Sunday, 12 December 2010

Boundary Battles

It's easy isn't it setting personal boundaries for how others react and treat you? No?

No. It is one of the hardest things to learn to do, hard enough when it's a work setting; all the more difficult when you know you need to set boundaries with people you know, love and care for.

Let’s pause to think what life would be like without them. Life would be an absolute nightmare if we had no laws and so it is with personal boundaries. Too often those of us with mental health histories allow ourselves to be rail-roaded over due to our appalling low levels of confidence and self-esteem. We often find ourselves arriving there because we can all too easily end up rejecting who we are for becoming ill. Such is the extent of the prejudice and stigma that even we are affected by it. Some even negate themselves completely.

The proof of this comes in the shocking statistics of the suicide rate actually going up when people come to realize they are ill. It is why patients, when sectioned for the first time, are often put on a 'suicide watch'. Exactly at that moment when we wake up to the fact that we are not well, we can end up wanting to give up on life itself because of the nature of the illness and all that it implies in mainstream society. The battle to restore and reclaim trust, respect and confidence from others begins and for some it sadly becomes too much of a battle for them to want to fight.

I remember experiencing that feeling myself when I was sectioned - it was the worst day of my life to wake up realizing both how ill I was and all that I'd done. I cringed with embarrassment to think of how I'd behaved and treated others who had tried to help and that feeling was so intense that I never wanted anyone who knew me to see me again. I felt it would be better for them if I ceased to exist because of the burden I felt I had become.

The answer is to always remember that we have had better days, and are capable of them and therefore can get back to them. We also have to remember that not everyone is uncaring or inconsiderate - many people want to, and actively try to, be supportive. We should not deny them the choice to do so if they truly have out well-being at heart. We need that depth of love and compassion as much as anyone else.

It's a battle that involves standing up to the prejudice, assumptions and stigma from others who act according to their ignorance frankly and in my view are riddled with issues of their own. Even our nearest and dearest friends and relatives can be prone to this. It is only through continuing to communicate that we can overcome these difficulties.

We have a right to express ourselves; our thoughts, feelings needs and wants. What no one has a right to do is dictate or impose those things on others. If we want others to respect our limits, so we must respect other people's.

Recently I read an article about how to find God by not living for ourselves, but instead living for others. I will never advocate absolute selfishness, but nor do I advocate absolute selflessness. I question the mindset of people who do so. To give your life entirely to others by definition means negating your own needs. It can lead to people taking advantage of you emotionally and financially and is dangerous because it suggests that others are of more worth, more value and are more important than you. Rubbish. We are all equals in these things.

How to set boundaries
Like deciding upon what to build and how high a fence or wall it should be to protect our property, or deciding on whether or not we should have net curtains, blinds and shutters for privacy on our windows, so we need to decide what boundaries we want in our lives for our emotional well-being.

Among the range of people who visit me at home, there are some who are allowed in some rooms but not others; some are allowed free run of my home as they are particularly close to me. There are some people who I know personally who know I write this blog, and others who don't. I have set the boundaries and I manage them. I have control, and if that trust is seriously abused then people just get blown out of my life.

It's the same with behaviour and how we wish to be addressed. It may be handy but it would be very long-winded and extremely odd to issue a written set of terms and conditions for everyone we meet, but fortunately it is largely unnecessary. Relationships tend to evolve and only when something we don't like occurs do we need to inform people of it. People who are close to me initially weren't because it takes time for that level of trust to develop. My door is always open to more people in effect passing my personal tests to become close friends but if they don't pass they are still friends on a less intimate level. I think it's good to have a range of relationships as that way I increase my chance of all my needs being met.

We cannot reasonably hold something against another person if we don't tell them what our beliefs, thoughts and feelings are, so if there is a misunderstanding or dispute ask yourself if you've given that person a fair chance to understand you. You may decide you don't want them to which is fine, but it could be unfair then to judge them harshly.

Friends are now those who support me but also people who allow me to be supportive of them as I know I need to feel needed to ensure that I retain a sense of worth. They are people who I can have an argument with, or disagree with without it feeling like it's the end of the world. They are people I can turn around and say 'I'm really sorry but I need my own space right now.' without fear of them disappearing forever, and they can and do the same with me.

Time Out
I recently had to do just that because of the problems a couple of my friends were having were triggering bad memories for me. I was also becoming obsessed with their difficulties and ignoring important issues of my own that I needed to address. We cannot be of any real help to anyone while we are wading through problems ourselves. What we can do though is root for them in the hope that they will be doing the same for us.

It is ludicrous to expect or assume that anyone will always be on the same wavelength as us. Just as all manner of things can be affecting us at any given moment, so it is for others and sometimes that can lead to tensions getting out of perspective. I've learnt through counselling that we can only ever be truly aware of ourselves.

So, sometimes it is better to take a break and note down issues and wait until a loved one is in a better place themselves to be able to hear things, and to wait until we are in a better place too to speak them.

Compromise and Negotiation
I believe a real compromise should involve both parties giving up on something that they want. This does not mean that the compromise has to be written in stone. At a later date both parties will often find that what we want today changes. I think of things being on hold rather than given up on for this reason. Everything is subject to review and re-negotiation over time.

I have a feeling that assertiveness is a topic I will be returning to at some point but these are the basic principles that have helped me enormously. Most of all setting boundaries means asserting our needs. There are some instances whereby I will never compromise and at such times I need to put my foot down and plainly state 'No'. For example I dislike being asked to lie for others as I believe that honesty really is the best policy. So I try to encourage people to think how to phrase things better so that they don't lie. Being economical with the truth may be necessary out of consideration and fairness for all the people involved in a situation.

Assertiveness is not about letting rip and being angry. It is about stating your boundaries succinctly and with the utmost clarity. It is about being firm but fair. It should never be seen as an opportunity to be critical of others, to launch into a personal attack of their personality or character. If we do that, it will most likely lead to our receiving the same in return or potentially causing harm and damage to others and I would rather not have that on my conscience. It's tantamount to bullying. It is not about imposing your needs as being more important than anyone else’s, that too is a form of bullying.

Some of the most effective phrases I've used are "I'm sorry I don't agree with that.", "No, I find that upsetting." and "I think that's insensitive." What I don't do is add the word "because". Over the years I've discovered that by avoiding using that word I'm less likely to be put in a position of justifying myself as if I'm in the wrong for holding a different opinion. Different doesn't mean better or worse, it just means not the same. Only when asked do I explain why I hold my view, as being asked is a sign of respect and interest being shown to me. It offers dialogue at that point.

A brilliant manager once told me that they kept socialising with their staff to a minimum for two reasons. The first was that it helped them to maintain their authoritative role; the second was so that the staff had the opportunity to moan about them. What she was saying was that she recognised that in her role she was obliged at times to tell people to do things they often didn't like to hear and that as a consequence staff needed to get their upset out of their systems by going off and moaning. Due to the way she handled things and her careful phrasing she is highly respected even when she had to announce redundancies.

In my personal relationships I now do the same. I will rant and call people who annoy me all the names under the sun away from them. I share those feelings only with those who are not involved in the situation that I trust to keep it to themselves. I find that once I have got my feelings out of my system I am able to think more clearly, see the other person's side of things and deal with whoever has upset me more respectfully. I also benefit from getting an objective view of the situation that way and often get advice and suggestions on how to communicate better.

If all else fails we always have the option of walking away. Relationships are complicated because we can never know everything about everyone and the more people who are involved the more complicated it gets. I hope that this has a least triggered some ideas on how to protect yourself in all of them. The rewards come when you find people do see that even the mentally ill can be intelligent and of value, for the truth is, we are.

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