Friday, December 25, 2015

Personal Boundaries and Self Sacrifice

Christmas, and, indeed, every holiday that involves family, makes me introspective.  A somewhat favorite topic of pop-culture lately seems to be the idea of personal boundaries.  The concept that a person needs a sense of self and to hold to their principles even when people, particularly friends and families, are testing or imposing on those principles.  

When put as simply as that, the concept is delightful and extremely important.  The idea is important to prevent resentment that comes from performing acts out of sheer obligation.  But it's always bothered me, because most of the articles I've read (which have been a great many at this point) have preached that when faced with a request that imposes on you, that you should hold firm to your boundaries against such an imposition.

Before tonight, I had never read an article that mentioned that perhaps doing something that is an imposition doesn't always breed resentment.  My problem with this psychological tenant is that, as the word implies, tenants do not encompass the whole of the situation.  I am not entirely convinced that performing something out of sheer obligation is always unhealthy or problematic, but that isn't what I would like to address.  What I would like to address is that doing something that is an imposition or something solely for someone else's benefit when you truly want to do it, won't breed resentment.

And while it could be argued that it is selfless, it is also a form of selfishness, because a person's gratitude for service or help rendered is frequently more than enough repayment for my actions.  We both benefit, so where is the harm?

I've gotten into arguments with friends about this and it, for me, is something that is decisive in my relationships with others.  While yes, doing something for someone because you'll feel good about it is selfish; I believe that not doing something because you don't want feel obligated is a different for of selfishness, and one I personally am less tolerant of.  In the first situation you both benefit in your selfishness.  In the other, one suffers while you benefit from your act.

I realize that people can't control when they will resent feeling obligated.  I realized people can't control whether they will actually feel good about going out of their way for someone.  But I have found that if you truly do care for someone, you will want to you out of your way for them.  Nevertheless, herein lies the conundrum.  You can't force yourself to feel a particular way and if you will truly resent an obligation, then I do agree with the advice that you shouldn't do it if it will make you unhappy.  It is simply my belief that it is best to strive to want to do acts of kindness for other to make yourself happy.  Unsurprisingly, however, I have no idea how to accomplish such a thing if it does not come naturally.

My other problem with most of the literature out there on setting personal boundaries is the advice that you should make your decisions regardless of how other people will react.  If you are going to do something that will upset another person, you should do it, because their feelings aren't relevant and/or have no bearing on the situation.  But humans don't live in vacuums.  We are social creatures and while another person's feelings on a subject shouldn't ultimately and unilaterally decide your actions, if you care for them, if they are a large part of your life and relevant to the choice you're making, then I believe you should keep in mind their feelings.  And if you don't have a reasonable idea of their feelings on the subject, then you should ask.  And if they tell you unsolicited how they feel about a topic, I believe that carries even more weight.

If my boyfriend has had a hard day, but I've made plans, I might still go out.  But I might stay in an comfort him and hang out with him, because it will make him happier and that will make me happier.  I'm not saying that I'm obligated to stay and comfort him; I'm saying that in many situations, I will be happier with changing my plans and staying than if I went.  But, there are times when my plans are the more important element and I'll keep them.  I'm not going to abandon my boyfriend though.  I'll maybe buy him ice cream, or make plans with him later that night, or text him and amusing article, or poke him in the ear (long story).  There's always compromise and I feel like most of the articles I've read would say the conversation has to go like this:

Him: I had a really hard day.  My coworker yelled at me and then I made a mistake that resulted in costing money.  I ended up with a flat tire because I hit a curb when someone almost served into me.  And it doesn't help that you have plans tonight.

Me:  I'm really sorry that sounds awful.

Him:  I would love if you would stay with me tonight instead of going out.

Me:  I understand that you want me to stay, but I've already made plans and I need you to understand and respect that.

My problem with the above conversation is, that instead of continuing the dialogue, it cuts it off entirely.  By explaining that he's imposing on my boundaries and he needs to respect that, you've ended the conversation, and no matter how nicely you say the above, you've basically created an ultimatum, which I feel like, people generally respond poorly to.  I also feel like the above scenario assumes that my boyfriend knows nothing of having boundaries and that I need to educate him on them.  The firm phrasing also, I feel, conveys a sense that he is intentionally trying to test my resolve and boundaries, instead of just making a request because he's not feeling well.  While it's true that he could be testing my boundaries, I tend to assume the best of people and would like to make allowances for this not being the case (I also think this assumption depends a lot on the individual person involved).

Generally (though my relationship is far from perfect), my conversation would go more like this.

Him: I had a really hard day.  My coworker yelled at me and then I made a mistake that resulted in costing money.  I ended up with a flat tire because I hit a curb when someone almost served into me.  And it doesn't help that you have plans tonight.

Me:  I'm really sorry that sounds awful.

Him:  I would love if you would stay with me tonight instead of going out.

Me: You know I love spending time with you and it's even more important to me when you're not feeling well.  Most times I'd cancel my plans and stay with you, but this time, it's really important that I go out.

Him:  I understand.  I'll miss you though.

Me:  Oh!  I finished Alloy of Law and know you'll love it.  Here let me grab it for you if you want.  I know reading often makes you feel better.  And hey, if you want and will still be up when my plans are done, I'll grab us some ice cream and we can hang out afterward.

Him: I don't want to impose or make you go out of your way.

Me:  I'm your girlfriend, I get to claim first right of imposition and I'm honestly happy to do it. 

Him:  Well then, that sounds nice.  Thank you.  You're the best.

This is pretty much exactly a conversation I've had with him before and I don't see the harm in it at all. It assumes that he's not trying to impose or manipulate.  In fact, he tends to know when he's imposing and mention it.  This isn't the case with all people, as I said above, but just because someone is pushing on your personal boundaries doesn't mean you need to rebuff them.  And I still don't believe that doing something that will make someone you care about (or even just an acquaintance) happy, and won't make you unhappy, is wrong.  

It's all about balancing your boundaries with that sense of self sacrifice.  And I struggle with people who have a low sense of self sacrifice, because I tend to have a high sense of it.  I feel like this is bragging or boasting, but I also think it is something that is intrinsically characteristic of me and not something I would care to try to change.  People have a lower sense of self sacrifice which means they're going to watch out for themselves more because it's the only way they can stay happy, and that's okay too.  I just struggle with accepting that.

The problem that I have with so much self-help literature/blogs/theories/etc is that is written as an absolute.  There's often a lot of: This is the only healthy way to react to something and everything else is wrong.  And I struggle with that perception so much, because I firmly believe that there is always a better way to do something.  A better way to balance caring for yourself and caring for others.  A better way to make yourself happy.  A better way to know when people are trying to take advantage of you and when they're just hurt or upset.  And I am always going to look for that better way.  I do things the way I do now because for this moment, they're what I know as best, but I intend to improve.

My bottom line: I believe setting personal boundaries is extremely important, but sacrificing for other people isn't wrong as long as it doesn't make you unhappy.

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