For an audio version of this post, read by Dr Jenner, please listen here:
What exactly is a boundary when it comes to relationships? Simply put, a boundary is a limit or space between you and the other person, a clear place where you begin and the other person ends. Think of it as a fence in your backyard. You are the gate keeper and get to decide who you let in and who you keep out, who you let into the whole back yard, or who you let just inside the gate. You may still be keeping a distance, but you are giving others a chance to prove their trustworthiness both physically and emotionally. The purpose of setting a healthy boundary is, of course, to protect and take good care of yourself.
Healthy boundaries do not always come naturally or easily. We learn to “be” in all kinds of relationships by modeling. In other words, by watching how others handle relationships. In early childhood, it is our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and who ever else we were around on a regular basis. As we grow into adolescents, we rely less on parents and more on our friends to help us define ourselves and our boundaries or limits in relationships. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, then chances are you have not learned how to set a boundary or even really know what it is. Learning to set our own healthy boundaries is an exercise in personal freedom. It means getting to know ourselves and increasing our awareness of where we stand and what we stand for. It means letting go of the unhealthy people in our lives so that we can grow into the healthy person that we were meant to be.
Poor Boundaries Defined
How do you know whether or not you are in an unhealthy relationship? Chances are, if you are in a dysfunctional relationship it will feel “normal” or even “comfortable” to you, if you grew up in a dysfunctional home. You may not recognize the signs, until you are well on your way to giving up your entire self for the other person. Below is a list of some of the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy boundaries. Identifying where we lack boundaries is half the battle, for we cannot change what we do not recognize.
To set boundaries, first we need to learn to communicate without blaming. In other words, avoid saying things like: you make me so angry; you hurt me; you make me crazy; how could you do that to me after all I have done for you; etc. These are the very types of messages we received in childhood that have formed our perspective on our own emotional process. Instead use “I statements”: “I feel frustrated/angry when you ________ or when xyz happens”.
Though learning how to properly and effectively set boundaries can be a long process, here are basic steps to begin setting boundaries in your relationships:
Step 1: Recognize and acknowledge your own feelings. In order to set effective boundaries, we must be able to know what it is that we are feeling. Did this person’s critical comment make me feel bad? Is this person making me feel overwhelmed or drained? Being able to do this is absolutely vital because by being able to check in with ourselves and recognize how we are feeling, we have separated ourselves from the other person. The problem with many of us who have weak boundaries in relationships is that we become so enmeshed, so encompassed by the other person that we have no idea what we are truly feeling. By taking the time to break away, reflect, and really check in with yourself, you are then consciously making the distinct difference between yourself and the other person.
Step 2: Recognize how your boundaries have been crossed. By looking at your feelings, you can recognize how your boundary has been crossed. Is this person always asking to borrow money from you but they never pay you back? Do you find yourself always answering your friend’s text or phone calls late at night and it’s causing you to lose sleep? Is this person always making critical comments towards you? Does this person always seem to have problems that you always have to help them with? Do you have a client who always shows up late for your appointments?
Step 3: Recognize how you need to set your boundary. Once you can recognize what it is that is causing you to feel overwhelmed, drained, then decide what it is that you need to say to this person. So if the person is always borrowing money from you but never paying you back, then you may need to tell them that you are not letting them borrow anything else until you get paid back what you’ve already given.
If it’s a friend who is always texting or calling you late at night when you’re trying to sleep, then maybe you want to tell them that you can’t talk now because you need to sleep — or you can stop answering all together.
If someone keeps making critical comments towards you, then you can tell them that you don’t appreciate being spoken to that way and that you will not accept it.
If it’s a friend who seems to always have problems for you to listen to and it’s draining your energy, then its probably time to be sure you say something like, “Hey, I know you’re in pain, but I have some of my own stuff to do right now.”
Step 4: Stay In The Present. There are two things that often happen when boundaries in relationships have been weak:
1. There is backlash from the other person and
2. You feel guilty.
For this reason, it is extremely important to be in the present within yourself. We can do this by simply taking the time to do some breath work, meditation, or to tune in to what is happening with your body. Also, remember that your emotions are valid. For that reason, you are not wrong for setting your boundary. In fact, you are taking care of yourself, which is something that we should all do above all else.
Step 5: Express Yourself: Make your boundary known — communicate it to the other person. Keep in mind that if there is any backlash from the other person or if they want to argue, then it may be best to simply just walk away and focus on taking care of yourself. The reality is that if there is a backlash then the other person isn’t respecting your boundary. If we acknowledge their disrespect by arguing with them, then we are giving them what they want: A weakness of our boundary. By acknowledging and focusing on their backlash we are then subconsciously telling them that we are not grounded within ourselves and confident in what we want.
Step 6: Take care of yourself. If setting the boundary brought up any backlash or feelings of guilt, then be sure to take care of yourself. Go for a walk, exercise, be out in nature, etc. Do something to help yourself get re-centered and don’t spend too much time (or any) energy focusing on what happened.
Boundaries with Consequences
Along with good communication, is honesty. Learn to say how you feel. Beating around the bush will not help you or your relationship in the long run. It is impossible to set boundaries without setting consequences. If you are setting boundaries in a relationship, and you are not yet at a point where you are ready to leave the relationship then don’t say that you will leave. Never state something that you are not willing to follow through with. To set boundaries and not enforce them just gives the other person an excuse to continue in the same old behavior. Here are some examples of boundaries with consequences:
“If you call me names I will confront you about your behavior each and every time and will share my feelings with you. I will not tolerate verbal abuse. If you continue this behavior, I will weigh my options, including leaving this relationship. I do not deserve this and I will not put up with it any longer”.
“If you continue to break your plans with me by not showing up or calling me at the last minute to cancel, I will confront you about this behavior and share my feelings. If this behavior continues, I will consider it to mean that you do not respect me or this relationship and I will have no contact with you for a month, until we can both evaluate and figure out our priorities. If I choose to get back in touch with you, and the behavior continues, we will no longer be in any type of relationship together”.
“When I ask you what is wrong, and you say “nothing”, but then proceed to slam doors or kick the wall, and seem to be angry, I feel angry or frustrated that you refuse to communicate properly with me as if I am supposed to read your mind. If something is bothering you, I will trust you to let me know after you have spent some time cooling off alone. If you continue to punish me with your silence or fits, I will tell you how it makes me feel. If this behavior continues, I will weigh my options for this relationship. I do not deserve this type of behavior and will not put up with it any longer”.
Setting boundaries is not about making threats. It is about giving others choices and then consequences for the conscious decisions they make, much like we do with our parenting skills. We cannot be in a healthy relationship without appropriate boundaries.