The boundary lines in our lives are often indistinct because we err in one of two ways in calculating what belongs inside them and what does not. Scott Peck, in his classic work, The Road Less Travelled, divides these people into those he calls neurotics and those who have a serious character flaw. (By the way, this is a must read) The first take the blame for everthing while the latter takes the blame for nothing.
While some of us fall clearly within one of these two categories, most of us straddle the fence between assuming responsibility for everything and refusing culpability for anything.
If we take a close look at both types, we see very divergent approaches to the inevitable traumas and difficulties of life. What is important is to be able to see each problem we encounter individually, and knowing where our weaknesses lie, make decisions accordingly. So first for a closer look at the two types of conditions. Remember, this is just a reference point, not an attempt to diagnose anyone of anything.
Neuroses: The clinical diagnosis of neurosis is a relatively mild mental illness that is not caused by organic disease, involving symptoms of stress (depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior, hypochondria) but not a radical loss of touch with reality. (dictionary.com) In a clinical setting, neurosis interferes with regular day to day functioning. However, on the general spectrum of neurotic behavior, most of us display a mild array of neurotic behaviors. Most people I know suffer from mild anxiety, for instance.
The relationship between neurotic tendencies and boundary lines is the pervasive belief that everything is our fault. The worriers of the world assume a higher level of control over their worlds than is possible. Thus they suffer greatly due to belief systems that include such thoughts as ‘if only I was perfect’, ‘It is my fault things went wrong’, ‘I made others behave poorly’, and ‘it is my job to make things right’.
This kind of backward self-absorption is often due to neglectful or mildly dysfunctional parenting. But the good news is that the worriers of the world are often the first to seek help or educate themselves. If you have read to here, chances are you really want to achieve some balance and are anxious that you have not yet achieved whatever balance is.
Personality Disorder: The definition of this is a deeply ingrained and maladaptive pattern of behavior of a specified kind, typically manifest by the time one reaches adolescence and causing long-term difficulties in personal relationships or in functioning in society. (dictionary.com)This is what Peck is referring to when he talks about those with deep character flaws. Narcissists and borderline personalities fall within this realm.
Just as with neurosis, one does not need to be diagnosed with a personality disorder in order to display character flaws. The boundary lines for people with a narcissistic worldview or who are perhaps more borderline (mood swings, fear of abandonment, unable to sustain relationships) exclude themselves from any culpability. The world is at fault for their misery.
This is a dangerous path to tread because it pushes all responsibility for happiness and success onto the shoulders of others. It is both a relinquishing of the power of agency or self-control while attempting to control others in order to obtain whatever is lacking.
Most psychologists will tell you that rehabilitating patients with personality disorders is next to impossible. But the truth is that relatively few of you reading this have a personality disorder. Instead, you have a couple of personality flaws. You blame the hammer when it hits your thumb. You are sure that the kids misplaced your keys. Sometimes you are a bit paranoid, or you reject others before they reject you. Examining ourselves for these types of flaws means we know our imperfections.
Negotiating Our Internal Boundary Lines: Chances are you are like the vast majority of human beings and have a few neurotic tendencies and a couple character flaws lurking under the surface. Humans like rules (well most humans, not this one). We would like a map that says this is yours and this is not. We pore over child-rearing books and self-help articles in order to figure out what is what. But real life is very complicated and a couple self-help articles (such as this one) are limited in scope, though sometimes quite helpful.
The first step to figuring out the true boundary lines, that is, what is truly yours and what is truly not, is ruthless self-examination. I remember reading a book by Cloud and Townsend called Changes that Heal. In it, the writers assert that we are not responsible for anyone else’s happiness. We are only responsible for ours. This was the first time I had ever heard this. It was life-altering. I assumed my whole life that it was my job to keep everyone happy.
When I had the guts then to eventually tell my narcissistic first husband that it wasn’t my job to make him happy, he was taken aback. I remember him sitting on the stairs digesting this. Then in true narcissistic fashion, he then asserted that while I may not be responsible for his happiness, I was responsible for his unhappiness. No progress was made in his heart that day, though it was eye-opening for me.
If you have areas of your life that cause you pain, a reworking of your boundaries may be in order.
There are a few hard and fast rules to forming boundary lines. For instance, your body is a very clear boundary line. If someone is hurting you, that is a clear violation of boundary lines that ought never be crossed. However, the vast majority of boundary lines are a matter of personal preference.
For instance, many professors I know take roll. Whether students attend class matters to them. As for me, I cannot remember to take roll unless somehow it is forced on me. If students stop attending class, my assumption is that either they do not care about their grade or I am boring them. One I have no control over. The other means I need to up my game. Either way, check marks on a page mean little to me, but participation does.
Areas for Boundary Line Testing: In order to begin to take control of the out of control areas in your life, a few questions will help the sorting out process.
The trick is to look at each problem in your life separately, giving it full attention.
We are often lazy about solving our own problems. An example of this is when our children fail to do their chores. We blame them for being lazy, but in truth, unless we give this problem some time and attention, we too are lazy. I cannot begin to number the times I told myself I was too tired to deal with disobedient children. Sound familiar?
Here are some guidelines.
- Whose is it? List the players in your problem. Can you clearly outline their role versus your role? If not, then your boundaries are hazy. Make sure you adjust for your natural bent. If it is all their fault, you are probably wrong. If it is all your fault, you are probably wrong.
- What is at stake? Who is most affected by this problem? If you are dealing with chronically late employees, the whole workplace is affected. Have a friend who stands you up all the time? You are the one affected.
- What is your job in this situation? What is theirs? If your list of duties is much longer than anyone else’s, your neurosis is showing. Delegate some of those.
- The only yard you have to mow is your own. If you are spending a lot of your time doing other people’s work for them, you need to learn to let others fail, even if it affects you. Interrupting natural consequences denies the learning process to others.
- But you need to mow it. If your yard is a mess, you are expecting others to come in and take over what is your responsibility. Time to stop waiting for your messes to clean themselves and/or blaming others for them.
Adult life is a continuous process of adjustment. Our freedom of will is a tremendous burden sometimes.
However, if you want your life to be doable, you need to walk around your boundaries regularly, checking for broken fences and trespassers.
Taking up the burden of maintaining your boundary lines is the basic maintenance required in order to achieve real balance in our lives.
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