We are all aware of physical boundaries, such as security walls, fences, and hedges. They clearly outline where one property ends and where another begins, keeping intruders out and maintaining the safety of people within them. However, there are internal boundaries as well, which determine how we and others behave towards each other. These are usually culturally determined and are learned from a very early age from interaction with parents and family, friends, teachers, our places of worship, and significant experiences in our lives. These internal boundaries are not as apparent and therefore need to be communicated carefully and clearly. Problems come when an individual has no, very weak, or damaged boundaries, which provide only partial protection. Sometimes people erect internal walls instead of boundaries.

The person with no or weak boundaries has no protection from the intrusion of others. This is the individual who cannot say no, even when it may harm her or loved ones. This is the typical people-pleaser. This person often says yes out of guilt or obligation, not because she really wanted to say yes.

The person with damaged boundaries may be fine in some areas but have weak or no boundaries in others, similar to a fence or hedge with holes in it. For instance, the individual may have good boundaries at home, knowing where to draw the line with family members, but at work may be the typical ‘yes man’, even doing other people’s work for them. Or perhaps they may have good boundaries with some people and poor ones with others, such as a young woman able to say no when necessary to her friends at work but not to her siblings, even if her sibling’s request is damaging.

Finally, there is the individual who erects inner walls instead of flexible boundaries. This person builds protective psychological layers around himself for self-preservation. He may feel safe from the intrusion of others, but there is a problem; this person also cannot be helped by others who want to help. This is the person who does not say yes even if he wants to. Whereas the individual who cannot say no is often motivated by false guilt or obligation, this person is usually motivated by fear or anger. The fear keeps him a prisoner within his own self-erected walls, with no way in or out. There is very little intimacy in this person’s life.

Like any fence or hedge, maintenance must be done on a regular basis for the boundary to serve its purpose well. Ask yourself the following questions to test the integrity of your boundaries:  Do your boundaries work for you without infringing on the rights of others? Does how you feel inside, match what you are doing on the outside? Are your boundaries flexible? In other words, can they change with changing circumstances and relationships, where appropriate, or do you feel trapped within your boundaries as if inside a high wall? Re-evaluate them from time to time to ascertain if they still work for you. Can you communicate your boundaries effectively and graciously to others or are you always angrily defending them? Good boundaries will not do any good unless others are aware of them nor do they do much good if they are communicated in a hostile or selfish way.

In a peer mentoring situation, how do we maintain good boundaries with our friends? As human beings, we are not perfect. Especially those who are hurting, may be unaware of when they have hurt others or trampled on another’s boundaries. Hurting people can sometimes be manipulative as they desperately try to get needs met or resolve a tough situation. We, as their friends, need to be sure we have good personal boundaries, to avoid being manipulated, and to respect our friends’ boundaries as well. How do we do this? Here are some tips to remember when trying to help your friend through a tough time.

Do not take over your friend’s life. As much as you would like to help her, you cannot live her life for her. You cannot make her decisions for her. You cannot tell her how to feel. You can’t ‘make’ her do anything…nor should you. Ultimately, she must live with the results of her decisions, so she must be the one to make them. You are there to encourage and support until she is strong enough to stand on her own.

Know your own limits. It is admirable to want to be there for your friend and to help in whatever way you can, but you need to be careful not to neglect your own health, family, or work, to help another. Look carefully inside yourself and determine where your time and experience limits, emotional, and physical stamina limits are and don’t push yourself beyond them. Otherwise, you may be the next one to be seeking help because of burn out.

I had a friend once who was going through a tough time in her life. She needed someone to talk to and to emotionally support her and I gladly stepped in. One evening, after talking on the phone for the umpteenth time for hours on end, Chip finally exploded in frustration. I did not realize just how much of my time this friend had taken over until hubby jealously pointed out how much I was neglecting him! I felt bad that I had not realized what was happening. I had to wean my friend from the daily long talks, draw up some healthy boundaries on how often and how long we could talk, and gently stick to those boundaries. It was a painful way to learn my lesson.

In summary, boundaries, is a big and important part of life. It is important to understand and respect them, as well as to maintain and communicate them effectively and gracefully, in order to live a healthy, balanced life, while we help our friends through their tough times.

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