On boundaries and controlling others

East Side Galley, Berlin Germany: A portion of still-standing Berlin Wall was turned into a place for artists to display their work in 1990. Photograph by Benice Atufunwa, 2014.

East Side Galley, Berlin Germany: A portion of still-standing Berlin Wall was turned into a place for artists to display their work in 1990. Photograph by Benice Atufunwa, 2014.

Brady, why do I let others walk all over me? Why do I let others disrespect me so much? There must be something I am doing that says, ‘low self esteem here!’ What is it about me that says this is okay?!”

When someone asks me these questions in an individual  therapy session and goes down this brittle line of self reflection, or boldly ventures into this territory in a couples counseling session, I get a little panicky. In that moment, I’m in very delicate territory, flashing red psychoanalytic lights and all, and I can easily hurt someone even with my kindest of intentions.

To get into some of these questions, and if we are to spend some time exploring how others can walk over our boundaries, then it is important to discuss how boundaries are formed and wall are concretized.

Our boundaries are simply those things we don’t want (e.g. a phone call to go unreturned longer than two days) rather than what we do want (e.g. a return phone call within two days), and that line, either in stone or sand, marks where we stand and what matters to us. Making boundaries, setting limits, then, is an explicit process of acknowledging what we do not want, and altogether saying: no. With this, taking a stand, mapping a border, erecting a wall, growing thorns, all and more beautiful imagery, is an act that also acknowledges it isn’t in a vacuum; a slip occurs, borders are crossed, walls are sieged, flowers are cut. Therein lies an intrinsic utility of boundaries.

A wall is built to be pushed against, not to not be pushed against.

Making boundaries, in some large or small way, means expecting those boundaries to be tested. However, I know many people may think the exact opposite. They think: why are others walking over me? Rather than: of course others will try to walk over me. Or: why do others disrespect me? Rather than: of course others will disrespect me. Or going deeper: why won’t they do exactly what I want? Rather than: of course they won’t do exactly what I want, because I can’t control them. I’ll digress on that last point a little later.

Making boundaries, setting limits, then, is an explicit process of acknowledging what we do not want, and altogether saying: no.
The difference, to make explicit rather than implicit in my examples, is the inherent expectation that others will not challenge boundaries, and the existence of boundaries at all means an issue is settled, once and for all, and no longer in question. I don’t believe that. Furthermore, if you believe your boundaries are implicit, that what you don’t want is clear, or that others just know them without your communication and naming them, well, I would call those designed to fail, not designed to be tested. To hold someone to a standard of behavior without including them in knowing and understanding that standard, is also not relational at all. It’s a trap.

Setting a boundary to not let others walk all over you doesn’t mean they won’t try to do so, and that also means you have no control over their actions. Which isn’t to say it is futile to make boundaries. I believe it is important for our relationships and for our mental and emotional health to make our expectations explicit and known, even if they might not be honored. For how else can someone grow to love you if they don’t know what you want or do not want? If nothing else, I do think that loving someone is a deliberate and conscious choice to see another person in all that they want and do not want; I like to add the reminder that there will be much unseen in any person, especially one you love.

To hold someone to a standard of behavior without including them in knowing and understanding that standard, is also not relational at all. It’s a trap.
I mention this aspect of seeing as part of love because I also believe that others will disrespect you, walk over your boundaries, generally because they are doing what they want to do, or they don’t see or expect boundaries in the first place. The setting of boundaries to ensure you maintain full control of your life is, too, an exercise of you controlling others. Their not seeing your boundaries, their choices to honor them or not, is fully outside of your control, too. Simultaneously, your boundaries are an attempt to control others as much as their walking over yours is an attempt to control you. Relationships are messy, intrinsically so, because every person might have ideas of what is best for their life and best for others, but bringing someone into one’s life comes with this possibility of all parties imposing ideas and boundaries and controlling each other. To quote my friend Will Iles, who is perhaps more succinct than I am, “we can’t control all aspects of our lives. Especially if we want to share it.”

I think that’s the uncomfortable point I’ve been circling around. Sharing your life means giving up aspects of control.

I’m a little far from the idea of what a person does to illicit others’ desires to walk over another, but not that far. What other persons do is outside of your control, even though your setting of boundaries to be respected and loved, is a form of controlling others behavior as well. A necessary tension, if you will, inherent within our relationships.

A wall is built to be pushed against, not to not be pushed against.
Expecting others to do as we say simply because we say so, is earnest at best, believing that you know what is best for yourself and others, yet it is also the premise of considerable relational hurt, because others, especially the ones we love, aren’t under our control.  Setting a boundary doesn’t mean it will be any more likely to be agreed upon, respectfully honored, or obeyed. And yet, the act of setting a boundary, explicitly, is an act of making that boundary known, and in so doing, making you, the boundary maker, known. You making a boundary known makes you known, it doesn’t make you in control. It does, to thesis this writing, make you more present and able to be loved.

Overall, I would say that I like others setting boundaries, truly, but I like it more when their boundaries are moved. When a person’s ideas of who they are and what they want change, it is a moment of illumined personal beauty. To see walls made, those same walls crumble, then rebuilt anew, then dissolved again, each time important, each time necessary, is to also witness growth. To see these small movements of another’s growth, and to be with another as their boundaries are made and remade, is part of the honor and privilege of sharing your life with someone.

 

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

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