Setting boundaries VS burning bridges

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Photo by Ivan Oboleninov on

In the world of therapy, we have many discussions about setting boundaries. Usually, it applies to people who answer YES to everything. Unfortunately, these people find themselves in situations where they take too much responsibility on their shoulders because they cannot say NO. If they would take responsibility for themselves, that would be another story, yet they take responsibility for others.

Many of these YES people end up being very tired and at the edge of burnout, if not already reaching it. At this point, they see a doctor or a therapist. In the end, they conclude that they need to learn to say NO, or what we call “setting boundaries.” 

The story of these people is quite common. Their boundaries have been broken while growing up by people in their close circle of grown-ups/caregivers. At the time, they concluded that they could only survive if they gave in or if they meet the expectations of the adults/caregivers. 

Examples can be many. Some children aspire for their parent’s love by taking up more chores than they should within the household: taking care of younger siblings, cooking, cleaning, becoming “confident”, in other words, the adult’s best friend or “therapist”. Others start working early so they can earn money and support their families. This way, they gain praise and appreciation from the adults/caregivers around. In an ideal world, this should not happen, children should not be given adult responsibilities.

Others, more unfortunate, end up in even more terrible situations like being spanked/beaten or, worse, incest and rape, and, it applies both to girls and boys.

These children fall into the same pattern when they become adults by getting into relationships similar to those they have experienced in their childhood. Either they choose a partner that abuses them, or they get jobs where they find it difficult to say NO to tasks above what has been negotiated in the original contract. 

The feeling they fall back into is that one cannot survive if they say NO. The same feeling they had when they were children and very dependent on the adults around them. They are so caught up in the feeling of fear of being left to die that they cannot see the difference in their minds. They are not children anymore, and the authorities they work for are not their parents. Or the partner is either the mother or the father (caregiver), and that they can survive on their own since, theoretically, they are adults. Yet, it is challenging to get out of the feeling, act “as an adult,” and negotiate the boundaries. 

From the work with my clients I have noticed that when people become aware of what is happening, they start slowly recognizing the moments when they should say no. Even if they continue to say YES, just acknowledging the moment is a big step. The second step is still saying YES, at the same time knowing that they should have said NO. The third step is saying NO, and then regret it, and say yes in the end. And so on, small steps forward and other small steps backward. Yet, no matter how much one should feel that it is going backward, as long as they are aware of what is happening, they will rarely get back to the point where they couldn’t even think of the possibility of saying NO at all. 

Other people react differently, and when they learn that they can say NO, they will do it brutal and definite. It has to do with the way the adults in their families used to put boundaries to them. If the caregivers were harsh, the child has learned the same model and will be severe in saying NO, as an adult, even without intention. This kind of attitude usually leads to “burning bridges” and ruined relationships. At the same time, in the process, some people may consciously choose to end up some relationships because that is the best for them. 

A reason someone can keep saying YES even if it is against the energy limits and perhaps they should say NO, is to see if whatever they have said yes to is manageable. If they can handle it, or if they can solve it. It is a way of challenging themselves because this may be the only way they can feel accomplishment and feel better about themselves. Just like in childhood. In this situation, sometimes, the feeling of accomplishment can give energy instead of draining for energy. This implies that the person doing this is aware of what they are doing and how much they can push themselves. They also know how to ask for help, if they need it.

This one also has to do with the feeling of control. When one is doing everything, then the power is in their hands. The cause could be that at an early age, the child was not allowed too much freedom. Their boundaries were crossed, their autonomy was challenged, and they felt that they did not have any control and felt terrible about it. Later in life, they will do everything they can so they won’t have to feel helpless again.

Personal boundaries are specific to each culture. For example, there is the well-known French or Swiss way of saying Hi, which is kissing on the chick, whether you know the person or not (I am sure Corona has put a stop to some extend). These people may want to do the same in other countries because this is normal for them while crossing the boundaries of people in the new culture who need more personal space.  

It is the same with all types of boundaries/borders people have learned in their homes, from their parents, close family members, neighbors, teachers, community, country. If someone has had their boundaries broken in their culture, they will consider it being normal. They may not be that good at taking into account that other people have other types of boundaries. Between people with broken boundaries, it becomes a dance where each is pushing the other. To eliminate the frustration one has suffered in childhood or own culture, it is common to give it to someone else, often without even knowing.

An example would be children who have a difficult situation at home. They become aggressive and are bullies at school. This behavior can create “cultural crushes” both for children and adults. The person doing the push-over boundaries of a person from the local environment may not understand why they do not get the reaction they would expect in the culture of origin, where this behavior has its roots. This is also something that can help or hurt the process of integration into a new culture. In some societies, it is good to be pushy and aggressive. In others, it is a turn-off for the locals who may have different approaches to networking and building relationships. 

Trying to live in a society where this kind of attitude is not productive will be challenging to adjust for pushy people. But, on the other hand, people who are not pushy, who respect their boundaries and the others, adjusting to a society where everything is rushing and people hurt each other by being too sharp, can also be problematic.  

As immigrants and expats people have already put boundaries between themselves and situations back in their home countries. Physical distance is a good way of sending the message, “I want to be on my own, and I want to have control over my life”. At the same time, technology makes it easy to still be in touch with people in the country of origin much more than one may wish. Here we find “borders,” which are made by distance and space.

Yet, the border of time is not well defined since people can be reached through the internet and by phone very quickly. It is a way of keeping in touch at the same time it can also be a way of “control”, or a way of keeping a toxic relationship going. For the children who used to be “best friends/therapists” for one parent or both or siblings and friends, these parents, siblings, and friends will not want to give it up. They will keep calling every day or even a couple of times a day, so they will get from the child/sibling/friend who has left the country what they need: a shoulder to cry on, without consideration over the fact that the child “left the nest” so it can fly on its own, without burdens.

It will again be challenging to limit the calls and be strong enough not to pick it up when it rings. One needs to decide how the relationships with people from their country of origin will continue, which borders they will need, to enjoy their lives on new and foreign ground.

How do you feel about your boundaries? Are you good at saying NO in a friendly manner? If you are an immigrant or expat how is the relationship with people back home? How often do you call them, or do they call you?

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May this be useful to you!


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