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.