How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

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How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

Post by Hirundo Bos on Fri Oct 23, 2015 7:43 am

Someone asked me for help today, not with something big, but with something that occurs fairly often. Specifically, to go check on their dog while they're at work. It's a dog they've taken on because the owner suddenly moved, they don't really have the capacity for it but the alternative was leaving her with a complete stranger... and I think I said at the time that I could help out once in a while. But each time I agree, I find myself worrying that it will become a bigger part of my life than I'm comfortable with, and that worry comes on top of deciding in each case if I have the time and mental resources to do the thing here and now.

And then today, I sort of didn't really have the resources, but on the other hand it was sort of urgent, so I said yes...

Is "boundaries" the right word here? It's about things that's asked of me, and sometimes I'm okay with the thing, but other times, it takes a lot of effort to even deal with being asked. So I'm thinking of having a talk, saying explicitly that I'm uncomfortable with... something. But I don't have a clear grasp of what that something is, or how I'd like things to be in the future...

So one thing is what do I say here and now. But another is... how do I deal with it more generally, when my boundaries and preferences are unclear to me?

I've had a lot of learning to do, when it comes to boundaries – both my own and those of others. I think I've got some basics down now, during my time here. And I've got something of a boundary-sense, can tell the difference between boundary-discomfort and other more background noise-kinds of discomfort... but it's still a rather vague sensation, tells me something is wrong but not what, and I'm also not quite well enough calibrated to see how my boundaries might fluctuate over time, and I don't know how to bring that across to people.
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Re: How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

Post by reboot on Fri Oct 23, 2015 8:37 am

It is a boundary, but one you have left unstated. You need to tell your friend, "I am happy to take care of the dog X days a week, but I need Y days notice. If it is last minute, you will have to find someone else." If there is no one else, then it might be time find the dog a home with someone who is better equipped to care for him/her.
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Re: How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

Post by sky on Fri Oct 23, 2015 9:46 pm

I agree with reboot. It sounds in this case like the boundary is that you need advance notice rather than last minute requests, so that you can plan it in to your schedule.
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Re: How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

Post by Hirundo Bos on Sat Oct 24, 2015 6:07 am

Yeah, advance notice is probably a big part of it in this case. It's the changing mental tracks, readjusting, that gets to me the most. So I told them that, just now, this thread in mind, in response to yet another request. And will probably repeat it the next time I see them in person. And I feel... pretty good about it.

I may come back here later with some questions about the more general thing with helpfulness and boundaries.
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Re: How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

Post by Hirundo Bos on Thu Feb 25, 2016 2:46 pm

Ok, this one might belong here... I tweeted something lighthearted yesterday about absent-mindedness, and someone gave a lighthearted reply, to which I replied in turn, but then he turned the conversation to a story from his abusive childhood.

I told him I was sorry to hear about that, but it was also a little too private for my comfort in the present context. He pointed out that I had a master's degree in psychology, so he'd assumed I was interested in other people's experiences. I said again that I was uncomfortable with the level of familiarity from someone I didn't know very well, and he said "okay, if that's your choice", and locked me out of his locked account.

My discomfort with that person had been growing for a while... it was just something with how he liked and retweeted a bit too many of my tweets, and sometimes responded with messages I didn't quite understand, and that I usually wouldn't engage with, but that didn't make him slow down at all. And if not for that discomfort, I would have taken it differently when he got to sharing this stuff about his childhood. But the way things turned out, I feel like I stated a boundary of mine at just the right time, and got more or less the response I wanted, and I'm happy about that.

I'm still second-guessing myself though, because it happened as he was sharing some pretty painful stuff... and the second-guessing part of myself asks if this means I'm putting my own emotional comfort over his experiences – which in other contexts would be the wrong thing to do. I'm also asking myself if I'm making too much of a deal about a sense of discomfort that doesn't involve any risk of harm... was my discomfort really big enough to merit a boundary?

I suspect that my guts are right and my secondguessing overzealous in this case. And that I do have the right to have boundaries, in fact I strongly need them. There's still something here, though, about acting as if other people's pain is too much of a burden for me... about making it about me... that I sometimes worry about when I'm thinking about boundaries, and where I don't really know what my question is (cf. the headline), but someone else here maybe does? and can maybe even suggest an answer?
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Re: How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

Post by Enail on Thu Feb 25, 2016 3:42 pm

It sounds to me like you handled that very well; you decided on, set, and communicated your boundary in a way that was both polite and genuine to your needs.

One thing about setting boundaries is that it doesn't always feel good, which makes it really easy to second guess yourself. If someone wants to share something really personal with someone, it hurts to be told they'd rather not hear it, so it's natural to feel bad or uncertain about setting that boundary when you want to be kind and considerate of others. But it's not healthy or even kind to let someone share something personal with you when you're not okay with it  - it might feel better for them in the moment, but it's setting up a dynamic where they believe they are talking about something hard to someone willing to be trusted with that, a dynamic of supportive friendship, but actually it's a dynamic of giving their trust to someone who doesn't want it, a dynamic that leads to burden and resentment, the opposite of friendship.  

I don't think you were making his pain be about you. I think it would be making it about you if you'd responded to his attempt to talk to you with a detailed explanation of why it was harmful to you and how bad it made you feel to have him try. A boundary is kind of a line between two people's space, that usually isn't clearly visible but you tell roughly where in the room it is through gradual approaches and social rules of thumb. He doesn't know for sure where the line is, so he guesses and tries putting something (his experience he wanted to talk to you about) down somewhere in the room, a reasonable thing to do, but oops, it turns out it's over the line and he's putting it into your space and you don't want it there. Boundary crossed, unintentionally, no harm no foul.

If you start asking him to deal with your feelings about the stuff he's put into your space, you're putting something on his side of the line, your feelings are now taking up space in his room (and, as you recognize, one of the social rules of thumb about boundaries is it's not okay to put secondary feelings into the primary feeler's space, so it's not as much something you can do totally unaware) But just saying 'this isn't something I'm okay taking on here' isn't putting anything into his space, it's showing him where the line is. He might have feelings about that, and those will be in his space, and that might suck for him, but that's not yours to deal with, even if it feels mean or wrong.
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Re: How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

Post by Werel on Thu Feb 25, 2016 7:33 pm

I agree with Enail (and you) that you did a good thing setting that very reasonable boundary-- your gut steered you right here. I very much sympathize with second-guessing yourself when you push anybody away who's hurting, but it's often exactly the right thing to do.

Also, that room-line putting-stuff-down metaphor is genius and a perfect way to explain it and I am definitely going to steal it for future use. Grin
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Re: How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

Post by Hirundo Bos on Fri Feb 26, 2016 2:39 pm

Thanks for confirming my guts, and thanks for explaining clearly the things I was only sensing myself...

pushing away someone who is hurting is probably a keyword for some of the deeper questions about boundaries I have, and I'll try to get down some thoughts about it some day.
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Re: How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

Post by kath on Sat Mar 05, 2016 12:37 pm

Here are some other examples - all family though, since I don't think I'm on the emergency call list for many people!

- a few years ago, there was a flood in my city, and my parents' house was one of the ones evacuated. They (and my brother) came and stayed in my house for 2 nights while they were still out of the house. (it was pretty interesting to hear what everyone who was evacuated did in this situation - crash with friends - I think some people took in several displaced people in their network - or family.)

- earlier this year, my mom had to go to the hospital for emergency surgery. It wasn't complicated surgery, but it was urgent, and unfortunately it happened at a time when I was crazy busy at work. I talked to my dad and brother on the phone and they let me know what was going on and spent a lot of time with my mom, and after she was done and expecting to be discharged soon I talked to her on the phone. I came to visit her at her house after she had been discharged, and after my crazy few days at work were done. In that case, I knew that she had the help she needed from my Dad and brother, and that she's a doctor, so she wasn't scared, knew how to navigate the system really well, and pretty much just wanted to get discharged and go home.

- sometimes I think my husband helps me out with stuff a little TOO easily. I usually call him when something happens like I lose my phone or whatever, to let him know so he's not wondering why I'm not reachable. One of those times, when I couldn't do anything about it, he left work and tracked my phone via GPS and actually got it back. I did not think that was actually necessary help for him to provide. "We'll try to sort it out at home or tomorrow" would have been fine.

Is there a family member you can talk some of these things through a bit? They would know you well, and might be able to help you come up with scripts to talk about these things with friends, and help you come up with specific and noticeable triggers for when you should have those conversations with friends. I think finding people to be close to who will be able to communicate clearly with you and respond well to your statement of your boundaries will be really important Grin.
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Re: How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

Post by Hirundo Bos on Mon Mar 07, 2016 7:19 am

Thank you for the examples, they help me with calibration and context. And I talked with my mom about it yesterday, my twin questions of helpfulness and boundaries... because as I mentioned in rants, the reason they got to the top of my head was because of a medical situation in my own family... my half sister on my father's side had strong stomach pains that turned out to be a ruptured appendix, and my mom was the one who went over to help her out, eventually, convinced her to see a doctor, went with her to the hospital, spent the night there while he had surgery... my mom, who isn't related to her, rather than I who am.

And she, my mom I mean, was willing to have a conversation with me afterwards about what that meant about me and my capability for care, so I think I learned a bit about myself from that... among other things, I'm thinking about what Werel said in the other thread, that willingness to help person X with Y is an emotion, and can be sensed -and processed and understood the same way as my other emotions.

I think you're right in that I should look for the kind of people who are able and willing to communicate explicitly about boundaries. Their own as well as mine I think. (Though I think I did a good job with checking in with my mom about talking about my own stuff right after a thing that was not about me.)
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Re: How to be explicit about boundaries when I'm not sure myself what they are

Post by thebeardeddragon on Mon Oct 10, 2016 6:42 pm

I can relate to this. I have just moved back in to my parents whilst I study for a new college degree. Even though I am 38 years old my mother openly scoffs at the idea of boundaries and privacy amongst family members. She is of the mind-set that everything should be shared always and our (her 3 now grown children) business is essentially her business.

For example is her desperation to find out what my brother earns. My brother is in a high paying job in very wealthy middle east country but she is immensely pissed off that he won't disclose his salary to her.

When I moved in, she hovered round me when I open my letters, demanding to know what's in them, then after telling her she would take the letter out of my hand and read for herself "to make sure". After several requests that she not do that, I now take my mail upstairs and open it. I look back and there are more examples and it always tends to be my family that boundary stomps.

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