How far should we let people push? How much should they get away with? How much should we be accommodating them? And how are our feelings about the other people playing into that? Would we put up with as much from our neighbour as our boss? Or what about our children, or a spouse? Where are our ‘lines in the sand,’ and why are they there, and not somewhere else? Because, by ‘setting limits,’ we’re talking about how long, (how much time), we should put in before it’s ‘too much.’
If we’re upset because of what’s happened ‘again,’ that implies there must have been a ‘before.’ And because our brains recognize patterns, we naturally worry that whatever it is, will keep on happening in the future too. This means that, by ‘setting a limit’ we’re trying to cement the future. It’s like our minds colour in a section of our lives stretching from a point in our past, to a point in our future, and we call all of that, (even the unlived parts), ‘our relationship.’ We’re trying to fix things that haven’t happened yet.
Even if we can’t control that, one thing that actually does impact the future very strongly is what we do in the present moment. So, we can have made a decision in our pasts that we’re going in a new direction with some person or group. But that happens only in the universe of our own minds. That personal thought cannot guarantee us a certain future in the outside world.
As soon as the person who ‘crossed the line’ approaches us again, we either have to re-make our previous decision in that present moment, or we have to cave-in and double back to where we were. We can use our present moments to plan our future. But that future will still unfold as a series of present moments, so it is our decisions then and there that will always matter most.
Of course, for some people these issues can be deadly serious. If we’re dating a drug addict, or someone that gets violent, then these can be some of life’s most important decisions. But important and unimportant decisions are all made the same way. We can say whatever we want. But our life is ultimately made out of what we actually do in any given moment.
We all have those friends who keep going back to the same agonizing relationships over and over, like a drug addict visiting their dealer. And it’s a good analogy, because the person really is addicted to the source of the drug they want, (anger, sadness, victimization, whatever). Two people can be each other’s ideal co-dependent actors if their unconscious desire is nothing more than repeating than a familiar chemical exchange. Consciousness of the present moment is their only way out.
If we’re dealing with something small, we find that sort of presence easy. We have a realization and decide we don’t like this person, or that activity, or whatever, and we just quit. We’re not ‘setting a limit’ so much as we’re realizing something doesn’t suit us. ‘Setting a limit’ implies that we are attached; we want to be close to a person in our future, but we feel our challenge is that the person’s behaviour is making that harder and harder to imagine.
Our problem is, that attachment can then become dangerous, because it impedes our willingness to accept that, no matter what claims we make to each other at other times, everyone’s actual decisions happen only in the present. Someone’s previous promise, or even our ‘limits,’ are only ideas. They only matter if we functionally practice them in a given moment.
In the end the closest thing to ‘setting a limit’ would be to continue to make the same decision, each time, for the rest of our life. But, of course, all of us will end up waffling many times when a balance is tricky to find. We’ll set our limit and then have a low day, or a high day, where we’re a little needier, or a little softer. And we’ll let our past get close enough to hurt us again.
Still, no one should beat themselves up for those sorts of ‘mistakes,’ even if we do end up with a broken heart later. That won’t last forever. Besides, if we did it, that’s what the person we were in that moment felt compelled to do. So, whether we stuck to our guns, or waffled and caved-in, both decisions are equally fine because they each just match the state of mind that the thinker was in at the time. That’s meaningful freedom, and a lot of mental health can be found in the fact that it all makes a lot of sense.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.