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Lessons for Life

Helper, don't forget to help yourself too

Sometimes being the one everyone turns to can wear on your emotions. It may be time to set some emotional boundaries

Jen Weigel

Lessons for life

December 17, 2013

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I'm a fixer. Now when I say "fixer" I don't mean I'm handy with a wrench. I'm the kind of person who tries to fix the emotional problems of those around me to make the world (or a dinner party) a more harmonious place. But sometimes trying to help others can wear me out emotionally, especially when it appears that my advice wasn't what they wanted after all.

But there is something I can do about it—and so can you. According to therapist and author Ross Rosenberg, it might be helpful to set some emotional boundaries.

"I look at giving friends advice as giving nuggets of worth — or pieces of me that I give because I like to be generous to my friends," said Ross Rosenberg, author of "The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us" (Premier Publishing and Media). "But in healthy relationships, there needs to be give and take. When it gets lopsided and there isn't mutuality or reciprocity, we start to feel resentful and angry."

Rosenberg said we need to let people know when we don't feel heard or appreciated, which can be difficult for some personality types.

"If you are a co-dependent, setting boundaries can be excruciatingly difficult," he said. "You're struggling with this feeling of being rude, you're afraid someone will get mad, you're afraid of conflict because you don't have self esteem to hold your ground to not get pushed back. You can set a boundary but it's very unlikely that it will be respected."

Those with a strong sense of self have more success, Rosenberg said.

"Because when you are confident and your self-esteem directs you to set a boundary, it doesn't matter so much if someone says 'yes' or 'no'", he said. "You stick with it and you feel good about it and someone either follows it or they don't. You don't take it personally."

Here are Rosenberg's tips for establishing healthy emotional boundaries:

Look at your patterns.

"To set boundaries you need to first understand the part of you that gravitates toward relationships in which there's not a fair distribution of give and take," he said. "Do the work on yourself or talk to a therapist about these patterns. If you set boundaries without doing this work, it's like putting a band-aid on a wound that really needs medical attention."

Find out if there's a bigger issue.

"Some friends might be needy or not good listeners because they're down or going through a divorce or maybe someone dies and the fair distribution isn't there," he said. "But this could be a phase. If they're usually there for you but having a bad stretch, you can understand that this too shall pass, so try to be patient."

Stay neutral.

"Avoid negative, inflammatory words," he said. "You might unintentionally close a person down and you don't even know it. It's OK to have anger that someone is always complaining, but be aware of your resentment and position your feedback neutrally, both in your tone, your body posture and the words that you choose."

Repeat what they've just told you.

"If you want someone to listen to you but they won't stop talking, the best thing you can do is make them understand you've heard them and understand them," he said. "Say, 'What I'm hearing you say is you are really upset. That must be really tough,' so give them a concise re-statement of what you've heard with an empathic response, and then you can transition into what you want to talk about."

Use positive statements.

"If you use 'I' statements, the person will hear you and not get defensive," he said. "Put a positive spin on your interaction and then you can ask for what you need. 'I enjoy listening and I'm glad I can help you. I'm hoping that you can listen to me and help me too.'"

Know your audience.

"If you set a boundary with a narcissist and then get upset that they don't listen, it's like wrestling with a pig in white clothes and getting mad that you got dirty," he said. "Stay composed. Tell yourself, 'This is not about me.' Walk away and figure out how to limit your interactions with them."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel