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Setting boundaries as a Catholic

By Michelle Connor Harris, Psy.D., Executive Director, St. Raphael Counseling

“Well, my mom called me and texted me all weekend, even though I told her strictly no contact for 90 days. Once again, she’s totally violating my boundaries!” This is a common concern for many of the clients we see at St. Raphael Counseling.  Why? Because we can’t control other people. As any parent who has tried to will their infant to sleep can attest, if we try to set up boundaries to control the behavior of others, we will often be disappointed.

Typically, if we are trying to set boundaries, it is because the other person has encroached on our sense of control in some way. At St. Raphael Counseling, we work with many adults who come from families where physical, sexual or emotional abuse was a part of growing up. As adults, these people want to heal from past abuse and live differently but feel “trapped” regarding what kind of relationship to have with these individuals.

As Catholic Christians, our clients wrestle with the idea of obeying the commandment to honor their mother and father when their parents might have been perpetrators or enablers of abuse. Family members are expected to do what they’ve always done – go along with the status quo.  As people get healthier, they no longer want to live in the old way of doing things. Trying to find new ways to live often requires setting boundaries to facilitate change. As most of us know, change is stressful and families tend to resist change, even if it is for the better.

Boundaries are for us, not for others. When we have been harmed by family or friends, we need to take time to heal and learn how to protect ourselves, and possibly our spouses and children, from further harm. We are essentially taking a break from regular communication and contact so that we can get stronger to return to the relationship in a different way.  Sometimes this means avoiding people who have caused us harm, but other times this can mean rejoining these relationships on our own terms.

Not all relationships are alike. Some are strong and connected with thick bundles of chord – people who know that you love watermelon, hate mushrooms, are devoted to St. Joseph and adore your dog – even though you’re allergic to him. You’ve spent lots of time with them and you know they love you, the real you. Other relationships are more distant and connected with fewer fibers. Sometimes they are connected by only a thread (e.g., the occasional Christmas card or text).

At St. Raphael’s, we often work with people who need to limit connection with one or both parents, other family or friends, due to emotional abuse or manipulation that happened in the past and is still happening today.

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When thinking about setting up boundaries, consider what you can change regarding in-person contact and communication. You can change the type of communication, the frequency of communication, the duration, as well as the topics open for discussion.

One client I worked with would often end up arguing with her mom during her daily phone calls on her way home from work.  She decided that a daily call was too much and calling after a stressful day at work meant that she was more irritable and had little time to mentally and emotionally prepare to transition home to her busy household. This client let her mom know that she loved her and wanted their calls to go well, and they’d need to plan a time once a week, on the weekend, so that she was in a better mood and could be more present to her mom. While her mom wanted more contact than this, my client did not give in to trying to meet all of her mom’s emotional needs, and their conversations went better.

Another client decided that he needed to take time without any contact with his parents while he healed from emotional and psychological abuse from childhood.  Once he felt strong enough, he started out slowly – visiting with parents in public places for a defined period of time and limiting phone calls and text messages.  As he re-engaged with his parents, he had the freedom to increase the types, frequency, and duration of contact, and he could again limit that contact as needed.

Creating and enforcing boundaries is difficult and it may not feel like “honoring one’s mother and father” in a traditional sense, but at least the door is open for connection and closer relationship if the other person can make some changes.

However, despite our deepest desires, we can’t assume that other people will change. We can suggest or encourage that someone get help, but we shouldn’t expect it. I’ve worked with many, many clients on the concept of accepting other people as they are, which is tough to do.

When we love or are related to people, we want them to be better – to be kinder, less angry, less selfish, more generous, and more reasonable in their reactions.   And yet, many people are not willing to change, or they are severely limited in their capacity for change.  Many individuals, especially those with serious mental illness, including personality disorders, are typically unable or unwilling to accept that they might be the problem in these relationships.

We can hope and pray for people to make changes, and yet accept them as they are.  We should also work on what we can control – ourselves.  By changing our behavior, we are changing our input and reactions within the relationship, and this can sometimes lead the other person to make changes in response.  We can share our feelings and make requests.  “Dad, when you yell at me like that, it is really upsetting.  I hope next time we talk, you can share your opinions without yelling. I’m going to go now.”  This is different from trying to control someone – we’re merely telling them what we will and won’t tolerate and then doing what we need to do to keep our sanity and stay in the relationship. People may or may not respond to our requests.  But remember, creating boundaries is a way of protecting ourselves.

Boundaries can be an important tool as we learn different ways of caring for ourselves and being in relationships with others. In most relationships, the goal is to feel strong enough to return to connecting with the other person in a way that maintains your dignity and allows for mutual growth.  Praying for those people whom we love, but cannot be connected to, is a helpful daily practice.  If your parents couldn’t love you the way you needed, you are not alone.  Seek out Jesus, Mary, and the saints because they can love you perfectly.

We are designed by God to be in relationship with each other and with the Holy Trinity through participation in the sacraments, but maintaining these Earth-bound relationships can be challenging.  Remember- boundaries is not a dirty word.  Boundaries are powerful tools that can help us live and relate more authentically with others in our lives.  Other people may be “travel agents for guilt trips,” but we don’t have to book the trip.

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