by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW, MSW
I was at an event this summer where a certain very famous gentleman was also in attendance. We were listening to an impassioned presentation about serving at-risk youth in Seattle. I was painfully distracted because the sun was shining. It was shining directly onto us through a sliding glass door and the light was hitting a patch of recently treated skin cancer on Mister Very Famous’s scalp. His armed bodyguard sat right next to me. I yearned to tell the body guard to move the man away from the sliding glass door because sunlight was currently the biggest threat to his client.
Once upon a time, possibly not too long ago I would have been unable to restrain myself from “helping” in this manner. This helping habit of mine has resulted in bad choices: physically stepping in-between a man and a woman fighting in the street, cleaning dog poop off the floor at a professional training I was volunteering in when the dog-poop-tracker-in-er was right there not cleaning it up, moving a suicidal woman into my home when I served on the board of her nonprofit. On and on the list of Really Dumb Things I’ve Done To Try and Help goes.
So today I’m thinking about boundaries and the arduous process of developing them. A physical boundary such as a fence or wall defines private space, separating private/personal from public/impersonal. Unlike a physical boundary, interpersonal boundaries are invisible so they are harder to read, but are vital for our mental health.
Back when I was in turbo charged helper mode I worked constantly and still never felt like I could get everything done I needed to get done because…I couldn’t. At least not to the standard of servitude I assigned myself. Unless you live on the moon, there is no way to meet all of the needs of all of the people around you. A better bet is to relieve yourself of a sense of obligation to every carbon-based life form you come across (yeah ladies, I’m talkin’ to YOU).
I now keep my sphere of obligation limited to family, friends, clients and friends of family and friends. I don’t try to help everyone I meet and I don’t think that just because I notice something (sunlight on skin cancer for instance) I need to open my big mouth and help.
Further defining my interpersonal boundaries, all of my relationships have to be reciprocal. At work I get paid to listen and attend to my clients’ needs. The medium of exchange is money for attention which is fair. Outside of work I am not anyone’s personal therapist so if I have a friend who repeatedly and exclusively wants to talk about themselves and their struggles when we get together I will exit that friendship.
To improve your boundaries, limit your sphere of responsibility and keep your relationships reciprocal. That’s pretty simple.