Establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships are essential elements for our mental, emotional and physical health. We are social beings who thrive when we are in genuine connection with others. Genuine connection means you maintain a sense of ‘self’ and allow the other person the same dignity. Two halves do not make a whole.
The setting of appropriate boundaries is a crucial component of all healthy relationships- be it spouse, friend, colleague, or child. Boundaries are what ensure both parties have a ‘self.’
It is easy to forget that “No,” in and of itself is a boundary- no explanation is necessary.
When I tell this to clients, I often receive a stunned and then puzzled look.
“You mean I do not have to explain myself?”
Nope! Societal messages often shame and guilt us into saying “Yes” when we mean “No,” teaching us to focus on and take care of others rather than ourselves. But learning to say “No,” is a critical part of health emotional development. Children, as young as two, start to say “No” as they begin differentiating themselves from their parents.
What is a Boundary?
A boundary is a border or limit that is permeable and flexible. In relationship, it is a conscious, invisible structure, or energy field that can be emotional, physical, and/or sexual. Boundaries give us a way to embody our sense of who we are. A healthy boundary has tensile strength and allows a flow of energy. Your heart is visible, allowing the other to see it. They cannot, however reach in and grab it without your permission. It is often necessary to communicate a boundary verbally so the other person knows what you need. A healthy boundary says “I choose me” versus allowing others to determine who you are and what you need. A boundary provides a safe space to experience your sensitivity and vulnerability without shutting down your feelings. Shutting down is an example of putting up a “wall”. A “wall” is impenetrable. It protects you, but at a great cost; disconnection and loneliness.
Is There a Difference Between a Boundary and a Threat?
Yes. You, yourself, are responsible for setting and enforcing a boundary. This includes monitoring your own motives. The motive for having and setting a boundary must be self-care and it must be something you are willing to follow through with. Threats are attempts to control and manipulate another to get what you want. It will thereby disrupt the relationship and cause more problems and pain. Your word will no longer be trusted. Ultimatums can be a last-resort boundary if you are willing to do what you say you are going to do.
What You Need to Set a Boundary:
- Awareness and acknowledgment of your own needs.
- Willingness to believe that you are worthy of taking care of yourself.
- Awareness of and respect for others’ boundaries.
- Trusted people to support you.
- The actual words to effectively communicate your boundary.
If you wait until you fully possess all of these, you will probably never start. Sometimes you need to act your way into new thinking and feeling rather than trying to think and feel differently before you do something different. Ask for help- then take the plunge!
When beginning to set boundaries, you may be at risk to be perceived as the ‘bad guy’ or ‘unloving’. Guilt can accompany this role as well. This can be a withdrawal symptom of a pattern of putting others’ needs ahead of your own, telling yourself you are selfish. Setting a boundary is self-care, not selfish. Tolerating the ‘bad guy’ role and the feelings associated with it is a necessity. Get support. Remember the airplane safety instructions, “Secure your oxygen mask first, then assist your child or accompanying person.”
Formula for Setting a Boundary:
Tell the person how their behavior impacts you: “When you say/do this (specific thing in this specific way), I feel (emotions). E.g., “When you yell at me, I feel angry, fearful and sad.”
“If you continue to do/say (specific behavior), I will (take an action) to take care of myself. E.g. “If you continue to yell at me, I will go into the other room until you calm down and we can talk quietly.
Note: A feeling is not “I feel like…” or “I feel that…”
These are thoughts, not feelings. With a feeling, you say, “I feel angry, sad, hurt, etc.”
For the best results, make your boundary S.M.A.R.T. (Crapuchettes, 2005)
Specific: “I am going to go into the other room.”
Measurable: “ I am going to go into the other room for an hour and check back in with you.”
Attainable: The action is possible and you are willing to follow through with it.
Realistic: Can you do exactly as you say?
Timely: The boundary set is as close to the event as possible.