By Katie Bailey, MA, LPC
I often talk and teach my clients about boundaries. Setting limits on what you will and won’t do, what you can and can’t give. Healthy emotional boundaries are essential to mental well being.
When we start to set emotional boundaries, people around us often get upset because we are “rocking the boat”. But if we want other people to respect our boundaries, we also must learn to respect theirs.
As much as we might want to, we just cannot control other people. Often, we get angry when other people don’t do what we want them to do. In reality, we are not actually angry, we are disappointed. We need to learn to look under the anger and verbalize our real hurt and then deal with it appropriately. We are responsible for our own emotions and how we respond to them.
When we don’t respect other people’s boundaries, we live a very frustrated life. You ask someone for help, she says no and you assume she hates you. Your brother’s family says they can’t travel this year for Christmas, and you get angry because they aren’t doing what you want, what you think they SHOULD do. You don’t like your sister’s new boyfriend, and you keep telling her that, but she just doesn’t listen! Your spouse is exhausted and doesn’t want to talk about your kid’s grades right now, but you won’t let it go. Unfortunately, when we try to control other people, which is the same thing as not respecting their boundaries, all we get is super frustrated and relationships that are filled with fighting.
Eventually you wind up in a place where either no one wants to spend time with you, or you are just always arguing with people. Your relationships are miserable, you are lonely and frustrated. The reality is, all of us have to learn this lesson at some point in life. It’s a tough one. But the sooner we learn to not attempt to control others, the sooner we will feel more peace with ourselves and our relationships.
Learning to stop trying to control others is difficult. However, if we put in the effort, and learn to take responsibility for our own emotions and reactions, we can find more peace overall, and more closeness in our important relationships.
Keep reading for 3 benefits of giving up on controlling others.
1. You will be less disappointed. Notice I didn’t say you will never be disappointed. People will let us down, that’s just part of life. But when you give others the freedom to make their own choices, you won’t stress out about every decision they make. Trying to force people, or manipulate them, into making choices you want them to make is totally pointless, and just plain not fair. Do you want people dictating your choices to you? Of course not. Love people enough to let them make their own decisions.
This often happens with extended families. Let’s say the Smith family is going on vacation. Mr. & Mrs. Smith have 3 grown children, Charles, Evan and Sarah. All the grown children are married and have small children. They all decide to go to Disney World for 5 days. On the third day, Sarah’s 1 year old son is exhausted. She and her husband decide that their family will skip dinner with the whole group and go back to the hotel for some down time. Mr. Smith is livid. He tells Sarah that he and Mrs. Smith paid for this trip, and she is clearly ungrateful since she and her family are skipping dinner. Sarah, while hurt from her father’s words, simply excuses herself and her family and they take their son back to the hotel.
Mr. Smith wasn’t respecting his adult daughter’s boundaries. He was using the fact that he and his wife paid for the trip to manipulate his daughter into doing what he wanted her to do. Sarah set a boundary, she made her own choice to put her son’s needs first and go back to the hotel for down time. Mr. Smith put his own desires first, ignored his adult daughter’s right to make her own choices, and caused tension for the whole family. Plus, for himself, Mr. Smith will spend the rest of his night angry, not enjoying his vacation. If Mr. Smith could say to himself, “I’m disappointed Sarah and her family will miss dinner, but I understand they need to choose what is best for them,” he would be respecting her boundaries and save himself a lot of disappointment and anger.
2. You will be an emotionally safe person for the people you care about. When we ignore other people’s limits we are really ignoring their emotional needs. Some people will tell you emotions are bad, ignore them. Really though, we all know that’s not true. Emotions point out things that are really going on for us. We can’t let emotions rule us, but we absolutely need to pay attention to them. Plus, sharing our feelings with others is how we bond with them, and we all need to be connected to others.
Hannah and Lydia are sisters, both in their early twenties. Lydia has a pattern of dating guys that don’t treat her very well. Hannah hates seeing her sister in these situations. Recently Lydia started dating Tim, who is also not very nice to Lydia. Hannah called her sister and said to her, “Why are you doing this again? Why don’t you get it? Tim is just like all the others! He drinks too much, and he only cares about himself. You need to break up with him now! I’ll be so mad at you if you stay with him.”
Hannah’s heart is in a good place, she doesn’t want to see Lydia get hurt. However, Lydia is an adult, and can make her own choices. It’s not Hannah’s job to decide who Lydia can or cannot date. Could Hannah express her concern in a way that respects Lydia’s right to make her own choices? Absolutely. Imagine if Hannah had said, “Lydia, I really want you to be happy. I know that the last few guys you dated really hurt you. I don’t want to see that happen again, and sometimes I worry Tim is like the others. Do you think that could be true?” Hannah is expressing her hesitation about Tim, but still allowing Lydia to make her own choices.
When we allow others to make decisions in their own lives, we are an emotionally safe person for them. Which Hannah do you think Lydia is more likely to talk to? Of course, the second Hannah. No one will respond well when demands are made on them. It’s not emotionally safe. The second Hannah made it okay for Lydia to share how she really feels and created more connection between the sisters.
3. You will have less stress in your relationships. Controlling others is downright exhausting, and honestly, it never, ever works out well. When we stress out over other people’s decisions, we are only causing angst for ourselves. Again, we might feel disappointment in people’s choices, but we have to allow them the space to make their own decisions.
Laura is married and has three kids. Her brother Shawn is also married with four kids and lives about 30 minutes away from Laura’s family. Shawn and his wife have their four kids signed up for soccer, swimming, karate, baseball and piano lessons. They don’t have a lot of free time with all four kids’ activities. Laura and her husband only allow their kids to do one activity at a time. They value having down time and time with family more than activities. Laura frequently asks Shawn and his family to spend time with her family, but most often they can’t because of their schedule. The constant turning down invitations makes Laura angry. She often tells her husband, “Why do they have to do everything? Don’t they value family? They are just too busy! It’s awful! I guess they just don’t care about seeing us.” Laura decides to call Shawn and tell him she is angry that they never see his family. Shawn doesn’t take too well to his sister’s call, gets really defensive and angry himself, and the call doesn’t end well.
Laura is really disappointed that she doesn’t see more of her brother and his family, which is of course, understandable. However, she cannot tell Shawn and his wife how to set up their children’s schedule, because that’s not Laura’s job. She is trying to control Shawn and his wife’s choices to get what she wants. Her phone call, which was her ignoring Shawn’s boundaries, only made her relationship with her brother worse.
You will not always agree with the choices your loved ones make. And maybe you are right some of the time. No matter what, you can’t push people into making decisions you want them to make. It absolutely can be hard to watch people make choices you don’t agree with, but you have to respect them as adults and give them space to decide for themselves what they will and will not do.
Emotional boundaries are essential for mental wellness. We need to know what is our responsibility and what is not. We need to own our own feelings and reactions and deal with them appropriately. We also must allow others in our lives to do the same. We must manage our own disappointment and not try to manipulate and control others.
When we keep trying to hold on to control, we not only hurt our relationships, we hurt ourselves. We cause extra stress, fighting and anger. Very often I see this in my client’s marriages. One spouse tries to control the other, and they can’t use words to describe their disappointment, so they yell and fight at one another. Maybe you’ve had a traumatic experience, perhaps a sexual abuse history, and you manage your anxiety by trying to control those around you. All you are really doing is creating more strife in your marriage or other relationships. Have you tried anxiety counseling?
Do you recognize any aspect of yourself in these stories? Are you struggling to respect other people’s boundaries? Chances are if you don’t respect others limits, you have no limits of your own. Do you want to find more peace in your relationships and for yourself?
Here at Lime Tree Counseling, LLC, I love helping clients figure out how to take responsibility for what issues are their own to work on and what things they need to let go for others to work on. You are only responsible for you. Can I help you draw the emotional map of what’s yours and what is not? Contact us today to schedule a free phone consult or to schedule an appointment.