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Limits are even more of a mystery than boundaries. Even professionals confuse boundaries with limits if they discuss them with their clients at all. In a nutshell a boundary says, “This is how close you can come to me.”

A limit is the emotional and intellectual knowledge of how far you’ll go with a situation condition, marriage, job, parent, or child.

Many people have trouble knowing what their limits are both in personal and professional circumstances. Jason, a very compassionate and thoughtful father and owner of a resale clothing store called very upset and angry. “I’m so angry with my son I don’t know what to do,” were the first words after, “Hello.” “I told him I would put him through two alcohol and drug treatment programs and then he’s on his own.”

“How is that going?” I asked.

“Not too well. That is why I’m so mad at him. I have now put him through four of the best and most expensive, treatment centers in the country.”

“Jason,” I said, “What are your limits?”

He fired back, “I said two. But obviously it wasn’t. That’s why I’m so angry.”

“So you don’t know your limits and you’re angry with him because he doesn’t know them either?”

Jason  laughed and said, “Oh!”

Setting limits can actually lead to deeper connection to those we care about. Because we don’t know our limits we go much further or stop very short of where we want to be and how much we want to do with someone or how much we want to do for someone.

Not knowing what our limits can turn us into caretakers instead of care givers. Caregivers have good boundaries and know their limits. Caretakers go way beyond and further than they really want to go. Caretakers actually end up taking something out of those they are around—like their integrity, energy, self-esteem, or the money they find underneath the cushions on the couch or lying around. In other words, we have to take something for giving up something of ourselves that we really do not want to give. Many people, who don’t know or pay attention to their limits, tend to feel resentment and therefore need some kind of payment or restitution. People who know and respect their own limits can care for others without resentment, without feeling like something is being taken from them and they actually feel energized by their giving to others. This is what I call being compassionately assertive which I’ll say more about in a future article.

When we listen to our own internal rhythms for closeness and separateness, we know what our limits are. If we stay true to our rhythms we know how long we can visit our parents without falling into old, destructive conversations and patterns. If we know when to seek solitude to recharge our batteries then we won’t have to push people away or run away from a relationship just because we can’t say, “I need some time alone.”

I asked another client of mine we’ll call Terry, who was taking a sabbatical from interacting with his father, how long he thought he could be with him when he resumed the relationship before feeling overwhelmed? “Maybe thirty minutes and then I’ll become his little boy again who stays much longer with his daddy and we’ll be in the same old dysfunctional drama we’re always in.”

“How about just staying thirty minutes or less if that is your limit?” I asked.

“We’d probably enjoy each other’s company. I’d leave on a good note because I’d still be an adult instead of a pissed off kid who didn’t want to ever come back and see his father for a long time.”

Further Purposes of Limits

Limits not only help us establish the difference between caring for and caretaking, they separate quantity from quality. Terry recognized that if his father died, it would be after a compassionate exchange of time, energy, respect, and love, not a resentful one.

Here are a few more examples of less dramatic ways to thinks about limits:

  • I’ll only be able to go one more week.
  • I’ll explain this two more times.
  • I can talk about his for thirty minutes.
  • I’ll give my boss one month to respond to my request.

Question: Can you think of times you have gone “way beyond” your limits with someone at home or work?

Knowing Your Limits is an excerpt from John Lee’s upcoming book, 24 Things Women Can Do To Increase the Emotional Intelligence of Their Man, which is on sale this November 24!