Unable vs. Unwilling

Do you ever find yourself feeling resentful, bitter, guilty or obligated regarding your relationship with someone close to you? Do you have difficulty saying, “no” to others or worry about how someone is going to respond to your “no”? Do you say “yes” to requests when you really mean “no”? Most of us can come up with an assortment of situations that cause the challenges above as most of us are somewhere on an ever-challenged continuum with regard to how healthy our boundaries are.

We are to do for others what they are UNABLE, not UNWILLING to do for themselves. For instance, if our blind grandmother needs transportation and assistance to get to an appointment, or if a postoperative family member or friend is unable to prepare food or drive, then we are to help them out. This is demonstrating kind sacrificial love. To provide help, support and assistance in these types of challenges are healthy.

However, we are not called to do for others what they are UNWILLING to do for themselves. We are not responsible to pay off debt for one who chooses to continue impulse shopping without the means to pay their debt. We are not responsible to provide financial support to a family member who chooses to spend all their money on alcohol or drugs or to financially support an adult child who refuses to secure gainful employment.

Many people struggle with this differentiation of responsibility and find themselves feeling an assortment of negative emotions. Common ones, as stated above, are resentment, bitterness, obligation, guilt, anger, anxiety, disappointment, and frustration. However, to further complicate things, these negative feelings can then lead to a variety of unhealthy behaviors such as passive/aggressive behavior, blame-shifting, or developing a victim mentality.

What we are talking about are challenges to boundaries and where they break down. Boundaries essentially delineate what we are and are not responsible for. Keyword being “responsibility”. We establish boundaries so that other’s problems are their problems and not yours. This gets tricky, however, in close relationships where boundaries can at times get foggy.

What are boundaries? Basically speaking, boundaries are what differentiates us from others (our bodies, our thoughts, beliefs, our time, our behaviors, our online presence, our approach to finances and even our expectations in relationships). Boundaries say what “I” will or will not do. Conversely, control says what “you” will or will not do. The only place we have true power is over our boundaries. There is a spectrum of boundaries everywhere from no boundaries, to poorly defined or inconsistently reinforced boundaries, to toxic boundaries (or barriers) to healthy boundaries. And when it comes to helping others, we want to ask ourselves, “Is this person ‘unable’ or ‘unwilling’ to help themselves?”

If we have anything other than healthy boundaries, there are certainly some steps we can take to develop them. We start by:

  1. Gaining awareness – Does this person make me feel overwhelmed? Do they drain me? Do I find myself resentful regarding their requests?
  2. Define who we are – Begin to educate others about who we are, what we will do or not do. Are you someone who lends money or host house guests? Are you someone who talks on the phone or prefers texting?
  3. Define who we are not – What do we not like? What we do not agree with? What we will not do?
  4. Take responsibility for our behaviors and choices – If we say “yes” to covering someones shift at work, own it. Don’t blame them for calling in sick again.
  5. Stop blaming others – for taking advantage of you, or always borrowing money and not paying it back.
  6. Practice saying “No” – Practice letting your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no”.
  7. Set limits – with your time, availability, and whether or not you will tolerate being on the receiving end of manipulation or guilt.
  8. Be Active, not Reactive – Teach people about who you are and how you operate.
  9. Be truthful – Many people say “yes” because they are afraid of hurting others. The truth may be hurtful, but lying (saying “yes” when you mean “no”) is harmful as well.
  10. Stop being the victim – As an adult we have choices. Stop acting as though others made you work overtime, or pay their car payment for a car that was going to be repossessed due to their irresponsibility.

As you begin to build and strengthen your boundaries based on the skills above, you will be better able to differentiate what you are and are not responsible for and will become more skilled at helping those who are unable rather than unwilling to take responsibility for themselves.

For more information on boundaries please refer to Dr. Lisa Day’s podcast on “How to Be Me Without Losing You: Boundaries with Dr. Lisa Day.” This episode is part of the podcast series, “The Clinical Christian” on Mental Health News Radio and can be found on the Meier Clinic website or You-tube – Mental Health News Radio.