Joe Rubino suggests several ways to boost self-esteem. These include the following:
o Learn to transform your self-talk from negative to positive. Watch the messages you give yourself, the constant babble that goes on within. Are you giving yourself loving, encouraging messages or are you pouring in self-doubt and self-rejection? Shift to the positive.
o Separate facts from interpretation. Do you jump to conclusions about what others think of you based on interpreting the facts?
o Manage your moods. Instead of feeling bad about what someone may have said, try and see things from their point of view.
o Complete your past. Come to terms with all the events in your life by forgiving yourself and others.
o Practice gratitude for all that you have and are. That will counteract feeling bad about yourself.
You could also try affirmations to heal yourself of incompletions and to counteract your negative self-image.
Boundary maintenance is not only the preoccupation of those with poor self-esteem. It is an ongoing task with every relationship. At various points we have each felt victimized, harassed and overwhelmed by infiltration into our ‘space’. For smooth, harmonious, functioning relationships, knowing where to draw the line is necessary.
The hallmark of all healthy interactions is mutual respect. In such interactions there is comfort and cooperation from all involved, and there are no impositions. Each is careful not to cross the other’s boundaries. ‘Setting boundaries does not mean being detached or uninvolved. It means understanding yourself in relation to the world,’ says Saira Menezes, editor, Sunday Mid-Day.
Setting boundaries becomes essential when mutual sensitivity is not forthcoming. If one of four staff members sharing a cabin feels he can only function if there is loud music playing, he is encroaching into the others’ territory, and they need to put their collective foot down.
Rahul da Cunha, theater director, puts it like this, ‘Boundaries are about you, not about the other person.’ In his profession he has been in situations where a person wants a role da Cunha doesn’t think she/he fits. ‘Firstly, Indians are very emotional people and this causes a lot of problems. One way is to be totally honest. I sit the person down and say to him or her, ‘In this role this is the kind of person I see.’ I explain the way I work: five months of daily rehearsals where each one has to show up on time every day; most fall by the wayside once I say that.’
In his book, God Loves Fun, Sri Sri Ravi Shanker gives us a method to deal with boundary violators. It consists of four approaches, sama, dana, bheda, danda. Sama means to be tractable and understanding. However, if that does not work, we choose dana, overlooking the error and forgiving them. If the offending party still does not learn a lesson it is time for bheda, that is to deliberately create a space between you and them. Discriminate between the way you treat them and the way you treat others.
And finally if all else is lost, comes the danda, the stick Maintaining clear boundaries is essential in interactions between people of hugely differing mind-sets, or when the power structure is unevenly divided. A joint family, for instance, can be a minefield of boundary violations. Two wealthy Mumbai girls married into a joint family settled in Los Angeles. The patriarch had left his north Indian village in the late ’50s and didn’t know the urban India of the ’90s to which his daughters-in-law belonged. He took his sons’ wives to a home where a large family of 13 members lived together under one roof, and these girls, pampered and indulged, who could whip up desserts and soufflés, but not parathas and puris, were put to work in the kitchen and expected to serve hot meals to the men at home. The men couldn’t stand up to the father, the women were unable to accept the situation, and tension prevailed because of blurred lines and lack of understanding. There were also overlapping issues of age, cultural differences and expectations. Setting boundaries was a necessity for this family.
John Bradshaw writes in Healing the Shame that Binds You, ‘One of our basic needs is structure. We insure our structure by developing a boundary system within which we safely operate. Structure gives our lives form. Boundaries and form offer us safety and allow a more efficient use of energy.’ When our boundaries are strong, we know that others cannot bend us to their will or force us to do or say what is unacceptable. We know that we will safeguard our dignity and self-respect. This knowledge will give us the inner security we need to have healthy and harmonious relationships with others.
Setting boundaries requires maturity and tact. We have to learn to work around differences, giving little or no offence, and not standing for any either. They indicate, like Saira points out, ‘That you are clear about how you live your life, and, you are clear about the values that guide you. I use perspective when dealing with emotional situations. My favorite quote is, this too shall pass. And it does!’
Says Dr Mirchandani, ‘Setting boundaries in every relationship is essential. You have to be able to say this far and no further.’ But where does one draw the line? Saira is very clear on this, ‘Certain things are non-negotiable and this is what is communicated when boundaries are set. But you have to express the seriousness of it through personal example. Once you do that most people will respect your wishes.’
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