Boundaries to Manage Expectations

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness, so that you can then go and empower others. Today’s topic, boundaries to manage expectations, is a vital topic for people of all age groups. Every single day, I hear people say that they’re overwhelmed, they feel taken for granted, they’re under too much pressure. I wonder if we understood what boundaries are important to us and how to use these to manage expectations, whether life would be different. Dr. Maria Kempinska MBE, my guest today, is a psychotherapist, the creator and CEO of a comedy club, and a radio presenter. Listen to this. 

What is a boundary to you?

Dr Maria Kempinska MBE: A boundary is a line, almost a line that we can’t cross, shouldn’t cross, or that actually we should respect. There’s also a boundary called liminality in philosophy. Victor Turner, who wrote about liminalities, the space that we do use as a boundary that we cross over into another space that we recognise as a space for crossover, that is like when we go to passport controls, that’s liminality. That’s a border that we cross. But boundaries are those that we have that are number one for ourselves, our personal ones. We know that when we are feeling discomfort, we might be feeling a little bit tense around somebody. There’s so many feelings that come up with our own personal boundaries, but there’s also family boundaries, social, legal, political, and business. And in our world, everything is changing at the moment. So these boundaries are changing practically every single day. We are in a major global shift. So not only are more people integrating, but also religion comes with boundaries. And I love to know new people, their religion, the depth of their feeling and understanding, the depth of their history that comes with them. I’m not here to talk about religion particularly, but it has been said a number of times that the politicians and policemen of the world cannot regulate society if we don’t have our own means of regulation. Our religion enables us to regulate ourselves. It makes us question ourselves if we’re clever about it and not just rebelling against a cultural norm. This is where it becomes confusing. If you’ve got one culture trying to integrate with another, and the two cultures, for some reason, are not gelling, which happens, then you’ve got conflict and people often rebel just for the hell of it, just not to integrate. So there’s many, many areas, but I think we’re going to start with personal boundaries, which is, I think, the best place to start. 

The way I look at a personal boundary, it’s like a contract that you sign, sort of mentally sign or emotionally you agree on between two people. You need to know what you want as your part of the contract, just like the other person needs to know what they want on their part of the contract. And unless you know that and put that down somewhere, somehow there’s no way that the two of you are going to know that. 

AB: I love that you said that it’s so crucial. 

Dr MK MBE: When people get married, we say, I love you. I will love you forever. I will love you through the good times, the bad times, ill health and wellness and so on. But the reality is the rest of the boundaries, unless you both come from the same cultural background and the same religious background, that’s where people forget to set their boundaries, forget to set what is basically what you do. As you said in business, you always set contracts. So perhaps we’re moving into a world where more contracts will come into play in everyday relationships. 

AB: Yes. And I guess a way that people have already started doing that is prenups. So why do you think it is important, as a psychotherapist, to have or to set boundaries? 

Dr MK MBE: We are immensely complicated as people. And not only do we have our relationship with the outside world, we have an internal relationship. I’m a great believer in our spiritual nature and our soul’s purpose, not just religious believer. I like people’s religion, the good bits, but I do believe in the soul, the soul’s purpose and so on. Internally, we have a lot of dialogue that goes on and we often beat ourselves up. So in my therapeutic practice, it’s setting up the difference between what goes on inside us and what happens outside. I’ll give you an example, actually. I’ve trained everywhere. So I’ve worked in mental homes, asylums, I’ve worked with the homeless, I’ve worked in all sorts of places. But this I read somewhere when I was being trained, and it was the story of a four year old boy, and he was playing with a bow and arrow. As he was shooting the arrow outside on his lawn, a milkman was going past and he was shooting it at the milkman, just at the cart to see if he could reach the cart. The mother came out and said, “Johnny, don’t do that because you could hurt the milkman.” Two days later, it just so happened that the milkman died. The little boy was mortified because he believed that he had shot the milkman. So there’s an internal world. And the mother, once she realised that there was a problem with the child – he was a little bit anxious, he wouldn’t go outside to play – she then had to find out why he wouldn’t go out to play. He asked her if he had hurt the milkman. So what happens internally with our internal dialogue is what they call the fantasy world, PH fantasy world, where we make our own assumptions of what happens in the world, that’s why communication is so important. Otherwise, we can get lost. And there’s a lot of people who are becoming delusional. They’re becoming a little bit paranoid because they’re not communicating properly or, and I really think we should talk about this at some point, they take drugs. 

AB: Oh, goodness. 

Dr MK MBE: Drugs relinquish that boundary between what we know and our own boundaries and the rest of the world, because sometimes when people are taking more and more drugs, those boundaries dissolve. The difference between where I am today and what’s happening in the other world has a cloud over it. It has a mist over it. So people don’t know whether they’re saying the right thing, they forget what they say, they misinterpret people. That’s why I don’t think drugs are very healthy because you forget people, you forget what you say. 

AB: I feel like boundaries are quite contextual because what’s accepted, say, in one country, say India, may not be acceptable here. And what’s acceptable in India in today’s day and age may not have been acceptable 20 or 30 years ago. And with a lot of us living, working globally, travelling globally, being brought up in one culture, living in another culture, how does one navigate this? How do you feel people can deal with living and working globally? 

When cultures are getting mixed up and intermingled very nicely, people are getting more and more frustrated dealing with that. 

Dr MK MBE: Absolutely. I think you’ve got to come back to your own family and see what the rules are there. When in Rome, doing what the Romans did was the greatest thing. So my parents are Polish political refugees. When we came here, I spoke Polish at home, English outside, and there weren’t many Poles here, and we had a different set of rules at home than I did outside. So I understand that. And then when you travel, of course, some people are more strict. You don’t show somebody the bottom of your feet or how you hand your business card over. There are many, many rules. Once you’ve been open to other people’s sort of loose boundaries or their tighter boundaries, and these are laws that they have, then you come home and you have a different expectation. And I do think we are crippling our young people here because there’s so many different rules, not only for whether you’re Indian, whether you’re Polish or from Africa or from Far East, the British rules, unless they’re defined, people don’t know where they’re going because social media have their own rules. You’d be looking at Twitter or the things that you must engage with to feed your audience and yet, people will be allowed to say things that they wouldn’t ordinarily say. 

AB: Interesting.

Dr MK MBE: There’s a major problem for young people and other people because I don’t think there are many people who can take the torrent of abuse that comes through social media, but also then how do you regulate your home life? That’s very difficult for parents, I think. I also think it’s difficult in relationships. 

AB: I think the fact that we’re beginning to have conversations around this is absolutely vital. But there’s another issue that I wanted to raise and that is when there is change, like there clearly is now, there’s always turmoil. Sometimes when you’re trying to explain your boundary to people around you and they might not agree with that, there is turmoil and possibly conflict. So how much conflict do you say one should be ready to deal with in order to set your boundary? 

Dr MK MBE: Now, Anshu, I know you’re in business and I really believe this is where business actually can be very helpful. If you are in a business meeting and there’s conflict in the business meeting, you set the agenda and it’s almost like setting the agenda, a softer agenda, let’s say. If there are issues that come up that are too heavy, can we put them aside for later? Because let’s find what the main focus is today. And I think setting those agendas at home is so useful. And I say this actually to couples, see who they are together, what works for them, what doesn’t work for them. Let’s put those into a sort of love bubble, your love heart, of the things that work for you and let’s talk about the things that are difficult as well but always start and end with a loving term which you wouldn’t do in business but you could be kind because you’ve got to aim for something. Always remind people where they’re aiming for, at the beginning. That may need to be something that everybody has to be reminded of, but in a relationship it’s “I love you, darling, we have some things we need to talk about. I don’t want this to upset us and if it does, can we put that to the side? Let’s think about it and come back to it.” But some things will fester. It’s painful, it’s hard and that may be because it brings up a whole plethora of experiences like if you’ve been ignored, if nobody takes any notice, if you’re a woman at work and people ignore you, there’s still fewer women in the boardroom than men.

AB: No, absolutely. To give you an example, I always make reservations for us as a family when we’re travelling and I do it in my name. People automatically when we walk into a hotel, they would look at my husband and say, “oh, Mr. Anshu Bahanda, welcome to the hotel” and I’m thinking “it’s. Mrs. Anshu Bahanda” but they always think it’s in my husband’s name. 

Dr MK MBE: Interesting. I quite like that. And I think that’s very funny. If you can keep a sense of humour about it. It depends on the pain that has gone with your experiences. It also depends on how your husband treats you. 

AB: No, absolutely. And I’m lucky enough that he respects me as my own person. Otherwise, a man who was less confident would have a problem with that. 

Dr MK MBE: Or if the wife is brighter, cleverer, smarter, sharper, faster thinking than the husband, there may be all sorts of problems that that wakes up inside them, and off they go to the hotel room. And there’s another problem once they walk in the hotel room, because he doesn’t defend her. He doesn’t actually announce that it’s her, he doesn’t protect her. And so we come to the issue of gender. And I think gender is an issue, is something to contemplate globally. And I’m not talking about transgender. I’m not talking about changing gender but how men treat women. And I do think men physically, mostly, are stronger. And there are times when women are being violated. I think that he has the ability to protect. It’s like a woman giving birth, she’s vulnerable at that moment, and the father is there to protect the mother. So it’s almost like the pearl is the baby, the mother is the shell, and the father is the one that protects that, I think that’s a good image for people to remember. That’s what the strength of the masculine does, it protects his wife, his child, from the outside world. It doesn’t mean it diminishes her. It’s such an amazing, powerful being that she belongs willingly to him, with him, and the baby is there. And I think that’s really powerful. So if you come to that image, it often changes their perspective, actually, about the whole relationship. 

AB: When it comes to boundaries, I want to discuss two issues – when we don’t set our own boundaries or we don’t ask other people to respect them just because maybe we haven’t thought it through and secondly, when we’re trying to set our boundaries, but other people don’t respect our boundaries, even if we’ve expressed it. So coming to the former, could it be possible that the environment we’re used to or that we’re used to people pleasing or our desire to be appreciated or accepted, in the process, we let people violate our boundaries or we don’t set our own boundaries? 

Dr MK MBE: That’s such a good question because there are so many people, mostly women, not all that have been trained, if you like, by watching their mothers and their grandmothers and so on, to be the pleaser, to be the one that cares for the family. Then suddenly they say, “well, actually, I don’t need to do this anymore. What about me?” I do think that sometimes it’s almost like announcing it. But how do you announce it? When do you say it? And sometimes you can be tongue in cheek and be humorous with it, like saying “this is another one of my fabulous dinners. This is what I’ve done today. Aren’t I wonderful?” And I do think women do shy away from telling others how amazing they are. And I do think we women need to tell each other how amazing they are and we are to each other. And once you get used to that and saying, “no, it’s wonderful that you are this person from one woman to the other. Now go home and tell your husband.” It depends. At what point does it get into an argument? At what point does it become something that’s ignited? Because sometimes, let’s face it, it’s only when you get angry do people listen. And anger can be righteous anger as well. So not all anger is bad. I really believe that people should understand that not all anger is bad, but very often it’s still put to the side when a woman gets angry. But sometimes, if that’s the only option, it’s saying that and then saying “I need to talk to you about that. I don’t want to get angry, but you don’t listen to me. I need to explain this.”

AB: I love empowering other people. That’s what we try to do at Wellness Curated. Not just women, just empowering people because that’s who we are. By empowering someone else, we empower ourselves exponentially. 

Dr MK MBE: Totally. But also it’s a great way to enhance and encourage cultures to integrate, by seeing the best in other cultures. Everybody has a nugget of gold inside them. Mental health often, I think, has a problem because they search and talk about the negative. But very often the negative, what Jung called the shadow hides an element of gold. I called that golden nugget. The Greeks called it the daemon, the personal genius. We all have something and often our mental health problems can be hiding our personal genius because we’re too afraid to show it. So whatever the issue is, remember that not all mental health problems stem from something being wrong with you. There could be something very right with you that you just haven’t seen. We often feel things. I’m sure you do. You’re a very spiritual person, I know that. You might walk into a room and you feel something, but it’s not until you put words to it. Sometimes it’s those words that are the boundaries to our feelings. What have I felt here? Is it intuition? Am I feeling bad feelings from somebody or are they feeling bad feelings themselves? And I’m picking up on their depression or I’m picking up on their discomfort? 

AB: Yes, absolutely. And coming to our second issue, not respecting other people’s boundaries, I feel like when you respect yourself and you respect someone else, even if you overstep your boundaries by mistake, once you’re reminded about them, you’ll try and pull yourself back. But when you don’t respect yourself as a human being, when you have low self esteem, that’s when you purposely overstep people’s boundaries. We’ve seen that, like in generations and familial relationships, when there is a problem themselves, that’s when they suppress the younger generations. 

Dr MK MBE: Such a big problem because what you’re talking about is not only the explicit, the things we recognise, but it’s the implicit, the things we don’t see, the invisible expectations, the invisible laws that have been laid down that could have happened sort of in our generation that we just don’t talk about. I’ve had clients where they become that young person who becomes the mother to the rest of the children and it’s such a weight on that young woman. But there’s something instinctive about women that we do that is gifted in that way. So it’s how we recognise that this is a gift and say “I am talented” as opposed to a burden. And that comes from the other people outside. 

AB: Wow, that is fascinating. 

Dr MK MBE: Let’s touch very quickly, although we’re not going to go into it too much. Is the sexual boundary about when you’re touched, how you’re touched? I think everybody needs to be very clear. If you’re not in a relationship, even if you are, at what point are you being touched by whom, where, how, when, and so on. If it feels wrong, it is wrong. 

AB: That’s something that needs to be explained, I think, by every parent because otherwise it causes problems later in life. 

Dr MK MBE: Every parent, as you say, needs to address their children, what they’re showing others. And this comes back to who you are and what you’re presenting to the world. We’ve never had to do this so much. A 13 year old girl went to my children’s school. She was wearing a see-through blouse. That’s a message. You can’t wear a see through blouse with a bra at 13 at school. It’s the wrong message for herself as well because she’s over sexualising herself at a very young age. And it’s not saying don’t be aware of sex, it’s just being aware. You have to be aware of what it means to others. If you’re walking home alone at night down an alley, you are actually vulnerable. Or if you go back to somebody’s room at 02:00 in the morning, a hotel room, you’re vulnerable. There are certain boundaries and we all overstep those marks, sometimes as teenagers, unwittingly, but sometimes willingly. And then we realise that is what happens, that our parents did tell the truth, that they weren’t just being strict. They did know that there are certain boundaries that we must follow. And it’s very difficult for young people because in the UK and in the west, anything goes. And I think this is quite dangerous for young people. 

AB: So any tools that you can recommend that will help people set their own boundaries and follow other people’s boundaries? 

Dr MK MBE: I think communication is crucial. Expecting your children to not listen to you as a parent, how do you make them listen to you is by your own standards, it is by showing them your fear for them as opposed to berating them. One of the best things I did with my children. If they said they were going to be at home at a certain time and they weren’t home, I used to call them and say, “oh, my goodness, something terrible must have happened to you, because you said you would be home at 10:00, you’re not here, so something terrible must have happened.” And once I did that a few times, they always used to call me. I thought if I come down hard on them, they won’t listen. How do we set our own boundaries? By our feelings. These are instinctive, almost primal feelings that will tell you there’s something wrong. Walk away. There’s a wonderful book called The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, and it talks about fear being the most wonderfully protective gift we have. If you’re fearful of something, tell somebody. I know every child wants to be in charge, every adult wants to be in charge. But sometimes we’re not called for protection. Ask for somebody to help. If you think that somebody is on the verge of saying something or doing something extreme to themselves, ask them, “are you about to harm yourself? Are you in a harmful situation? Are you going to harm yourself?” Don’t be afraid to ask those questions that too often we think we’re too sensitive to ask. But if you think that you’ve got somebody around you who is in a vulnerable situation, don’t be afraid to ask the direct question, because often people who are in that very vulnerable state won’t tell you, and only by a direct question will they answer. So where we often pussyfoot around to be sensitive and not upset somebody, the direct question is often the right way to ask somebody, to actually break that barrier. That often we feel as if we’re overstepping a boundary, but it could be the right time to do that. 

AB: We also need to sort of build emotional intelligence into everyone around us to know when it is important to overstep that boundary. It might be positive to overstep that boundary in a situation like this where you could actually be saving a life.

Dr MK MBE: I think what’s so crucial is to talk, to say no, to give space. If you’re on the phone or if you are on social media and you are listening to people, turn it off, put it down, walk away. Walk away from your telephone occasionally. Don’t answer everybody so quickly. If you are the type that is always wanting to include people and you’re not being listened to, the best way you can protect yourself is silence and space. Actually, it’s really handy in a relationship as well. Sometimes arguing is just not the right way. People, when they’re heightened in their emotions, won’t listen to you, much as it is like holding on to the reins of a very wild horse at times, isn’t it? If you’re in that moment and you’ve got to say your piece, the best thing you can do is to just take a deep breath if you can, and walk away. I know people say that, but just hold back. Take a deep breath. Hold back and walk away. Go and do something else. Go outside, go and start cooking. Go somewhere else. Take time, take space. Take a deep breath. Because if you are both ignited and it is like fire on fire, like the elements, you have to become like water. 

AB: I’m going to call those your two S’s – Silence and space and space. 

Dr MK MBE: And it’s hard to do. So I take my hat off to people. But practice. Practice on your phone calls. Practice. If you’ve got somebody that’s in distress, you will answer very quickly. When that distress is gone, you don’t have to answer so quickly, but somebody else might be used to you answering quickly. So start practising with people that you don’t need to answer so quickly and say, right, just take your time before you answer. If you are the type that responds to others all the time, see what it feels like not to respond. And that doesn’t mean you’re not caring. You can respond by saying “I’m doing something, I’ll call you back” but also give it space because it also gives you time to think “actually, what am I doing here?” Sometimes people are so giving. They’re like, “I’ve got to make sure this person feels good. I’ve got to make sure that person feels good” but just give a text to say “I’m sorry, I can’t talk at the moment. I will come back.” But it gives you time to work out and ask yourself “should I come back? At what point? And what do I say?” 

AB: Thank you, Dr. Maria. That was an incredible chat. Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you, leading your best life, you soul.