Crossing Boundaries

Remember the expression, “No good deed goes unpunished?” To me, this is a fascinating and, on the face of it, completely illogical statement. Why would the noble intention of a good deed end up so badly when you “just wanted to help”?

The answer lies in the murky world of boundaries. The delineation between people’s worlds—what we call boundaries—turns out to be a very important thing. Poor boundaries are a hallmark of unhappy families, meaning that people are in each other’s business to a dysfunctional degree. In cases of abuse, even physical personal space is not respected. But a more common boundary violation is when a person’s sovereign right to make choices is usurped by what someone else thinks is good for him or her.

Of course, advice-giving people consciously just want to help. They feel motivated by concern and are certain they are keeping the person from a bad outcome. If they can change the other person a little, they are sure it would be best for that person. They unfortunately are blind to how controlling they are being. What they don’t think about is why they are so afraid of the other person’s making a mistake. Instead of addressing the roots of their own fears and anxieties, they pressure the other person to change so that they can calm down. This is never appreciated and usually has the reverse effect of making people more determined than ever to chart their own course. Someone trying to steer your life doesn’t feel like a good deed when you’re on the receiving end.

Good-deed boundary crossings also occur when someone feels compelled to step in and be helpful when the other person hasn’t requested help. An example would be an employee who keeps warning the boss about a potential mistake. The insistent effort to save someone from unforeseen consequences is usually not appreciated and more often resented.

Or consider parents who step in and try to solve their teen or adult children’s problems for them and are repaid with nothing but anger and resistance. The negative response we receive from such helpful efforts is just another way of saying: “What you want for me is not what I want for me; please respect our boundaries.”

These are examples of how no good deed goes unpunished. They remind us that we can’t really know what would please another person unless we ask first. When we respect that other people have their own way of doing things—and their own lessons to learn—we are much less likely to think we have all the right answers just because we have the best intentions.

One of the biggest ways we cross boundaries—which almost always turns out badly—is talking about someone to a third person. Sometimes this is harmless blowing off steam, but when people don’t talk directly with each other, emotional connections suffer. In family systems therapy, this is called triangling, and it ultimately sets people against each other. Trust and emotional intimacy cannot develop when people aren’t direct with each other, and triangling usually ends up with bitterness all around.

When should boundaries be crossed? Is it ever okay? Sometimes crossing boundaries is a necessary response to a person’s dangerous behavior. Childhood is full of instances where a parent has to intervene in a child’s chosen activity (dashing into the street, picking up sharp things, hitting a sibling) in order to protect the child’s and others’ safety. The same might be true for elders with dementia or seriously mentally ill people. Many professions have a duty to step in and report imminent harm to self or others. Other interventions are carefully planned to confront a person’s destructive addiction in a constructive way. We don’t want to be so hands-off that we lack common sense about dangerous situations.

However, in most adult situations, legitimate boundary-crossings are only for a specific circumstance until appropriate boundaries can be reinstated. Necessary boundary intrusions should still honor the other person’s legitimate right to personal autonomy and freedom as soon as the crisis is resolved. In other words, the idea is to respond to the emergency, not try to control the other person’s overall life and choices. There is a world of difference between respectful boundary-crossings for health and safety and a coercive opinion of how someone else should be living his or her life.

So ask respectfully before you advise or help. If you do, the other person will be much more willing to listen. Check to see if your good intentions truly match what the other person wants before you act. If you make sure up front that your good deed is wanted and needed, you’ll find appreciation instead of resentment. In the end, their life is up to them, no matter how much you want to help.

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.

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