Strong Relationships Balance Intimate
Openness with Respectful Limits
When I was a little girl, the rules in our house were that everyone must be seen and not heard. I was considered “too sensitive”. I was encouraged not to cry and to keep my “opinions to myself”. It wasn’t okay to ask too many questions, or talk about interpersonal dissatisfaction, “be grateful for what you are given and keep your mouth shut”.
Instead, I learned that others' needs were more important than my own desires, that it was impolite to share my own experiences, and that it was dangerous to let others know what I really thought and felt. Many people seem to have grown up with similar dysfunctional family values -- one reason that boundaries are a favorite topic of psychotherapists. Balancing openness, intimacy, and limits while owning our own "stuff" and letting others own theirs, are the hallmarks of the good boundaries required in solid interpersonal interactions. Learning to form strong relationships that are healthy in emotional intimacy and open in clear, respectful communication is not a trait that seems to be coded in our DNA -- we've got to be taught. Therapy clients are frequently assisted in being open with their feelings without being manipulative, and to grow a strong enough sense of self to stay no when appropriate.
Porous Boundaries and Unhealthy Walls
For the sake of confidentiality, I will share examples which are common but these examples are not related to any particular person. The names are just names I like. Beth’s relationship problems revolved around over-compensating for feeling unworthy and flawed. Believing she was unacceptable and unlovable, she had trouble setting her own boundaries for fear that friends would walk away if she asserted her needs. Once in a while, though, Beth found herself using her emotions to manipulate others into getting what she wanted, and thereby breached others' boundaries in the process. She resorted to this tactic because she didn't believe she would be accepted if she directly stated her own preferences. Her porous boundaries left Beth without a strong central sense of self.
Open communication doesn’t automatically assume that the other person is at fault. Speaking up for yourself is essential, and it's necessary to listen carefully, too. Voicing and checking out assumptions and perceptions, avoiding easy and harsh judgments, and being discerning in your conclusions are all part of open communication. This is hard work. It’s difficult not to place blame or take things personally, and to approach situations honestly with beginner’s mind, always willing to see things in a different light when appropriate. It helps to be transparent and explicit in communication.
Don't assume that the other person will see things as you do. Take risks in opening up. When allowing the possibility that we are wrong in our viewpoint, the challenging skill of self-reflection becomes necessary. This can be learned, but we must practice it daily for it to be effective. These are the essential steps in establishing good boundaries, personal balance and relational intimacy.
The loneliness Diane sought to heal in counseling stemmed from protecting herself in friendships by building thick emotional walls that kept people from getting too close. Afraid of rejection and judgment, she sabotaged several relationships with this strategy designed to keep from getting hurt. Not able to risk being interpersonally vulnerable, she kept people at arm's length, and made them work hard to get to know the real her -- an effort that most didn't bother to make. The unhealthy walls that Diane hid behind robbed her of gaining the intimacy in friendships that she craved.
Holding Respectful Limits
In order to hold respectful limits, we first must treat ourselves and others as if we all have value. This starts with believing that the way we feel and think is in fact very important. Respect for self and other can be practiced by never saying things to yourself that you would never say to another person, and vice versa – such as “You don’t deserve to be happy,” or "What you want doesn't matter." When Juana learned and began to practice this, her relationships improved. Limiting negative self-talk and other-judgments plants seeds of clean boundaries rooted in a clear understanding that we are all responsible for the ways we behave. We are not responsible, however, for the ways others behave or how they feel. Each of us must establish our own limits that protect ourselves without harming others. At times we might think that being respectful requires allowing others to walk all over us. Conversely, we may think that since others don’t respect us, we don’t need to respect them. Both these attitudes sabotage relationships. Good boundaries strike a middle path of balance.
Engaging in Open Communication
Beyond saying what you mean, asserting your needs and owning your feelings, engaging in open communication requires creating a space in your life for someone else. To do this we must be willing to be open and honest in discussing the details of our relationships. When things are going smoothly this isn’t too hard. But when troubles or misunderstandings come, as they invariably do, we must be prepared to share our thoughts and feelings. Hiding or burying feelings, assumptions, perceptions, and needs under a blanket of self–effacement or recrimination may seem self-protective but in reality, it's poor boundary maintenance. When Diane learned this crucial principle, and began to share her thoughts and feelings more freely, her relationships improved.
“I” statements -- like “I feel hurt by what's happened here”, or “I feel we need to talk this out so that it doesn’t build resentments that can linger for years and turn into a full scale grudge” -- put voice to self-reflection and boundaries. They help us admit our own part in the situation and serve to courageously address the problems.
Keeping clean boundaries and having respectful, open communication are ongoing efforts that require allowing others to be themselves without compromising yourself in the process. These relationship maintenance skills take care of yourself first by being authentic, while also being caring of others as well. Better boundaries can improve your relationships.
Please contact me, LeAnn O'Neal Berger, psychotherapist and relationship coach, today to find out how you can be assertive and open in communicating your needs to others.