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Author:  Lorraine Welch

What makes it so difficult to have healthy boundaries?

I have recently been talking a lot in my clinical work and personal relationships about boundaries. I have noticed that complicated, tricky or even abusive relationships or circumstances can often be a struggle to distance from or navigate, due to ideological or circumstantial reasons such as finances, cultural and religious norms, values or tensions, traditions, or a lack of an alternative support network.

Depending on our personal and intergenerational histories, the upbringing we had within our families, and our intersectional experiences it may have historically been safer, necessary and evolutionary wise to forgo your personal needs or wants for the greater good of kin. Therefore the sense of ourselves, our own personal wants, needs and views may feel mixed up with other people’s, or shaky and doubtful; but the catch is – due this we might not even be aware of that as a problem.

Our wider experience within society and the world  is also often full of personal, moral or ethical dilemmas, invitations or even encouragement to deny, breach, or give-up our values and boundaries in the name of the things that are necessary or deemed politically or economically important. One example may be having to make a choice to vote for a political party whos manifesto is to protect financial interests, and to choose to ignore their back-catalogue of failures to protect certain groups of people, the natural world we inhabit or public sector services. Another example may be agreeing to take on extra responsibilities at work for fear of being judged as incapable, and the extra work leading to burning out and underperforming.

Some peoples personal struggles with feeling chronically not good enough, anxiety, depression, or with feeling unaccepted or misunderstood by others are actually underlain or contributed to by a struggle with meeting or saying no to lifes and other peoples demands of them, being pulled in different directions and other repeating patterns in relationships that are unhelpful or harmful to them. Such patterns can be over-giving, striving, people pleasing, or rarely sharing our wants, needs or views with others so they are not up for negotiation.

For my millennial generation, regardless of ethnicity or culture,  I  notice our keenness to talk about boundaries as ways to maintain our emotional and psychological wellbeing, often after growing-up without these needs being acknowledged; may have lead to us to over-saturate ourselves in terminology and labels and for us to attract the reputation of being too woke, selfish, soft, or sensitive.

As often happens for us as therapists, trying to find various ways to help others understand or make helpful changes to unhelpful relationship patterns has lead me to confront my own relationship with, and my own understanding of boundaries generally and personally. I think in day to day life we often talk about boundaries in vague ways that negate to define and explore how they actually operate, manifest, and differ from person to person depending on your circumstances. As therapists we possibly both overcomplicate and oversimplify them as a concept. We can give out worksheets that list out and categorise them into types or give examples of phrases to rehearse, remember and practice. There have been examples in media and social media of celebrities using the language of the therapy to define boundaries inaccurately as a way to control or mediate othersbehaviour. In actuality a boundary refers to what we are  personally willing to accept or tolerate, and therefore how we will act or change to protect ourselves when faced with something that harms or discomforts us. 

The real struggles some people face to put in healthy boundaries had lead me into doubt and helplessness about whether the concept of using boundaries was even useful, helpful or possible. Especially in a world which demands from us and tests us so much. After a tough week at work, this was on my mind as I headed out one Sunday to my local boot fair.

For me a boot fair is enjoyable because it allows me to combine interests and meet values. I have recently been trying to buy the majority of things I want and need second-hand, and to be outdoors in nature. I feel clear about these values in my own mind, and while I may be influenced otherwise by what  I imagine others think (I sometimes fear judgement from others about seeming cheap’) this has not prevented me.

That day, I planned to arrive early, to have more chance of checking off a list. And I only brought as much money as I was willing to spend. I made a mental plan to traverse the rows of stalls systematically. While browsing I thought to myself that it felt great to be amongst people, having conversations. Although I had not been feeling particularly sociable prior to going, I found myself enjoying many of these interactions and meeting people from different walks of life. I wondered whether some people might go a boot fair for the social interaction and hubbub. I also noticed buyers or sellers who did not seem keen to talk for various reasons. I even saw one screaming argument between business sellers who may have seen themselves as competitors.

Due to my list and budget, I noticed I would primarily avoid stalls based on their pricing, or on whether the items would meet my needs and wants or not. But whether I chose to thoroughly browse at a stall or not often depended on the seller. I noticed some sellers were quite hands off, or respectful of the customers buying ‘process’ and others were more actively welcoming, warm, friendly and interactive. Once or twice I encountered a particularly keen seller, who would rather forcefully encourage me to buy something. I noticed this left me feeling pressured and pushed into engaging and looking at items I knew I didnt want. I lingered and rooted more thoroughly than I wanted to in these situations; simply because I felt pressured and pulled into pleasing or avoiding hurting others. On one occasion I doubted I wanted a purchase after I made it under perceived duress– and this lead me into being self-critical about allowing myself to give into pressure or guilt. However I cut my losses, forgave myself and vowed again to  avoid purchasing anything I was unsure about, and referred to my list to help me stay on track.  

Sometimes, I noticed some passive aggression or disappointment from a pushy seller, which in the moment almost guilt-tripped me into doubting my decision to say “no thank you” and walk away. However ultimately on these occasions, I left feeling okay with my decision and I avoided returning for a second look due to not wanting to be railroaded. I noticed that if a seller seemed friendly, relaxed and respectful of my space and ‘buying process’, I was much more likely to explore their wares in depth if I was interested in them, and to ask questions and make a purchase. Sometimes due to a seller like this, I made an off-list purchase or spent more than I budgeted for because I felt relaxed enough to allow my desire for the rogue item to surface naturally. And even if I did not end up making a purchase from such a seller, I felt happier, more comfortable and less guilty walking away, as I felt my needs and wants were respected.

I heard some of the reasons that sellers sold their items as I watched people negotiate sales. Some I heard were to make money for a charity, cause or holiday, or to get rid of clutter due to downsizing or moving house. I considered that their own financial goals probably influenced their limits regarding how much money they were willing or unwilling to accept from a buyer. A seller keen to make money, faced by a persuasive buyer, may feel pressured into selling something at a lower price than they wanted to. Some sellers fixed higher prices at which they were willing to part with  certain goods over, and turned down lower offers. I saw other sellers keen to clear clutter, who would be more flexible about their pricing, and allow a buyer to barter a lower price. I even saw one seller offer an item free to a buyer when the seller ended up not having enough change to give the buyer.

Consequently, the whole trip lead me to observe mine and othersboundaries in action and renew my faith in their importance even at this seemingly inconsequential level. Whether you were a buyer, browser or seller; all required a clear understanding of their own intentions, values, wants, needs and views towards their comfort and achieving what they aimed to. A seller who did not know all of this could end up not fulfilling their wishes to clear clutter or meet a financial goal. As a buyer or browser, not having a clear idea of these could contribute to you feeling lumbered with unwanted purchases. All could end up in unwanted conversations or interactions that inconvenienced them or left them feeling uncomfortable. Everyone could be left feeling let down, rejected or exploited by others,  or even feeling railroaded or pushed around. So knowing how to negotiate, politely or more assertively decline, or even walk away in ways congruent to your personality is necessary for everyone. Each person is accountable to themselves for their decisions, actions and omissions, and thus the impact these have on their feelings and outcomes. I therefore believe that the humble boot fair was a microcosm for relating  in the world- and a good place to experiment with or practice using boundaries. Perhaps it is an accurate demonstration of what the actor Tim Allen is quoted to have said, which is “if you don’t decide your boundaries, the world will decide for you”.

Boundaries at Boot Fairs by Lorraine Welch

Cognitive Analytic Therapist

EMDR practitioner

MBT practitioner

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