Creating and Maintaining Healthy Boundaries
What is a boundary? A boundary is a clear communication that respects yourself and others based on your values, what matters most to you and your personal rules and limitations. A boundary is like an invisible line in the sand between two people, that creates respect. Boundaries are not created for others, in regard to you. In other words, boundaries do not tell others how they can and cannot treat you. They let you know what your limits and rules are, for how you behave toward yourself and others. The boundary is for you: for your protection and self care. A boundary defines where your personal power is, what you have control over and it clarifies what you cannot change or affect. To create and maintain healthy boundaries you will need to first decide why you want boundaries in the first place.
Co-Dependency: Boundaries allow you to have what you want, be who you want, make the choices you want without violating anyone else. It creates respect between two parties and protects you from inadvertently crossing someone else’s boundaries as well as keeping you from compromising yourself and selling out. Boundaries are vital to any healthy relationship. People who have trouble setting and maintaining boundaries create co-dependent relationships instead. Co-dependent relationships are painful because you often do not get what you need and you may alternate between being controlling and dominating or victimized and needy toward the other person. Another problem with co-dependency is that you feel powerless to change the relationship. Without boundaries you are a victim to others and outer circumstances.
Boundaries and the Victim: When you feel victimized by another person you are definitely dealing with violated boundaries. Feeling victimized by another person only informs you that you have reached some kind of limit or threshold and felt forced to disregard it. Upon examination you will find that the victim can let you know what those limits are and when they were breached. The only way someone can violate your boundaries is if you allow them to. This means there are no blameless victims. This does not mean however that others will always respect your boundaries and others will never violate you. Sometimes when you feel victimized (such as assault, child abuse, rape etc.) you are not necessarily responsible for what happened to you but you are always responsible for how you handle it. Sometimes you can prevent victimization with good boundaries and sometimes you can’t but you can always decide how you will respond. There are exceptions to this of course, such as people who are mentally handicapped or babies and small children who are not able to respond; but most of us do have this ability to respond.
You are always responsible for the loss of boundaries. When you claim this right, no matter how unfair it feels, you will have regained enough personal integrity to restore your boundaries or create a new one. You teach others how to treat you by setting clear, unequivocal boundaries. When you do not communicate your boundaries clearly, others are left to interpret your boundaries. This can lead to misunderstandings, misconceptions and overreactions. If you communicate a boundary and then behave differently than you have communicated, the other person will feel that your boundary has no value and it also devalues your verbal communications. When you find yourself feeling like a victim it can be a wonderful learning experience. To read more about victim behavior read my article about the Victim Archetype here.
Anger and Boundaries: Anger is a messenger, a courier on a bike with a little bell. The message says: Alert! SOS! Emergency! Boundary violation has occurred. That is the purpose of your anger. The messenger is not meant to get into a fist fight with the other person. Anger will deliver the message every time loud and clear and anger will stick around until the message is received and signed for. This is a metaphor for taking responsibility. When you sign for your package you are owning that you are responsible for the loss of boundaries and are now ready to take correcting action. At this point anger dissipates and is followed by self-examination and the discovery of the breach. Anger can prevent a lot of pain and stress if its message is heard and heeded. To read a wonderful book about anger and the messages your emotions are trying to tell you check out Karla McLaren’s book The Language of Emotions.
Communicating without Blaming: Okay, you figured out that you want to have good boundaries. You want out of the co-dependency and into a healthy, mutual relationship. You are ready to take responsibility for your victimization and the message of your anger has been heard loud and clear. Now what? Setting a boundary requires communication. There are two kinds of communication, verbal and non-verbal. Both forms of communication will work well for boundaries as long as you are clear and completely sure of your boundary. To get clear about where you would like to set your new boundaries try this three step process.
Step One: Define your values. Take a few moments to really examine what you value in the situation where you are establishing your boundaries. For example: As a parent, one of my main and most important values is respecting my children’s right to express themselves. This is more important to me than whether or not they are respectful to me. So when faced with a child that is being disrespectful, my first and primary boundary is to hear what they are trying to communicate to me. Understanding how important this is to me, allows me to choose to let them speak unkindly to me instead of feeling powerless to make them stop. But I do have limits for the level of disrespect I will allow and we will get to discussing limits in step two. Defining your values is quite empowering and will help you better understand your past and present behaviors in a new way. Really get in touch with the things that matter to you and you will have the foundation for your boundaries.
Step Two: Define your limits and thresholds. Now that you have a clear picture of what you value, next you set your limits. What can you handle? What is your limit for tolerating something? What are your stress triggers? Knowing and defining your limits for yourself gives you an idea of what the boundary will look like when put into action. In the above example, I let my kids be disrespectful to me in favor of hearing how they really feel but I have a limit to what I will allow. I communicate this clearly to them. No swearing or name calling is one of my limits. If this boundary is disregarded the conversation ends. Instantly. I walk away not to be cajoled or bribed back into the engagement. Before you try to communicate you must really know what your limits are. You may need to think this through or even talk it out with a friend. A really good way to discover your limits is to notice when you feel angry or victimized. Know what you can handle and tolerate from others and what you can’t. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to know your limits.
Step Three: Know your power. To stay with the example of my kids being disrespectful, to know my power I must first realize that I cannot make my child treat me with respect. I can force them to act in certain ways if I use fear, bribery or manipulation but I cannot force true authentic respect. Knowing what I have power over helps me decide what kinds of limits I will set and why. I don’t want to be called names or have my child swear at me. The boundary is for my protection based on my limits. It has nothing to do with the child or trying to make them conform.
Don’t create boundaries based on what you assume will be the consequences. This always leads to feeling victimized because you do not have power over the future or how others may react. Recognizing what you have power to change and affect and what you don’t will help you immensely in creating successful and respectful boundaries for yourself and others. Once you know what you have power over, you are ready to effectively communicate with others. Taking these three steps will help you avoid blaming others in your conversation or in your actions. Blaming others or trying to have power over others lets you know that the victim is active and needs your attention. When you feel empowered through this three step process you will not be afraid to confront sensitive issues and assert yourself when necessary.
Mind Your Business: Boundaries help you mind your own business. Staying out of others business is respecting your boundaries and theirs. I like the concept of “the three businesses” by Byron Katie. She asserts that there are three kinds of business: My business, your business and God’s business. How I feel, is my business, what I say and do, is my business. How you feel, act, what you say etc. is your business. All other things outside my control, such as the weather, natural disasters, accidents is God’s/Nature’s business. This has been a really helpful reminder when I am trying to get out of others’ business. When I decide to do something, that is my business. Example: How my husband reacts to what I am doing is his business. I am not responsible for his reaction. If he chooses to divorce me because of my actions, that is his business. I have no power outside of my own business. I accept that certain consequences are outside of my control. If I know my power, I can respect his boundaries. He is communicating through divorce, what he can and cannot tolerate from me. He is taking action that respects his limits. That is a somewhat dramatic example but I think it applies to many people. Check out Byron Katie’s website here.
Boundaries and the Necessity of Letting Go: In order to have good boundaries sometimes you have to also learn to let go. We only need to let go of things that are no longer in our power to control anyway. Letting go will give you the freedom and perspective necessary to renegotiate boundaries and recognize your power. Sometimes this requires looking at the hard truth about a situation. Setting a boundary can cause others to leave you, pull away, be angry and frustrated. You may have to let an old friendship go rather than compromising your values to save it. Maybe it is better to let go of your child that is pulling away from you anyway than to keep holding on to them believing you are helping. Know your power, change what you can and let the rest go. It probably isn’t your business anyway.
Boundaries vs Barriers
There is a good article on the web by Pema Chodron called Boundaries vs. Barriers. She makes it clear that barriers are walls we put up against others to try to protect ourselves. We use barriers to hide behind and to keep others in the dark because we are afraid of the consequences of communicating our boundaries. Barriers are not boundaries because they cause confusion, resentment, isolation and pain. You can tell if you are simply throwing up barriers instead of boundaries because you will avoid confrontation and communication. Boundaries require you to move toward the issues that make you uncomfortable because that is where a boundary needs to be drawn. Barriers cause you to move further away from the conflict.
Setting boundaries is the only way to create healthy and mutually beneficial relationships. If you are in a co-dependent relationship or want to improve an existing relationship taking a look at your boundaries or (lack thereof) is an necessary and valuable step toward dramatically improving ANY relationship as well as your personal happiness.