In the movie Murphy’s Romance, Emma explains the nuances of checking a horse’s teeth including getting them to open their mouths by inserting a finger into the gap between their teeth, then moving their tongue aside one way and then the other.  Then she stops for a moment and points out “I warn you.  Some horses resist this procedure.”  I’m reminded of this every time I talk to client’s about setting boundaries.  It’s not an easy thing because the people in our life don’t normally want us to change.  Human beings in general resist change and we’re even more adamant about that when it concerns the people we’re closest to.  For one, there’s change going on inside us all the time and we’ve got enough on our plate just keeping up with all of our own stuff and the input flying at us from every direction without something new being added.  For another, we want to be able to depend on those that we love and feel connected to them, so when something changes, we feel our life and possibly our identity is being challenged or even threatened.

So setting boundaries is difficult and more so if we’re setting a new boundary for family and/or friends, at least at first.  One thing I point out to my clients is that people are resilient.  When they realize that the boundary is firm, that the change is not arbitrary, that it’s non-negotiable and long-term, they adjust.  The new boundary becomes, gradually, the new normal.  The key to getting there is to not negotiate, to not engage in anything that makes the boundary seem temporary or up for discussion, to not buy into explaining or defending the boundary, and to be consistent in applying it.  Once it’s been tested a time or two or 5 or 10 and found that it’s unwavering as are you, then it becomes the new normal and things move on.

fence irelandProblems arise when the boundary is not consistent.  If it’s applied unevenly, if some people get to go through it for arbitrary reasons while others don’t, where sometimes people can get through and other times they can’t, then it’s not really a boundary, it’s a game.  This is why the “just this once” exception is more injurious than people might imagine.  Just this once seems so innocuous, it’s just one time and it can’t hurt anything, but it does.  It makes the boundary a lie, it breaks the client’s trust in themselves, it makes their word unreliable and unbelievable and proves that no one has to honor that boundary or any they set in the future.  Boundaries, like fences, make good neighbors, but only if they are maintained.