What I have experienced since learning about and setting healthy boundaries is much more freedom and less stress in my life!
However, before a healthy boundary can be created, we need to understand what a boundary is and is not. Boundaries are anything that limits something. For example, time is a boundary, because there are only 24 hours in a day. No matter how much we might want to negotiate for more, Mother Nature is not going to budge!
On the other hand, boundaries are not selfish. In fact, boundaries can be quite empowering. I was once offered a way of looking at setting boundaries as a gift that I can give another person, to help them reconnect with their own autonomy and competence, building their self-confidence. This way of looking at boundaries does not mean that we stop helping others out when they are in need; however, it does ask us to deploy our skills in discerning what the best choice is in each moment.
When we can embrace the idea that setting boundaries is self-care (not selfish), then we can begin to take steps toward identifying the boundaries we want to create that will benefit both ourselves and others. A mantra I was offered to assist me in shifting from the belief that it is selfish to prioritize my needs over the needs of others is “Say no, so others can grow”. Take a moment right now and write this mantra down on a piece of paper or index card and place it somewhere that is accessible to you on a daily basis. Now, think about it for a moment longer.
If you are still not buying it, here is an example that I think most people will be able to connect to. Imagine a child is ready to learn how to tie their shoes. You begin to teach the child how to do it. Each day you teach the child, you watch them trying it on their own, showing progress and excitement as their fingers start to cooperate. Now comes the hard part – the day you have to tell them “No, I’m not going to do it for you anymore, because I know you can do it by yourself”. It hurts you to hear their protests and see their tears, but you stand your ground. Now envision their face when they come back into the room and want to show you how they were able to tie their shoes by themselves. Can you feel their joy!
Think of this example when you begin to explore setting healthy boundaries, remembering that when you say no, you are creating space for another person to figure something out for themselves because you BELIEVE in them, that they are capable of doing it without you doing it for them. I know first hand that this sounds easier said than done, so below are some intention setting ideas to support your efforts in establishing, clarifying, expressing and reinforcing healthy boundaries:
- Identify Boundaries. Many of us may have grown up in families that did not explain or demonstrate healthy boundaries, so we might need to take a moment and think about any boundaries we might have established or are aware of in our lives. For example, the walls, windows, and doors of our houses create a boundary that we call home. Our bodily reactions might have not allowed pets or certain foods in the house due to allergies. Our spiritual roots might have offered rules of conduct that limit our behaviors, such as no public display of affection. Creating time to identify some boundaries that exist in your life, starts to grease the wheels of the healthy boundary making machine because the growing awareness invites in choice. For example, just because you might be allergic to cats, doesn’t preclude you from having a dog!
- Explore Emotions. When you sense you are having an emotional response – whether positive or negative – stop and explore! Emotions are the part of our intelligence that informs us about what is working and what is not working in our lives. Emotions are the best guide to knowing when a healthy boundary is needed. When an emotion arises, ask yourself ‘What is this emotion I am experiencing in this moment?’, ‘What is it telling me?’, and ‘Do I want more or less of it in my life?’. When the powerful emotions such as anger (and all of its variations), pain and fear arise, the universal message is that your needs are not being satisfied. Consider taking a moment to identify some recent situations where you felt one or more of these powerful emotions arise and write them down in the context of what brought them up.
- Clarify Your Needs/Values. Now comes the hard part. When we realize our emotions arise in response to our needs, whether they are being satisfied or not, it means we now need to own the fact that we have needs (AND WE ALL DO) and we have a responsibility to identify exactly what those needs are if we want to deepen the connections we have with ourselves and others. Another way to view our needs is to consider them our core life values – what is it that we value enough to fight for in our lives. To help you get started in this area, there are some universal human needs: autonomy, connection, physical well-being including safety, honesty, peace, play and purpose. If you would like to take a look at a longer list of such needs/values, Marshall Rosenberg has a Needs Inventory that I would recommend. Reflect on this list along side of your emotional responses to help you narrow down the list to your top 4 values that will help guide your healthy boundary creations.
- Communicate a Healthy Boundary. Now that you are armed with the knowledge of your needs/values and what happens when those needs are not being met or worse, being ignored or disrespected by another, the next step is to plan for an appropriate confrontation in order to express your healthy boundary. Keep in mind that confrontation does not equal conflict and that you have a right and responsibility to ask for what it is you need. Also keep in mind the other person might not be able to give you what it is you need; however, that must not stop you from at least asking and trying to negotiate a healthier space. To help you craft your healthy boundary, consider using the 4-step process developed by Marshall Rosenberg which was designed to diffuse emotionally-charged situations by reducing blame and shame.
- Make a request. It is not enough to tell someone that your needs are not being met and expect them to know how to respond to such a communication. It is important to clearly ask for what it is you would like from them in order to have your need be met. For example, if you determine that you value beauty as reflected by a neat and clean home and become distressed when when your need for beauty in your home is not being honored, the request might be “Will you help me clean our home or keep our home clean?”. Such a request might lead you into a negotiation about the specifics (e.g., frequency, specific tasks, etc.), so consider making requests as concrete as possible (inviting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response) such as “Will you help me keep our home clean by washing your dishes in the sink?”. One last thought – when you start to clarify and express your healthy boundaries, it may seem awkward for both you and the other person because it might be a new way of interacting. Some suggestions to support success include: start with setting a healthy boundary around something that feels relatively minor on your emotional scale, write out the process (including your feelings, needs/values and request) and have it in front of you when speaking to the person, and know in advance that you will most likely have to communicate your boundary more than once (often several and sometimes many times) before the person fully integrates and consistently implements the request agreed to initially!
As always, if you try any of these intention-setting ideas for holistic health, I would love to hear about the impact they might have had for you. Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to share!