As human beings we are “super social” creatures. Our individual health is inextricably tied to our interpersonal wellbeing. Consequently it is not surprising that relationship problems are among the most common complaints reported by patients seeking psychotherapy.
One helpful guideline for building and maintaining heathy relationships can be summed up with a variation on the common aphorism “Good fences make good neighbors”: Good boundaries make good relationships. It has been my experience that when individuals learn how to recognize and respect the natural boundaries in relationships their interactions become more satisfying and beneficial to themselves and those with whom they interact. Moreover, while it may seem counterintuitive, maintaining healthy boundaries actually promotes greater intimacy in relationships.
The two domains that I have tended to focus on when defining interpersonal boundaries are rights and responsibilities.
Many different rights have been proposed but I find that the three basic rights identified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, capture the essential elements for interpersonal boundaries. Respecting the right to life directs us to behave in ways that preserve physical safety. Respecting the right to liberty directs us to behave in ways that preserve freedom of movement. Finally, as a psychologist, I believe that respecting the right to pursue happiness directs us to preserve freedom of thought.
Responsibilities are best defined with a simple equation: control = responsibility. Each of us is responsible for that which we control. We are not responsible for that which we do not control. Assigning responsibility where control is present and only where control is present is the way in which we respect the boundaries of responsibility.
Based on these basic definitions it can be said that a person who acts toward another person in a way that (1) preserves his or her own and the other persons physical safety, freedom of movement and freedom of thought and (2) assigns responsibility to him or herself or the other person only where control lies, is observing and respecting healthy boundaries. When I behave toward another person in a way that respects my own and the other person’s right to physical safety, my own and the other person’s right to come and go as I or they chose, my own and the other person’s right to think however I or they chose to think and I only hold myself or the other person responsible for the things I or they, respectively, have control over, I am promoting and maintaining healthy boundaries.
This formula is the foundation of positive interactions and when properly applied it promotes healthy relationships. Unfortunately several factors seem to conspire to make it difficult to observe and respect the boundaries. One of the most problematic of these involves the assignment of responsibility for emotions.
One approach to understanding emotions that psychotherapists have promoted for years is referred to as the “ABCs of Emotions”. This model states that emotions are determined not by events but by the interpretation of those events. In this model A is an event, B is a thought and C is an emotion. The model proposes that events (A) are filtered through interpretations or thoughts (B) which in turn determine the emotion (C). We cannot always control the events around us but we can and do control our thoughts about those events and in so doing we determine the emotions we will have in response to the events. While this model is overly simplistic and does not fully capture the complexity of emotions, it has validity and is very useful in helping define boundaries.
Here is the boundary. Since each individual controls his or her own thoughts, and those thoughts determine the resulting emotions, it follows that each person is responsible for his or her own emotions. Unfortunately our instincts and our culture often lead us to behave in a way that violates this boundary. The instinct to feel the emotions of the other person (which has been highlighted by the discovery of mirror neurons) and many social norms of propriety (such as the injunction to “not hurt the other person’s feelings”) have resulted in a pervasive tendency to hold each other responsible for the other’s emotions. Common phrases such as “you hurt my feelings” and “that made me angry” are evidence of the tendency to assign responsibility for feelings to persons or factors that do not control the emotion. As counterintuitive or subversive as it may seem, when we choose to assign responsibility for emotions to the individual who is feeling the emotion we are promoting heathy boundaries and promoting healthy relationships.
Some of the benefit of assigning responsibility for emotions to the person who is feeling the emotion comes from the way in which it relieves us of the untenable experience of feeling responsible for something that we cannot control. If I hold myself responsible for another person’s emotions it won’t be long before I figure out that I am fighting a losing battle. Because the other person can interpret what I say or do in ways that are beyond my control, I am powerless to determine the other person’s emotions even when those emotions are in response to my words or actions. Being in a situation where we are responsible for something beyond our control is a frustrating experience and there is a natural tendency to dislike or avoid those situations. If when I interact with another person I feel that frustration I am not going to be inclined to want to be around them. On the other hand, if I am able to assign responsibility for the emotions to the appropriate responsible party I will not find the interaction as frustrating and will be more inclined to be close with that person.
Rather than take responsibility for each other’s emotions I encourage people to be responsive to each other’s emotions. Instead of holding to the stance “It is my job to make you happy,” I shift my position to “I want you to be happy”. This shift is particularly helpful when there are difficult emotions or conflicting perspectives (such as when I have done something that I think was the right thing to do and my loved one is angry at me about because he/she thinks it was not the right thing). In this model I am responsible for my actions but not the other person’s emotions yet I choose to be responsive to their emotions. I choose to be patient, empathetic and compassionate in response to their distress. I encourage you to try making this shift and see how it helps you build closer and more intimate relationships.
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