Boundaries seem to give some people a lot of trouble. I personally am one of those people that have taken far too long to figure out boundaries. When I was going through my own marriage breakdown a therapist told me that my boundaries were “not healthy”. I was sent out of our session to work on “my boundaries” but I had no idea what that meant, why it was important or how to do it. Needless to say, my boundaries did not get “fixed” until it was far too late for my emotional health, and well-being during my separation.
I see the same confusion in some of my clients so here is my boundary guide!
What is a personal boundary?
A boundary is a set of rules, expectations or limits we use to define how others should treat us or behave around us to keep us feeling safe, comfortable and secure. When our expectations are not met, there are usually consequences that are clear as well.
We all should have some boundaries around our material possessions, our intellectual ideas, how we spend our time, our personal space, our bodies and sexuality, our emotions and our relationships.
For example, when you arrange a meeting with someone and they don’t show up or let you know they’re not coming, you may feel very uncomfortable. This means a boundary was crossed. As soon as you feel uncomfortable with the behaviour of someone towards you, think about your boundaries. How have you defined them, and are others aware of how you feel?
There are 3 boundaries styles – here’s how each of them view the above situation:
1. Weak or porous boundaries:
“Please just give me any reason for why you didn’t show up and I’ll accept it because I really want you to like me! Let’s try to meet again because I undervalue myself and don’t mind being treated inconsiderately.”
Weak boundaries are not well defined and shift to accommodate bad behaviours.
People that have weak boundaries tend to accept abusive or poor treatment in relationships. They tend to comply with unreasonable requests to avoid rejection and have great difficulty saying “no” to others. They tend to inappropriately share their emotions and personal details with others, making them appear needy. They also tend to be dependent on the opinions of others and not sure of their personal values. This person tends to undervalue themselves, their possessions, and their time.
2. Strong or rigid boundaries:
“I am angry that you didn’t show up and I don’t want to hear any excuses from you – I am done.”
Rigid boundaries are well defined and immovable. People with these boundaries tend to be overly protective of their personal information in relationships and may seem distant or detached to others.
These people are also afraid of rejection, but they cope by keeping their distance in relationships to protect themselves. They tend to avoid intimacy and not have many close relationships.
3. Healthy boundaries:
“My time is valuable and it upsets me when I’m kept waiting. It makes me feel disrespected. What happened? You should have let me know ahead of time that you couldn’t come. Why didn’t you call me?”
Healthy boundaries are well defined and usually value-driven. People with healthy boundaries understand their core values and use their values to make boundaries that keep them comfortable and secure across different relationships and situations. Values are not compromised for anyone or anything.
These people usually share appropriately for the situation and remain open and flexible. They are not afraid of rejection and usually understand that when they are told “no” it is not necessarily a rejection of them personally. They also understand what they want and can clearly communicate their needs.
In all three of these cases, there will be different outcomes to the same situation.
Which type of boundary do you think will most likely have a successful second meeting that may lead to a good relationship?
Why are boundaries important?
Well-defined, healthy boundaries keep you feeling good. Your expectations are clear and more likely to be respected by others.
When you have porous boundaries, others tend to test to see how far they can push you. This is hard on your self-esteem and makes for wishy-washy decision-making and disrespectful relationships.
When you have strong boundaries, like a brick wall surrounding you, people tend to stay away because they feel unwanted and unwelcome.
We all need to develop flexible yet firm, healthy, value driven boundaries.
I often wonder why boundaries caused me so much angst. I had trouble clarifying my boundaries and enforcing them in my own marriage and subsequent separation. I thought if something made me uncomfortable, maybe it was just my own insecurities. Of course, that came from early learning during my marriage.
I originally did clearly say things were bothering me and was asked “What is wrong with you that makes you so insecure?” After this was repeated for almost 20 years I had internalized the message and had become uncertain about my own feelings and insecure about voicing them. I had started to think that was something was ‘wrong’ with me.
Now I know there was absolutely nothing wrong with my feelings. I had healthy boundaries, but they were taken down slowly over time with abusive responses to them. By the time our marriage was ending, I had lost my ability to clearly and confidently say when I was uncomfortable and why. I sadly was so accustomed to being criticized for setting my boundaries I had stopped enforcing them. It took a long time to rebuild my confidence and learn to trust my feelings again!
Eventually, I learned three very liberating and life changing facts:
- Feelings are never ever wrong. Feelings just are. Always TRUST what you feel!
- We are responsible for both OUR feelings and our actions. We can only control our own thoughts and actions.
- We are NOT responsible for the feelings and actions of others. We have no control over how others think or act.
I should have trusted my initial reactions and my original voice. I had more confidence in my twenties than I had in my forties on many levels!
Sometimes I think bending my boundaries cost me my 20-year marriage because the marriage became so far removed from what I actually wanted. I also think the lack of firm boundaries definitely kept my marriage going long after it should have ended. Boundaries really are so important to our happiness and well-being!
How do you create a new or healthier – firm yet flexible – boundaries?
1. Get comfortable with your feelings. Feel your feelings as they come up and sit with them without any judgment. Get to know your emotions and how they actually make you feel inside. You need to understand what triggers you and all your various emotions. What makes you feel great and what makes you feel uncomfortable?
This exercise is really figuring out your values. What do you have to have in your life that you value and do not value? What is very important to you and what is less important? What is a non-negotiable thing you must have? This is a value.
In relationships, we often compromise, sacrifice or adapt to please others. What are your basic feelings and thoughts that are really your own? There are often lots of beliefs we think are ours but they are actually not; they have just been accepted from other people and incorporated into our belief system. Your inner truth may not have been heard from for a long time so start really paying attention to your intuition and gut feelings and get to know yourself and your values!
2. Get clear. Start to pay close attention to what makes you feel uncomfortable and know that the discomfort means a boundary has been crossed. If nothing is done, this boundary will keep getting crossed. You will always feel uncomfortable and disrespected when it gets crossed. Realize that you need to make a clear boundary around this issue.
3. Set the boundary. This means clearly stating what you didn’t like and what you want instead. State it calmly and be matter-of-fact. You just need a simple statement of what behaviour you don’t like and, if appropriate, what new behaviour would be acceptable to you. (Use “I“ statements – do not accuse with “You” statements, as people will immediately get defensive!)
4. Do not feel guilty. Your boundaries are important to your well-being and others can’t respect your boundaries if they aren’t aware of them! Being clear is the fair thing to do.
5. If there is any push back or an argument starts about your boundaries, just reiterate that you need to set this boundary and do not take the bait. Your boundary is your boundary and is not for them to disagree with you. It is just YOUR boundary. Explaining the WHY may help get to the root of it to help them understand but you do not need to justify your feelings to anyone. Be direct and honest and know that arguing will weaken or remove the boundary.
6. If this boundary is crossed again – reiterate it and stick to it.
7. Focus on good self-care by keeping your boundaries intact.
8. Practice, practice, practice. Write a script if you want to. Start small and build up your confidence. Boundaries may take a lot of practice for those of us that have been too porous or accommodating or too rigid and distant.
9. Setting firm personal boundaries will help things run more smoothly for separated families by keeping the dialogue open and respect for each other top-of-mind. It also will help you unravel things and become more independent which is exactly what you both need to move forward.
Please contact me. if you would like practising setting boundaries or help with your values.
I do offer a 30-minute strategy session.
Take good care of yourself!
The Divorce Coach in Dundas