Sunday, November 6, 2011

On setting Personal Boundaries

One of Altruism's worst effects is that people feel the obligation to let others step on their personal boundaries or to act toward them in a way that is less than respectful or beneficial.
People believe that this is necessary to maintain healthy relationships and they try to smile as they agree to things that in actuality fill them with resentment.
The final result is that the accumulated frustration comes out in the form of angry eruptions, criticism of the people who take advantage of their "generosity" and so on.

In reality, you get as much respect and personal space as you take for granted you should have.

It is not enough to communicate once in a while what you want and expect, you have to believe it and be convinced of it subconsciously so that it is expressed in small things that you do, in small reactions to how people speak to you, what they ask of you and so on.
When you are truly convinced that you deserve something and you take it for granted that you deserve it, then setting your boundaries is done in a manner that is calm and assertive rather than angry, defensive or demanding.
(That is not to say that it is always the case that if one demands respect angrily that one invited to be stepped on. There are people who want to step on others regardless of how others project themselves).

The irony is that relationships in which people try to be altruistic to one another will end up falling apart because both parties would end up feeling used and disrespected even though they are inviting it with a smile.
They act in a way they consider "generous" and expect others not to take advantage of it at the same time. This shifts the responsibility for setting your personal boundaries from yourself to those around you. They have to try and guess if you would really benefit from something you are offering to do or not. For example, suppose we are talking about a married couple with a kid. The mom, say, offers to leave her work to take the kid out of school several times a week, feeling that she is being generous and expects to be appreciated for it and for her husband to understand that she does indeed sacrifice work time for this. However, surprisingly, the husband starts asking for her to take the kid out of school more and more. In his mind, he may not see it as using her at all because of how nice she acted about the whole thing. Meanwhile she accumulates resentment thinking "who does that bastard thinks he is? Does he think his work is more important than mine? Why doesn't he take our child out of school?" and so on.
Had she simply took it for granted that they should split the responsibility equally, no such emotions would result and the relationship would be much happier. Would the husband really benefit from his wife's "sacrifice"? No. He may save a couple of hours during the week, but he loses something much more precious - the happiness he has had at home.

Altruism ends up benefiting no one.

According to Ayn Rand's concept of rational selfishness, people in a relationship act as traders - they never give when it is a sacrifice and they never expect someone to sacrifice for them. "Trading" is used here in a wide sense that includes emotional payout, not in a business sense of financial deals. The selfishness principle of behavior is based on the idea that people live to be happy and that they get into a relationship to increase their happiness - that they are right in getting into a relationship for the primary purpose of being happy.
Altruism, in contrast, holds that a relationship should be based on an obligation for mutual support in times of trouble. It predicts sickness and trouble primarily rather than happiness, life and self-fulfillment.

One last thing I want to write about on this topic is the effective way to set personal boundaries. This is something I learned from watching numerous episodes of "The Dog whisperer", a famous show on national geographic about dog's psychology.
One of the main things the show teaches you is that an animal must set personal boundaries in a calm and assertive manner if it is to receive them. This becomes especially clear in observing different types of leadership (or attempted leadership) of a pack of dogs. You can't get a pack of dogs to behave by frantically yelling at them or by showing anger. You can't do it by hurting them out of frustration. It won't work if you ask them really nicely or plead them to do what you want and expect. The only way it works is by taking it for granted that they should follow you and calmly asserting the boundaries as soon as a dog crosses them. A pack leader that lets other dogs step on his boundaries will cause a break down of the pack, where everyone attack everyone, including the leader. Dog owners often think they are doing their dog a big favor by not setting limits, but in fact, as the show shows, such dogs become anxious and start assuming the role of leadership themselves and they get very confused if and when they are being punished for something.

I find that for people it works the same way. Suppose someone tells a disrespectful joke to you. How you respond in that instant determines how others will treat you in future cases. If you are convinced that you deserve respect, you are likely to react calmly and assertively in dismissing the joke or communicating that you do not approve of it. If you you believe, however, that you should be tolerant of such jokes you may A) try to accept the joke with a smile or B) erupt angrily against your own inner demand to accept it and burst in anger at the person who told it.
Small cases like these over time create an expectation others have from you on what you should tolerate or not. If you accept such jokes, but then, once a year you bother to tell people you find them offensive, don't be surprised if you will see very little change. If you yourself are not convinced you deserve that respect and that others should give it to you, neither will anyone else be convinced. In conclusion -

You get as much respect and personal space as you take for granted you should have.