Vivianne Willig, MSW, responds to reader questions about Dream On
I feel like all this talk of boundaries is a very New-Age thing, and has resulted in a very self-centered generation. What happened to doing chesed and pushing yourself? Frankly, I think people have become too boundaried.
Let’s explore the problems that arise with a lack of boundaries.
It’s harmful. In a safe relationship, everyone knows their own place. When the lines blur, it’s much easier for someone to get hurt. A lack of boundaries leaves one open to abuse, manipulation, impaired judgment (as seen in Dream On), and being taken advantage of. Boundaries preserve safety and trust.
It corrodes relationships. When roles are undefined, relationships deteriorate. Can you stretch roles? Absolutely. Are there times you need to go beyond your role? Yes, some circumstances call for it. But when this happens all the time, the relationship will ultimately fall apart. Resentment can develop; things feel out of control. When one person can’t say no, or when the other asks for too much, the relationship is suffocated. And relationships can’t last under chaotic conditions.
It’s not sustainable. Nothing extreme is ever a good idea. You’re a human being, with multiple facets to your life. If you give without boundaries, eventually you’ll feel dread or sadness; you may feel as though you’ve been run over. It’s vital you’re in sync with your own needs. When we have clarity about where we stand and what our role is, we’re able to help in a healthy way. Boundaries sustain that clarity and enable the giving to last.
I’m part of a group where people will often post requests for help or share stories of women who need assistance. It’s wonderful to see how people jump to help. After a particularly poignant post, a friend told me, “I feel so bad I couldn’t help her.”
“But her needs were met,” I pointed out. “So do you feel bad for her, or do you feel bad that you couldn’t be the one to help her?”
If you’re not sure if your sense of giving has gone too far, ask yourself: Is this for her or for me? Are you there to help the person or yourself?
As far as having too many boundaries…. Rigidity is never good. Relationships are fluid and dynamic; we’re all works in progress, always evaluating and assessing. That’s part of life. Situations come up that will require lowering boundaries, but they’re very relationship- and situation-specific. I don’t like the term “too boundaried.” Maybe the person is unhelpful, self-centered, cold, or rigid, but having appropriate boundaries maintains healthy relationships. Boundaries is a good word!
Reading Dream On, I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. I guess I’ve become known as the person to call in the neighborhood when you need a last-minute host, when crisis arises, or to organize a fundraiser. I’m also a teacher, and over the years, I’ve become close with many of my students, especially those who come from troubled homes. How can I know if my giving has gone too far? And aren’t we supposed to pursue chesed?
When you’re a person who grew up with wonderful values, such as helping others, this of course can become complicated. Who wants to put a cap on that? There’s no question that it’s a good feeling to help someone. We’re people, not robots. But nothing extreme is ever a good idea. Balance is always the key to giving in a healthy way, otherwise there will be some form of repercussion, including resentment, lack of judgment, and loss of self.
What if you’re not sure where you stand with giving, or if you have a lack of boundaries?
The first step is noticing:
What are you doing? How do you feel about it? Trust your instincts. (Sometimes we don’t want to do things we should be doing. But that’s not a boundary issue; that’s an entirely separate thing.) Do I feel resentment? Do I feel like I’m the only person in the world who can do this? Am I always feeling guilty?
Is this pattern of giving chronic or a one-time thing? You need to stretch yourself at times. There will be situations where you need to push yourself. But we’re talking about someone who’s always, always pushing herself to give and be everything. Ask yourself: Am I ever able to say no?
What price are you paying? Tammy’s actions affected her relationship with her husband, with other staff members, and her job. Is your involvement affecting your husband? Children? Siblings? Parents? Your employment?
Realizing you’ve gone too far is key.
Next, see if you can take a step back. See where you can cut out a little something. Warning: It will feel uncomfortable. People without boundaries need to keep giving to feel good about themselves. When they stop, it’s an uncomfortable feeling. Again, ask yourself: Why do I feel bad? Do I feel bad because I couldn’t do it, or because the person you were helping doesn’t have what they need? Is it my job to fix others?
Truthfully, sometimes they don’t have what they need. But that still doesn’t mean you’re the one who should be doing it. It’s not your job to take responsibility for others. We can only do what we can and what is healthy; don’t take Hashem out of the picture. He’ll take care of the rest.
I know it’s funny when we analyze fiction as if it were real, but really, why would Tammy need therapy? The kind of misjudgment Tammy keeps on making seem typical for an intermediate Two on the Enneagram, a person who has a lot of chesed in her personality. Twos have a strong need to love, be loved, and give.
What Tammy seems to be missing is a few hours of professional training. The pitfalls are almost inevitable for the type of giving personality that would be so good for the job.
While it may seem that Tammy’s actions were all rooted in her desire to do chesed, let’s take a closer look at what happened. People who lack boundaries are often lacking in self-esteem. They need these relationships to make them feel good about themselves. It’s not about chesed or giving anymore, it’s about filling the empty hole inside. Tammy keeps falling into this trap.
Tammy felt so bad and wanted to help Shani — but she was so involved in feeling bad and getting pulled into Shani’s stuff. What Shani really needed was a strong and stable eim bayit who could move beyond, “Oy, poor Shani,” and actually help her. If Tammy had really wanted to help Shani, she wouldn’t have done what she did — but her urge to help stemmed from her need to feel good about herself.
Many people who lack boundaries also overidentify with others. A lot of people who don’t have boundaries have their own emotions to work through. They don’t see a break between themselves and the other person, and in order to ease their own pain, they need to help the other person.
Tammy is wise to go to therapy, since her lack of boundaries stems from a deeper lack. Many people who realize that they’re lacking boundaries, and who are unable to step back even after trying the approach suggested above, would benefit from the same decision and taking the opportunity to get to know themselves.
I’m feeling confused. How is someone supposed to heal if there isn’t someone in her life who she feels totally has her back for a period of time? I’ve seen therapists who were trying so hard to keep boundaries, to prevent any attachment, to always try to get me to think of what I could tell myself to make myself feel better, and something felt off about this to me. What I felt I needed was the feeling that someone really believes in me, understands me, cares about me. It feels so cold when the therapist is always trying to get you to comfort and believe in yourself.
Part of me is feeling concerned that healing that could be happening through another person’s care, concern, and belief in another might not be happening because of how much people are concerned about boundaries.
I’m sorry for your experience. Everyone should always feel comfortable in therapy. The goal is to have a relationship that feels nurturing and warm, but with boundaries that maintain safety and stability.
It’s possible that this therapist isn’t a good match for you, or hopefully this is something you can work out with her. Raise this topic with the therapist and say, “Our relationship feels very cold.” See how she responds; this could lead to actual deeper work.
A therapist’s role can be very confusing. Is she a friend? Is she taking care of me? Does she worry about me?
Suppose a person is going to therapy because she has no secure relationships with other adults in her life; everyone keeps letting her down. The therapy relationship can mimic real relationships in her life, but this is a corrective relationship, designed not to recreate the same scenarios, but instead create a new, healthy sense of self, despite having had difficult relationships in the past. The therapist needs to demonstrate stability and consistency, yet allow for the person to grow and develop herself independently.
Sometimes people feel abandoned when a therapist enacts boundaries, but the goal of therapy is to help them work through it and realize, “Maybe she isn’t abandoning me. She has boundaries, but she is warm and nurturing and she helps me… maybe I can do this because she trusts that I can.”
When a therapist allows boundaries to lapse, she’s not helping — she needs to help the clients help themselves. The biggest gift you can give someone is being there for them by being strong and stable, despite the emotional pull to do more, thereby enabling them to grow.
Vivianne Willig is a clinical social worker who specializes in anxiety, depression, relationships, and self-esteem issues. She has a private practice in Ramat Beit Shemesh and is a therapist on staff at Michlalah seminary.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 780)
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