Inside: There is freedom in a relationship with healthy boundaries. Boundaries are not a punishment but a kindness to you and those you love.
The word boundaries sometimes has a negative connotation. There seems to be an idea that only stern or cold people are good at setting boundaries. Or that boundaries only need to be set for really toxic or overbearing people. The truth is that everyone needs and has boundaries in their life whether they realize it not.
Healthy boundaries are simply a way to meet our needs. Someone with healthy boundaries in their life has a good grasp on what their needs are and is intentional about protecting their energy, time, and resources in order to live a sustainable life. A boundary is a tool for intentional living that protects us from living out of alignment with our values or extending beyond our honest emotional and energetic capacity.
In my last post, I talked about building better boundaries for yourself, or internal boundaries that are between you and you. Today, I’d like to build on that idea, by addressing how to set external boundaries, or those that help honour the space between you and another.
Why do CLEAR AND HEALTHY boundaries matter?
In a healthy relationship boundaries give safety to one another so we can relax and be our most authentic self without feeling the need to be on guard or defend with big walls. Once established, the boundary ideally lives quietly in the background doing the work of guarding our hearts so we don’t have to live in a state of hyper-vigilance.
There are the situations as well when we need boundaries for overbearing or unsafe people in our lives, sometimes as a matter of our physical safety, and more often as way to protect our mental and emotional health. Boundaries matter because we matter and you and your wellbeing are worth advocating for.
Common roadblocks to setting healthy boundaries with others
I asked on the A Life in Progress and Rebranding Middle Age Facebook pages what people’s biggest struggle was around setting and honouring boundaries. In a hundred plus responses, these were the themes that came up over and over. Do you connect to any of these common roadblocks to setting boundaries?
- Guilt / People pleasing / Feeling selfish
- Fear of rejection / “Will they still love me?”
- Grief from loss of relationships
- Frustration when boundaries are set but not honoured
- Feeling like avoiding conflict is easier than setting a boundary
- Self-doubt, feelings of unworthiness
- Struggling to recognize when a boundary is needed and what it should look like
- Knowing how to communicate a boundary / how to say “no”
Boundary work like all growth work requires practice and we grow into the strength, skill, and clarity we need as we practice, not before.Krista
4 brave truths to help you set better boundaries And Reclaim Your Voice
I like the phrase brave boundaries because choosing to live a life aligned to our own values or self-interest rather than what makes other people happy requires us to get really honest with ourselves and the people close to us. It requires making some tough choices and being open to changing direction or closing doors.
It can feel uncomfortable for those around us, even anger some who have become accustomed to life revolving around their happiness or convenience. Learning to build brave and life-giving boundaries helps you honour your wiring so you can live rooted in the truth of who you are and what you want and need in this season of life.
And remember, that boundary work like all growth work requires practice and we grow into the strength, skill, and clarity we need as we practice, not before.
Let’s push back against some of the roadblocks to setting boundaries with four brave truths about boundaries.
1. you are not responsible for other people’s feelings
You are only in charge of your own emotional well being and never anyone else’s, not your children’s, not your parent’s, not your spouse’s or your best friend’s. When we set a boundary and take steps to honour that boundary, how that makes other people feel isn’t on us, even if they frustrate, disappoint, or anger the other person. Other people are capable of working through their own emotions; their emotional response to your boundary is not on you. You can be compassionate and also set clear, healthy boundaries.
But when we don’t set a boundary because we feel guilty or selfish or like it might hurt someone’s feelings, we are attempting to carry the weight of their emotional well being. When you offer more of yourself than is good for your own well-being in exchange for someone else’s well-being/comfort/ease, you are likely the one crossing a boundary (though flexible boundaries allow for exceptions to the rule). If you recognize that you’ve been carrying something that isn’t yours to carry, lay it back down.
This is not to say that you aren’t responsible for your words and actions or that boundaries shouldn’t be imposed with compassion. Also, in relationship, sometimes boundaries need to be negotiated and you may need to offer reminders as people adjust, forget, or simply try to push back against your boundaries to see what you’ll do.
A common argument I encounter is that “if we can help carry someone’s load, we should.” Learning how to set appropriate emotional boundaries helps us stay healthy so that we can engage in the world and love others well without drowning ourselves.
Women in particular receive no shortage of messaging around being compassionate or pouring oneself out for others. What they aren’t taught is how to love themselves well, that they have permission to not give until they are empty or give within their honest capacity, or how to use their voice without shame or guilt.
This world will be far healthier and compassionate place all around if we all practice brave boundaries with ourselves and with others.
I will not stay, not ever again – in a room or conversation or relationship or institution that requires me to abandon myself.Glennon Doyle, Untamed
2. Not everyone deserves a seat at your table
Here is one of the hardest things to accept about setting boundaries: When we set a boundary in a relationship, there is a risk that the relationship might change or even end. Self-doubt, fear, the vulnerability of using your voice can lead to feel stuck or immobilized. The difficult truth when setting brave boundaries is that we have to decide what we can live with. At times this means deciding if being in integrity is more or less than important than potentially rocking the boat.
Learning to befriend ourselves, to deepen our roots of self-awareness and self-compassion and become familiar with how our body feels when we bump up against a boundary or a boundary violation, helps us show up with more confidence.
Like many of my clients and the brave women in my Brave and Beautiful Membership Community, I spent years suppressing my voice and needs to keep the peace, or “be kind and forgiving,” or to avoid conflict. This is betrayal of self, though, and while common and very human, it is no longer how I choose to be in the world. I have learned to trust myself, to hear the voice of my wisdom wisdom, and to speak honestly from that place.
Not every relationship is forever and remembering this can help us choose intergrity and authenticity even if it means risking (or choosing) the end of a relationship. And keep in mind, a rejection of your boundary is not a rejection of you.
3. The onus is on you to respect your healthy boundaries
There is freedom in a relationship with healthy boundaries. Boundaries are not a punishment but a kindness to you and those you love. When we see boundaries as something forcibly imposed on someone else, or as punishment, that’s when feelings of guilt or doubt or fear of rejection are amplified. But boundaries are for us and about us. Yes, they impact our interactions, and others may not like them, but if we don’t choose our boundaries for ourselves, we end up at the mercy of other people’s goals, needs, desires.
When setting an external boundary, you may find it helpful to think of the boundary in terms of yourself, not others. So instead of boundaries that sound like “you can’t…” or “you have to…”, try phrases like “I won’t accept…” or “I need…” or “When __ happens, I will…” Experiment with articulating your values this way and see how it feels.
No matter how kind you are, you can’t control other people’s response to your choices, or insist that they share your values, so the most effective, healthy boundaries are those that YOU can uphold. Erica Layne, says “Boundaries aren’t about expecting other people to honor them; they’re about creating the means for YOU to honor them.”
For example, my assistant has a boundary that she won’t accept anyone talking rude or belittling to her. So when a child or grocery clerk says something rude, instead of saying “You can’t talk to me that way!” she might say, “I don’t allow myself or others to speak to me that way, so either you need to change your tone or I will need to leave the room/take my business elsewhere.” She takes responsibility for changing the situation because her boundary is about and for her.
She shares another example: If my boundary is that I need to finish my coffee in the mornings before being asked questions or meeting others’ needs, I can set myself and my family up for success by first communicating my expectations and taking action to protect my boundary. I can set my alarm a few minutes early if necessary to wake before others or find a spot in the house with low traffic. When my children were young, that might have meant setting a granola bar and sippy cup of milk out and turning the tv to a show and volume that I allow my kids to watch as coffee is brewing and then retreating back into my quiet room with coffee in hand while they have a little pre-breakfast snack and watch a show.
4. If you don’t know what you need, you can’t expect others to know
First we need to clear on who we are and what we want and need and then we are able to clearly build and honour healthy and intentional boundaries. Start wherever you are, of course, but also keep getting to know yourself better, and re-envision the life you want. What are your core values? What kind of people do you want to spend your time with? What matters to you when it comes to the types of work you want to do? How much social energy do you have in this season of your life? What drains you? What fills you up?
When you are clear on your vision for your life and the amount of time, energy, and other resources you have to offer to your family and inner circle and beyond, your yeses and nos become clear (and by the way, you can learn to FEEL clear and strong Yesses and Nos in your body!). But when you don’t really know this about yourself, you might find that the third social outing of the week has you feeling exhausted and overwhelmed leaving you with no time for your priorities.
As you practice, you may start noticing clues of boundary violations or of a leaky boundary. For me, a clear clue is resentment. If resentment bubbles up in my life, there is a 100% change that I have some boundary work to do.
You have to decide what matters most to you in this season and why and then build brave and honest boundaries to protect those values, goals, or priorities. So if you need an evening walk at least five times a week to feel mind-body whole, then it makes turning down the invitation for yet another evening outing far simpler. Like bumpers at a bowling alley, your boundaries are there to keep you in your lane.
The Right People Will Love You and your Boundaries
If building healthy boundaries still makes you squeamish, then this might help: I’ve found that my favorite people have loved getting to know me through my boundaries and even love me for them, not despite them.
There is freedom in a relationship with clear boundaries and expectations. Boundaries are a reflection of our needs and values and people who care about you, will care about knowing those parts of you too.
And ultimately, as much as I care about community and feel deeply grateful for my inner circle of wise, compassionate, and growth-minded friends, I’d rather stand alone than stay, as Glennon Doyle writes, “in a room or conversation or relationship or institution that requires me to abandon myself.”