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  Boundary Issues and Assertiveness

Have you ever had someone push in front of you in a queue, stand uncomfortably close to you, or even been asked an inappropriately personal question? If you have, you will know it can leave one feeling irritated, annoyed or upset.

We have an intuitive sense that there are natural physical boundaries as well as psychological boundaries that should not be crossed. Honouring them is important for the maintenance of healthy relationships and society.

The right balance develops a child that is secure and well adjusted. The psychoanalytic thinker Dr John Bowlby traces many of the problems people experience in later life to not receiving a sense of security and acceptance in childhood. He explains that the relationship a child creates with their parents often serves as a model for future relationships.

Conflicts due to boundary issues are very common. For example, there are people who have an excessive need to control others, or control their personal space. Many people struggle to say ‘no’ to others when asked to do something which they feel is inappropriate. I would like to suggest a few approaches to help develop greater assertiveness.

1) Building Self Esteem.

Often people who have difficulty being assertive act this way because they don’t want to be looked at negatively - a fear of rejection. This can be especially difficult when a person has low self esteem, which increases the need for others’ approval.

Dr Abraham Twerski describes a case of a doctor who would never refuse a request regardless of how unreasonable it was, and constantly did things for others out of a desperate desire for others’ approval. He pretended to be glad to do the favours but inside resented people imposing on him. Once the doctor recognised the problem and addressed his self esteem issue, he was able to free himself of the inability to say no to others’ requests.

2) Understanding the appropriate response.
Often people lack assertiveness because they think they do not have a right to state a viewpoint or ask for what they want or deserve. Challenging these self defeating beliefs is very important.

3) Communication skills.  
Learning skills and techniques to communicate one’s thought and feelings in an open non-confrontational way is extremely valuable. Some examples of these are speaking without blaming or labelling others, and making requests as opposed to demands. Rehearsing what one wants to say in the most tactful way, and expressing it at a time when one is most relaxed can also be helpful.

4) Therapy.  
When the issue of unassertiveness is deeper rooted or is creating great personal anguish, the option of therapy can be useful. Therapy provides a safe and supportive environment where a person can explore his issues and begin to understand self defeating beliefs as well as the possible payoffs provided by maintaining his lack of assertiveness. Practical steps to become more assertive can be worked on together, and any setbacks or resistance to moving forward can be addressed.

Whatever approach a person takes, much relief and improvement in relationships can be attained through the maintenance and restoration of healthy boundaries.

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