When people talk about having healthy boundaries what does this actually mean? Why are boundaries important? How do we create appropriate boundaries?
Boundaries represent where we as a person begin and end and where other people begin and end. To create healthy boundaries between ourselves and others, we need to be clear about what we can control – what is in fact our responsibility – and what is not, in other words, what is the responsibility of the other person.
Having weak boundaries means that we are allowing other people to have undue control or influence over us. We might feel that we need to give into their demands, prioritise their needs ahead of our own or take responsibility for their feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Not only does this take us away from the important business of taking responsibility for and managing ourselves, it can also make us feel frustrated, powerless, depleted and, in extreme cases, violated. Although keeping the peace may make things easier in the short term, allowing someone else to overly influence or control us, or taking responsibility for their “stuff” will lead to resentment and bitterness. It’s also important to realise that if you choose to continue to do nothing to stop someone violating your boundary, you’ll be part of the reason the situation continues.
By contrast, having healthy, appropriate boundaries in place forms the basis for more honest and engaging relationships based on mutual trust, care and support rather than control, obligation and guilt. You’ll also be giving the other person the gift of being able to take responsibility for and manage themself – thereby empowering them. This is particularly important to be mindful of in parent-child relationships.
Like so many other of our ways of being and relating to others, we learn about boundaries from our parents. If you had a parent/parents with weak boundaries – i.e. they allowed others to violate their boundaries, you’ll likely have learned the same pattern, or you may have reacted against this and have very rigid boundaries in place.
Or you may have had a parent/s with overly rigid boundaries – boundaries that protect and defend, keep other people out and create emotional distance. You may have grown up to do the very same thing or, having missed out on the affection you deserved as a child, you might have become emotionally needy, seeking validation and esteem from others rather than knowing how to generate this for yourself.
Examples of weak boundaries can often manifest between parents and their children. If you live your life vicariously through your kids, feel a strong need to protect them from the consequences of their actions/inactions and decisions/indecisions and are overly upset when they “fail”, or if you encourage them to prioritise your (and other peoples’) needs and feelings over their own, this will be creating weak boundaries between yourself and them (and between them and others). To set children up to function well in their relationships as they grow up and head out into the world, gently guide them to notice their part in the results they get (the good and the not so good). Teach them to notice and be empathetic toward other people’s feelings, but also to know the subtle differences between what they are personally responsible for and also what those around them are (or should be) responsible for. This might seem to be a tough middle ground for both kids and adults to walk. However, I believe that it is always possible to do this AND be kind and empathetic at the same time – the two do not need to be mutually exclusive as we are often lead to believe.
So how do I start creating these healthy boundaries?
There are a few key things you can do to start creating healthy boundaries.
1/ Develop your ability to communicate assertively
So many of our problems relating to other people are caused by a lack of assertiveness, both in the way we act and also in the way we communicate. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why we might struggle with this, but the good news is that with some understanding and practice we can develop our abilities in this area. Click here to read more
2/ Take responsibility for your own “stuff”
Referring back to the table above, to start creating healthy boundaries we need to start taking ownership for everything that is our responsibility and we need to learn how to let the rest go. This can most certainly be a challenge (both for yourself and the people you’re relating to) particularly if you’re trying to undo years of relationship habits.
We are the guardians of our bodies and minds. Taking responsibility for how we think and behave and learning how to manage our emotions is incredibly empowering because we get to have more of a hand in shaping our outcomes.
3/ Assist others to take responsibility for their stuff
Yes this can be delicate and it certainly requires a “healthy level of assertiveness.” I’m not talking about passivity (“feel free to walk all over my feelings and desires”) nor am I talking about aggression (“it’s my way or the highway and I don’t care about your feelings and desires”). I’m talking about learning how to be healthily assertive. Ask yourself “how can I honestly state my feelings and desires whilst bearing in mind the other person’s possible feelings and desires?” – being empathetic to their feelings and needs. I learned a lot about this in Susan Jeffers’ classic personal development book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. I also don’t mean becoming selfish – rather, gently assisting others to gain their personal power by helping them to realise what they are responsible for, so that they realise what they can and can’t shape.
4/ Cultivate the art of saying no
Why is this so difficult? Probably because to start doing this we run the risk of being rejected, which sure is scary – particularly if it involves potentially being rejected by your nearest and dearest. You’re not alone in this – fear of rejection is a universal human fear. Our need to belong has been part of our human existence for millennia.
Start small by trying out a few low risk/low cost “no’s” and then as you get practiced build up to bigger “no’s”. Think about and put into practice ways to politely resist someone imposing their desires on you (assuming that what they want isn’t what you want).
Implications of creating new, healthy boundaries
In the beginning when you start gently resisting the boundary-crossing demands of others (and as you start setting up your own healthy boundaries by asserting what you want) you may get some push-back from the people who are used to you being a certain way and doing things a certain way – particularly if they have expectations around what they have got used to you doing for them. There will inevitably be some moments when you are going to want to continue to give in to their demands just to keep the peace. I’ve of course been there myself and know how uncomfortable this can be. But I ask you, which would you prefer: a lifetime of slow-burning frustration (or worse) and the feeling that other people are running your life or the alternative – a few clunky, more honest new interactions as you work your way towards more healthy, honest and enjoyable relationships?
If this is something you’d like to delve into further to improve your own confidence, self-esteem and relationships, contact firstname.lastname@example.org