Sunday, June 5

The Pale of Personal Boundaries



“The Boundaries of Help” is a practical insight from author Karen Kissel Wegela. A practicing psychologist, Wegela reviews both her clinical experience and her own personal evolution with the concept of setting and honoring healthy boundaries in personal relationships. The author organizes her thoughts by dividing the article into three sections: the initial clinical setting which presents a conflict, the author’s process within herself to come to grips with the conflict, and the author’s conclusions for general consideration.


The first section describes a client-therapist and a mother-daughter relationship. Her analysis of the process required to set healthy boundaries is sound. Sara’s inability to say “no” to her two dysfunctional daughters amounted to allowing her adult daughters who frequently abandoned their children to take advantage of Sara. Moreover, the mental health agency where Wegela practiced had established rules to protect both the client’s time with a therapist, and the therapist’s privacy away from the clinic. When Sara dismissed the rules, or crossed those boundaries by first bringing grandchildren with her to a therapy appointment, and second, by calling the therapist at home, Wegela reaffirmed the boundaries previously agreed upon. She reminded Sara in both instances that she could not respond to her needs if Sara was unwilling to abide by the rules. Sara was upset and angry with her, and the author questioned her own altruistic ethics as a result.


Wegela’s second section in the article followed a step-by-step review of the situation described previously. She honestly reflected on her base, emotional response to denying someone in crisis. The author admitted to herself, and to the reader, she might have been insensitive or lacked the commitment she thought she had to serve others. Wegela felt connected and responsible to Sara because she knew her story, and more especially because she knew Sara was suffering.


Wegela’s willingness to share her thought process at this juncture is a valuable insight to the common human tendency of self-doubt, which she points out is often a crippling and distracting stumbling block to effective relationship-building. The author’s personal value-system, a combination of Buddhist meditation philosophy and her clinical psychology training, successfully restrained her “natural” emotions and helped her recognize the impotency of negative self-talk. She was able to come to peace with her decision to stand her ground with Sara. The reader may easily relate to Wegela’s personal struggle of second-guessing her own motives. Ultimately, in the case study presented, Sara responded positively to Wegela’s therapeutic insistence on “healthy boundary-setting”, and decided to say “no” to one of her daughters. She did this by explaining to her daughter that she was available to baby-sit one day, but not on another. A relieved Sara finally began to gain more control over her own life in so doing.


In the third section of the article, Wegela expounds on reasons why people open themselves to unhealthy compromises to their personal boundaries. She explores what she believes motivates people who can’t say “no”, or in other words, people who can not respect themselves enough to firmly distance themselves from interacting with other people’s needs or demands when those issues are beyond the pale of healthy limits. Wegela wisely asserts that, “Sometimes we let others walk all over us in our misguided attempts to be helpful. When we behave in this way, it is important to look into our own motivations.”


Her guided examination of personal motivation to help others to the detriment of self interests is an appeal to an entirely logical theme; it is not helpful to either party to give power to disrespectful or potentially abusive behavior. Wegela astutely asks the reader to consider how encouraging “. . .others to be so mindless and unkind,” is helpful to anyone? She cuts to the chase when she points out the fear inevitably involved in failing to say “no.” According to the author, when people give whatever another person wants because they fear the relationship will end if they don’t, the relationship is identified as co-dependent.


The article is well written. The clinical illustration of patient and therapist is fairly cut and dried and presents the issues without complication. Wegela gives the reader only a glimpse of the far more complicated interchange between Sara’s daughters, their children and their grandmother. The case example is sufficient to illustrate Wegela’s focus, which is the desirability of protecting healthy personal boundaries. The author delivers this stated focus with clarity.


An appraisal of Wegela’s article must begin with her greatest insight into what is involved when wanting to help goes wrong. Most notably, Wegela assigns ego as a root reason people become entangled in one-sided or dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. The connotation of ego in this example appears to be the often negative definition of self-importance. However, it is clearly much more than that. She further emphasizes this point by adding an amazingly persuasive word to the ego discussion , “seductive.” Her use of this single word is brilliant because it is an inescapably emotional word. The author thereby ordains powerful meaning to the almost urgent desire people can experience when they sacrifice themselves for others, believing the resulting violation of boundaries is temporarily justified. Wegela is also referencing the larger meaning of ego; inner-self, core concept, and the subconscious.


Obviously, both self-concept and self-esteem are integral to the dynamics of all interpersonal relationships. To identify ego as the self-concept governing basic decision-making in human relationships is a clinically necessary perspective. It automatically becomes an increasingly complicated dynamic whenever people allow others to take advantage of them. A fine line exists between annoying inconvenience and the beginnings of actual abuse. Much of the time, this kind of complexity is so emotionally-charged those involved are unaware of the progressively oppressive web they are in.

In the context of offering help to others who fail to honor healthy behavior, the belief that one is specially capable, responsible or even destined to help may be a terrifically powerful influence on the lack of appropriate boundaries that result. If a person feels exclusively needed to give help, it becomes vastly more difficult to reject unrighteous imposition when it occurs. Also, the person who imposes upon the person who helps unconditionally may never appreciate their own culpability.



The concept of establishing healthy boundaries in personal relationships is a necessary skill for personal protection, happiness and optimum productivity. As in the case of Wegela’s client Sara, the two daughters and the grandchildren, establishing healthy boundaries proved to be a learnable endeavor. Mother learned how to hold her daughters more accountable for what they anticipated from her, and by their compliance, the daughters also had an opportunity to learn something about themselves. Wegela presents a great springboard for discussion on the topic in her very concise article.


Books by Karen Kissel Wegela, Ph.D.:

How to Be a Help instead of a Nuisance: Practical Approaches to Giving Support, Service, and Encouragement to Others

What Really Helps: Using Mindfulness and Compassionate Presence to Help, Support, and Encourage Others

1 comment:

bandanamomtoo said...

Very well written review.