There is nothing like a good 'names have been changed to protect identities' anecdote, so here goes: 'Nancy' has a boyfriend, and in the interest of keeping things simple, he's a waster. You'd think that time and space, as most of us know it, did not exist for him, in that he was always late for dates (if he showed up at all) and when he did make an appearance, he lay about wondering why there wasn't a cold beer in his hand.
For the sake of simplicity, let's call him 'Eejit'. So Nancy had this idea that maybe he wasn't treating her properly -- oh, also, he was often verbally abusive, but in a sort of elusive way. He didn't shout at her at the top of his lungs, in fact, the reality was worse: he muttered things under his breath, calling her stupid, mocking the things she said to him, which in turn had her walking on eggshells around him, waiting for the next whispered snide remark. Had he yelled, it seemed to Nancy, it would have shown that he was passionate, and then she could be certain, once and for all, that he loved her.
I wonder if you're having a reaction akin to that of 'Mary', Nancy's best friend? That is, you'd like to take Nancy aside and say: "Love? That's not love! You can be certain about that!" Mary has in fact said that to Nancy, and has said it often, sometimes even up to three times a day. The thing is, Nancy rings Mary every time Eejit hurts her feelings, stands her up, breaks her heart. Every time Eejit does what he does best -- acts like an eejit -- Nancy rings Mary, because that's what friends are for, right?
The above anecdote is rich in many transgressions of personal boundaries, a phrase which is from the psychological lexicon, and may have been so over-invoked in the past decade that it is treated with derision, like it's a silly bit of pop-psychobabble that's sat on Oprah's couch once too often. This is a shame, because we all experience the uneasy feeling of, say, someone having gone too far, physically and emotionally, than we are comfortable with, and there's often an attendant feeling of helplessness that follows.
So the woman sitting next to me on the bus insists on conversation: that's not the end of the world, is it? So your father is always calling round to fix something: that's really kind of him isn't it? Not if, in the first case, the woman on the bus is nosy and intrusive, and not, in the second, if your da doesn't do you the courtesy of ringing before he pitches up.
Personal boundaries are tricky, and come into play at work and with friends, with family members and lovers. They help us define who we are, what is our responsibility as regards our relationships, and help others to know how far they can go in our company, and what is considered to be unacceptable behaviour.
And you can look like the world's biggest bitch once you start insisting that your significant others stay on their side of the fence.
For instance: Mary has told Nancy repeatedly, and in the gentlest way possible, that she hasn't always got time to talk about Eejit. This is because Mary has a life. She has a job, and a relationship of her own -- which felt a few tremors after a dinner party with Nancy and Eejit, and Mary's boyfriend put his foot down and refused to meet them ever again.
Well done, Mary's boyfriend! (Let's call him 'Phil', after the good doctor.) You've just set a boundary.
And Mary has respected Phil's boundary! She's never had them round again. Aren't the two of them great? They are like poster children for limit setting!
Not to take anything away from them, it's easy enough to do when both people are thinking clearly and are in accord. But once unreasonable expectations enter into it, things get dicey.
Obviously, Nancy can't respect another person's limits if she can't set any of her own. Eejit wouldn't know a boundary if it nipped him on the arse; narcissists don't even recognise others as being anything but bit players on their main stage (but that's another feature story entirely). Mary can set and reset that boundary until she drops dead of exhaustion, but the chances of it being respected are slim to none, unless Nancy changes her own perceptions.
If you want a relatable example of the fitness of people's personal boundaries, then we've only to look at our celebrity friends for clues. Jodie Foster is the champion limit-setter. She has, in the main, kept her personal life out of the headlines; there were a few outbursts here and there, sure, but for the most part she has insisted that her privacy be respected, and it has.
Jennifer Aniston has sort of wobbly boundaries. You'd think she'd put her foot down over the relentless coverage of her love life, but it's press, isn't it? And when you're trying to forge a successful film career (which she has been doing for an awfully long time), you do what you need to do to stay in the public eye. Even if that thing you are doing is generally looking fairly tragic.
Reality TV stars? Zero boundaries. None whatsoever. Sure, the Osbournes made good telly, but as far as role models go, look elsewhere. Unless you want to make a spectacle of yourself -- in which case, I'm surprised you've read this far.
If we apply the list above to our anecdote, then Phil is clearly rocking the Jodie Foster vibe, Mary is in Aniston territory, and Nancy and Eejit are lacking only a film crew.
Still one of the best books on the subject, Anne Katherine's Where You End and I Begin: How to Recognise and Set Healthy Boundaries (1991) offers anecdotes, exercises and, even better still, dialogue to help you learn how to say what you mean, gently and firmly.
For example, if someone keeps commenting on your hair style -- they think it's too short/too long/too curly/not curly enough -- then next time they proffer their unsolicited opinion, say: "My hair is none of your business and I want you to keep those thoughts to yourself."
How easy is that! No need to scream or cry or throw things. . . which is behaviour that many resort to when feeling the frustration of not being seen, heard, nor respected.
The story of Mary, Nancy and Eejit has a happy ending. After having finally stuck to her promise to herself to not be available for Nancy, Mary found that she was less angry about it, and any time she did spend with her friend was quality time.
When Nancy transgressed a limit -- such as ringing at inappropriate hours -- Mary let her know it and, eventually, the penny dropped.
Nancy realised that in a way, she was treating Mary the way that Eejit treated her. This realisation lead to some serious soul-searching, and while she's still not at the stage where it looks like she'll be well enough in herself to leave her boyfriend, at least she hasn't lost her best friend. Some relationships are worth keeping, and setting better boundaries can help you keep them going strong.