Someone recently asked me to write about healthy boundaries.
I like to think about setting healthy boundaries as something that naturally occurs as we get healthier overall.
The reason I say this is because, so often when discussing boundary issues in the office, we end up talking about two different types of boundaries: ‘boundaries within’ and ‘boundaries without’, i.e., ‘intrapersonal’ and ‘interpersonal’ boundaries, respectively.
In my experience, when most people think about boundaries, they are only thinking about -INTER-PERSONAL boundaries.
The boundaries within ourselves (intrapersonal) are often neglected as we tend to pay attention to the more obvious outside boundaries between us and the other person (interpersonal).
However, if we want to really examine boundaries at a fundamental level, we need to first start with the more subtle, intrapersonal boundaries, i.e., the boundaries we keep within ourselves.
Often, when processing boundary issues in the office, we finally get to a point where the person sees how their own intrapersonal boundary issues contributed to the interpersonal boundary problem that ultimately upset them.
Fictional Example No. 1: A 50-year-old woman often uses self-effacing language, then is silently hurt when someone later makes a belittling comment about her.
Fictional Example No. 2: A 45-year-old man tells his neighbor to “just take your time” returning his lawn mower, then wonders why the neighbor hasn’t brought it back after two weeks.
Fictional Example No. 3: A 35-year-old woman frequently uses flirtatious language and innuendoes at work, then becomes frightened and upset when two different male colleagues independently make sexual “jokes” when she is present.
What do these three people have in common, besides interpersonal boundary issues?
You guessed it: -INTRA-PERSONAL boundary issues.
You see, (and I’m sure you’ve already heard), we train people how to treat us.
In the first example, the woman would have to explore why she tends to use self-effacing, self-denigratory language in the first place, while clearly conflicted when others do the same to her.
In the second example, the man needs to examine what it is about himself that made him choose to set such a loose boundary with his neighbor to begin with.
In the third example, the woman will have to ask herself why she tends to interact in a sexual manner at work, while at the same time feeling the way she does when her colleagues behave the way that they eventually do.
Each of the people in the above examples will find, after they’ve looked into it a bit, that there are often reasons within themselves for the intrapersonal boundary problems that eventually lead to the interpersonal ones.
Some of the themes that might come up include: poor self-esteem, lack of enough appropriate entitlement, guilt and shame issues, feeling insecure and chronically inadequate, and other trauma-based factors.
So the next time you experience an interpersonal boundary problem, try to examine the -INTRA-PERSONAL component as well. What was your role in the interaction, either immediately before the transgression, or hours/days before? And where does that behavior or vibe that you give off ultimately come from?
Now, remember, sometimes this exploration can be quite subtle and frustrating, and sometimes you might not even find the intrapersonal component at all. Also remember that there are always going to be people out there–particularly tough customers in our lives–who transgress boundaries regardless of what we do or don’t do.
But, rest assured, the minute you interact with another human being, you are dealing with a two-person field that is rife with each person’s ‘baggage’, and one of those persons is YOU.
Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.
Author, Don’t Get Married! (Unless You Understand a Few Things First)