Jan 16, 2020

The Challenge of Maintaining Healthy Boundaries

I have had the privilege of meeting many caregivers in my role of teaching Mindful Caregiver Education courses at Zen Caregiving Project. An issue that comes up, again and again, is the challenge they face of maintaining healthy boundaries. Boundary violations — when someone oversteps the limits of another’s comfort zone — are common in the caregiving experience because they are common in life. Interacting with others regularly means that we will bump up against emotional boundaries. There is really no way around it.

Some examples of boundary violations are:

A daughter caring for her father feels a boundary was crossed when he asks her to clean his house, so he does not have to pay a housekeeper.

A brother feels a boundary is crossed when his caregiving sister won’t let him speak for himself during an appointment.

A nurse feels a patient has crossed a boundary when the patient asks for a personal phone number to call after hours.

In our Mindful Caregiver Education courses, we help people recognize when their boundaries have been crossed and teach them skillful ways of responding to boundary violations. We are not teaching how to eliminate boundary issues. In fact, this really is not possible. However, caregivers can learn to respond skillfully, so their response does not worsen the situation. Boundary issues are complex, and learning to respond skillfully takes practice.

Whether or not we experience a boundary violation can depend upon how well-resourced we are feeling on any particular day. Sleep, nutrition, relationships, and stress can all influence how we handle boundary issues. Emotional boundaries are fluid and can change from day-to-day.

And, boundary issues go both ways. Often caregivers experience the recipient of their care overstepping a boundary. Yet, if a caregiver is not paying attention, they too can violate boundaries.

So, recognizing boundary issues and learning healthy ways of coping with them is really important for the long-term well-being of both caregiver and care-recipient.

Mindfulness is a key tool in recognizing and working with boundary issues. Sometimes we may not realize that our boundaries have been violated; we just feel that something is not right. When we lack clarity around what is happening, we can react unskillfully, and things just get worse. In this scenario, we can use mindfulness to deepen an awareness of the body and physical sensations. The body does not lie; it can know that something is not right even before we understand what is really happening.

Learning to pay attention to the body through mindfulness practice can also help us pause before reacting unskillfully. One of my favorite pieces of wisdom comes from the writer/philosopher Victor Frankl who wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” When we are paying attention to our own body and mind, we can actually choose our response in any given situation. We can respond to boundary issues in a way that clarifies our own needs while conveying clearly that the relationship matters.

Conveying a clear boundary to a loved one, or to someone we are caring for, can be an act of compassion. It conveys that we are at once, committed to caregiving, and committed taking care of oneself. These commitments are not separate. Finding ways to take care of oneself actually supports better caregiving. Better caregiving is what we are encouraging at Zen Caregiving Project. Let us know how we can support you.

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