In my post two weeks ago, Codependency: When Caring Becomes Self-Destructive, I talked about how codependency often results in unhealthy relationships. Two key components of healthy and productive relationships are good boundaries and knowing how to set limits. The concept of healthy boundaries applies to all relationships - intimate, family, friends and co-workers. Boundaries and limit-setting are both huge topics; this is an overview.
If your boundaries are intact and you have good self-awareness, you will have a negative response to people around you who don't. Think of the co-worker or casual acquaintance who shares intimate details of her marriage with you. What about the boss who seems to be trying to develop a friendship with you? At the least, this can be very confusing. We are comfortable in relationships when we know the "rules" or conventions that define them.
For excellent examples of developing and/or strengthening healthy boundaries, see Where To Draw The Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day by Anne Katherine, M. A. She examines boundaries in all kinds of relationships - sexual, friendships, work and even patient/psychotherapist.
Limit-setting is most often thought of in the context of good parenting skills. Children respond to parents creating structure and setting limits on their behaviors. Without limits, children can quickly become physically, emotionally and psychologically unsafe. Children also need limits and structure to help them develop self-awareness. If a three-year old has the same 11 p.m. bedtime as his parents, he will not understand other limits his parents try to assign to his behavior.
Setting limits also applies to adult behaviors. Not setting limits on others' behavior can have a significant negative effect on us. In my work with women patients, I often see the destructive result of not setting limits. Many women seem to buy into the "Supermom/Superwoman" fantasy and are exhausting themselves trying to meet everyone's needs - children, spouse, family, friends, bosses and co-workers. I believe some of that is a societal norm - women are raised and socialized to make people happy and "care" for them, often putting their own needs last. This can result in resentment, unresolved anger, heightened stress, depression, anxiety and compromised health.
One tool I use with these patients is role-playing saying "no." I ask them to pick several situations in which they might have a difficult time setting limits. Often they pick family obligations/plans with their extended family. I will play the part of the family member and the patient will practice saying "no." A very effective strategy is one where they utilize a "bargaining" mode. For example, your mother-in-law asks you to a distant family member's birthday party on the weekend. You have just had a horrible week at work, your teenage daughter is entering Stage 3 Rebellion and your husband is out of town. Decline the invitation, but offer to meet your mother-in-law for lunch the following week. Postponing a social event will gain you some sanity and rest. Extending a "substitute" invitation will hopefully appease the family member.