Boundaries 101 Rule 4

This is the fifth and last piece to our blog series on boundaries and healthy relationships. Last week, we talked about the importance of saying “no” so that you can later say “yes.” Today’s rule is especially important for those who are staying in unhealthy relationships because of their concern for someone else.

We successfully moved Hoa into her new home, which was some 15 minutes away from her old place and Wheaton’s campus where I attended grad school. Some months later, in one of the colder nights of the year, I went up to the school late one evening. After finishing my errand, I got back to my car and saw Hoa across the parking lot. She was heavy laden with her bicycle and it’s trailer attachment, stocked to the brim with food from the local donation pantry.

Not for the first time, Hoa had left me dumbfounded. “What is she doing?! It’s sub-freezing temperature outside, she’s 72 years old, and she’s walking to her home that’s 7 miles away!!”

I instantly started playing out the course of events in my head. I would pull up to her; she would say “hello” and ask for a ride; I would tell her I couldn’t fit her bicycle and trailer in my two-door car; she would refuse to leave it (I knew this too well from another story too long to explain here); I would be compelled to go try and find someone with a truck or van, which I knew none of my friends owned. It was a helpless situation.

Despite my compassion for my friend, in a moment of brief clarity I realized that this could not have been the first time she had done something like this. For all of the instances someone had given her a lift or helped her out, she had likely done as many reckless things on her own. And despite that fact, she had made it this far in life and was still going strong. Which leads to my last fundamental for boundaries:

Rule 4: Your potential impact is limited.

I speak often to wives who remain in abusive relationships because they’re the only one who can understands his problems. I talk to employees who never take a vacation because their company would stop functioning without them. I’ve met therapists and physicians who can’t take time off because their patients might not make it without them. All of these people are making the mistake of overvaluing their importance, thinking someone else is dependent on them. It takes humility and trust to admit we aren’t the last thing standing between someone else and their ruin.

When we overvalue our ability to keep someone or an organization safe or healthy, we feel trapped and forfeit our agency to make decisions. We unduly protect the other’s interests at the cost of our own. There can be no health in a relationship where both parties do not have equal power to choose.

Speaking personally, I am sometimes tempted to feel like my patients will fall apart without me. I have to remind myself that I may see them for only one of the 168 total hours in a week, sometimes less. But there are so many other decisions they will make and people they will interact with during that time. Yes, I am completely invested and do my best to help during that hour. But once they step out of my office, my control over their well-being is quite limited.

As Hoa slowly walked off into the distance, I realized that there had probably been many other “Andrews” throughout her life that had kept her afloat and supported her. Realizing that I was just one person in a long list of caretakers took the weight off my shoulders to be responsible for her health and safety. I saw her a few weeks later and she was completely fine. She didn’t even mention making that long trek because it had turned out okay - without my help.

In the same way: Your company is going to make it if you take a vacation. Your patients were okay before they met you, why wouldn’t they be okay without you now? And if your significant other would truly fall apart without you, they frankly require significant mental health care that you’re not equipped to provide in your position.

So, that’s my last rule for boundaries. Every relationship involves boundaries, whether we have identified them or not. If you think one or more of your relationships might be in jeopardy of having poor boundaries, our therapeutic team at the Well Clinic would love to help explore that with you.