What do you picture when you think of the term "healthy boundaries"?
If you’re imagining:
* a colleague refusing business calls when on vacation
* a friend breaking up with an abusive partner
* your own careful discernment when sharing personal info in a professional setting
*your mate’s insistence on getting to bed by 10pm
*visiting family for up to 3 days at a time, and no more,
Then, you’re on the right track. Last week, I posted on 5 different life areas in which to consider personal boundaries. Knowing what healthy boundaries are, and knowing how to abide by them for yourself, however, are two very different things. For many with a history of substance abuse, addiction, or repeated compulsive behaviors, boundaries get compromised. This is due to the activity or substance becoming more compelling than healthy self-care and relationships.
For those who grew up in situations where their emotional, mental, or physical boundaries were violated (or at least a bit impinged upon) repeatedly, it can be very difficult to know what healthy boundaries are and how to honor them. Note that boundary violations can be quite subtle.
Here are some key pointers on how to set healthy boundaries:
1. Know what healthy boundaries look like.
One analogy I often use with clients is the image of a strong, upright fence with a working gate that you can open and close at will. It is not a wall (rigid boundaries), or a nonexistent or blown over fence (weak or enmeshed boundaries) that one could just step over easily. It is useful to seek out different sources of information on healthy boundaries, whether it is friends you respect, readings, recovery groups, or your therapist.
2. Identify how it feels to ignore your own boundaries.
Anytime we set intentions for our own behavior (examples include: I will have just one drink; I will go to bed on time so I feel rested in the morning; I will not slap my child; I will not have casual sex) and then don’t abide by it, the results generally are not positive. These types of internal boundary crossings can result in self-aggression or hatred, despair, hopelessness, or anger. It’s important to get to know our exact pattern of consequences when we live outside of our values and intentions, so that it becomes easier to course-correct in the future.
3. Identify how it feels to have your boundaries crossed by someone else.
Most people get a feeling of anger, fear, revulsion, disgust, or general “sliminess” if they have their boundaries crossed. For many people, these feelings above may be the first clue that they have been violated in some way by another person.
By definition, trauma is an extreme form of boundary crossing. Sexual abuse or assaults are traumatizing because one’s physical and emotional boundaries have been so blatantly crossed. Physical and emotional abuse or neglect can also be very damaging boundary crossings. Many people who find themselves abusing substances or engaging in addictive behaviors often have survived significant boundary crossings such as those above. Even if the boundary crossing was not severe or repeated, it can feel quite uncomfortable to have another invade your physical space, attempt to manage or control your feelings, or ask for (or demand) personal information or time you’re not ready to give.
4. Work to recognize your right to set boundaries. For some, the question can arise, “do I even have a right to set a boundary?” Many people fear that setting boundaries in relationship will drive the other person away. And, this fear is warranted—especially if the “other” in the relationship has weak boundaries themselves. However, healthy people will respect boundaries, and chances are, will trust you more for setting them.
5. Identify personal boundaries.
How do you like to be touched, and by whom? How do you like to be spoken to? What are your standards for self-care and your own behavior? What are your values, and how are can you live more closely aligned to them? What sorts of behaviors will you accept from others, and what will you not accept? The more we can get to know how we best operate in our lives and relationships, the more easily we can respect our needs.
6. Practice “acting as if” you honor our boundaries. In some 12-step groups, the saying “Fake it ‘Til you Make it” is popular. Sometimes we need to “act as if” we are willing and able to live in a certain way, until we can believe it for ourselves. Don’t think you can confidently turn down a date or a drink? That’s okay—pretend you’re confident, and try it anyway. You may be surprised at the results.
7. Repeat the above, until healthy boundaries become natural.
Healthy boundaries are flexible, adaptive, and responsive to the situation at hand. With healthy boundaries, we can trust that our “no” means something, which means our “yes” also means something. Others can learn to trust us more fully, as well. And remember: our boundaries in various situations may change as we develop emotionally. This growth is good news!
I’d love to hear what you find about setting your boundaries. Feel free to contact me with your thoughts, or to set up a free initial phone consult.
Sure, we know that it's popular these days to have something called "healthy boundaries". If we leave our work at the office, say "no" to offers we don't like, and ask people to step off our toes when they're too close, we may think we've got the whole boundary thing licked. But there’s more to boundaries than we typically tend to think.
Fundamentally, boundaries are meant to help us find safety. They delineate where our (mental, emotional, physical) space ends, and where another's may begin. When we have healthy boundaries, we take responsibility for our needs, thoughts, and feelings, and we allow others to have their own needs, thoughts, and feelings, without taking responsibility or needing to somehow change them. When we honor our boundaries, we set limits, and take adult responsibility for our experiences.
One way to think of boundaries is to recognize how we interact with them in several different categories:
1. Physical: How much space would we like between ourselves and others? What sorts of affection and touch do we want, and not want? How much sleep and self-care time do we need to feel our best? Usually, traumas such as accidents are primarily physical boundary violations. We can feel violated by life itself—as if we have lost trust in the integrity and ongoing well-being of our physical self. Sexual and physical assaults, while of course being physical boundary violations, can also be emotional and energetic boundary violations.
2. Emotional: How would we like to be spoken to? What sorts of feedback feels good to us, and what is unnecessarily hurtful? Can we allow other people to feel sad, angry, hurt, or fearful, without needing to “fix” them in some way? Can we allow ourselves to feel sad, angry, hurt, or fearful, without blaming it on anyone or anything else? Can we choose what we’re ready to share about our inner life with another person, at a pace that honors the safety and trustworthiness of the relationship?
3. Intellectual/mental: Can we respect other people’s viewpoints and ways of seeing the world, even if we strongly disagree? Can we respect that other people want to do things differently, have different preferences, and may understand certain concepts and situations differently than we do? This can be especially challenging in situations involving politics that we feel strongly about it, or if we feel we know "best" about how to do or see something.
4. Spiritual: Can we allow others to have their chosen spiritual life (or lack thereof), without feeling the need to change them, convince them of their wrongness, or force them to see things differently? Do we honor our own need for spiritual engagement or lack thereof, without needing to explain, justify, or rationalize our chosen belief system? Do we respect our need to honor our spiritual values instead of letting them take a backseat to our more everyday concerns?
5. Energetic: What kind of people do we want to be around, and what kind of people are toxic to us—and can we honor the need to chose our relationships carefully? If we can’t choose the relationship, can we arrange ourselves in a way so that we minimize contact with the unhealthy other? What sort of spaces and situations do we repeatedly find ourselves in—are they chaotic, confusing, abusive, and messy, or loving and joyful? The energetic boundary is closely related to physical and emotional boundaries. You may feel violated energetically if, for example, you are visually “sized up” by another person, or you find that someone has looked through your personal belongings or space without permission.
Oftentimes, our boundaries change over time, as we develop emotionally. Many people in early recovery from trauma, addiction, or substance abuse find that they need to uncover or develop their personal boundaries, to both protect them from relapse or further traumatization, and to encourage emotional growth.
I’ll post on How to Set Healthy Boundaries in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!