“You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.” ~ Tony Gaskins
There isn’t a relationship in life that doesn’t require healthy boundaries for it to function happily. If you think about it, the whole of life is based on relationships. The flowers have a relationship with the soil, the sun has a relationship with the moon, we have a relationship with our bodies, our money, our significant other, our pets, even with the doorman at the building we live in and so on.
The boundaries and parameters for each relationship are different and are unique to the type of relationship at hand. This is probably why boundaries can get complicated as we navigate and negotiate relationships every day of our lives.
Learning to set healthy boundaries can be messy
Over the many years I spent on my personal growth and healing, boundaries have been one of the more challenging areas of life. I am, not only a recovering co-dependent, but a naturally giving person. As I got to know myself better my need to learn how to negotiate boundaries in a win-win way had increased.
It took a lot of practice and mistakes (some embarrassing) to get to a place to communicate what I needed without having an anxiety attack. I barked boundaries at people and squealed like a 2 month-old puppy when people didn’t immediately start doing what I asked them to do. It makes me cringe to think about it now. Yet, I know that without forgiving the mess of the initial practice, I couldn’t have arrived where I am now. I know that I am better at boundaries from decreased emotional stress in my life. During my messy practice period, I have found a handful of tried and true perspectives on setting and living with healthy boundaries that might offer you some insights.
Boundaries can’t guarantee that we will be treated fairly by others
This may be hard to accept but it’s true. Boundaries are the guidelines we ask people to follow if they want a safe, connected and joyful relationship with us. We can be assertive and kind as we set boundaries and hope for these boundaries to be honoured. However, since we can’t control what others do and how they respond, a guarantee of respect is not always possible.
The reason is simple: we can’t manipulate others into doing what we want and still feel connected to that person on a deep, honest level. True intimacy is at the opposite end of manipulation, guilt-tripping, punishing and passive-aggressive behaviour. Boundaries help create a safe platform for intimacy and connection to happen naturally.
Things to remember when learning to set boundaries
- Setting boundaries does not mean that we stop caring about the other person, it just means that we care about our own emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. It is very possible to make a boundary without closing your heart to the person involved. The boundary is for the behaviour, not to the person’s essence or worth. You’re not shutting them out, you’re just teaching them the best way to treat you for you to feel loved, respected and connected. The boundary says no to a behaviour or an attitude, not to the person’s essence.
- When setting boundaries, we have to be willing to let go of taking care of the other person’s feelings. It’s nearly impossible to simultaneously set a boundary and protect the other person from getting upset or feeling hurt. It is very likely that the other party will not high-five you for bringing in new rules to your interaction.
- It is normal to feel discomfort, fear, guilt or even shame for setting boundaries and asking for what you need- especially in the earlier stages. Accept that as a part of the process and don’t let your currently not-so-perfect methods to discourage you from growing.
- Expect to get tested when you set new boundaries. It is not always because the other person is resenting you for the new boundary but sometimes it’s because they are used to the old pattern they had with you. As human beings, we don’t like change. We sometimes test it and see what we can get away with. Stay persistent and be prepared to follow through by making sure that your behaviour is congruent with the boundary you have set with them.
- Boundaries go both ways. Some other person may set boundaries with you that you may not like. It would be very helpful to train yourself to respect the boundaries of others despite the emotions it may bring up such as fear of loss of connection, feeling shut out or abandoned. Tell yourself that only this person knows what they need in this moment. It does not mean that they love you any less. Consider that when they feel safe and see that their boundaries are honoured, they will feel more inclined to move closer to you to connect again-this time, with more trust.
- Do not count on others to respect your boundaries even when restated several times. If someone is unwilling to respect your boundaries, then take it upon yourself to respect your own boundaries by removing yourself from that environment for as long as necessary. Sometimes there is a comeback for this fall out, sometimes not. And that’s perfectly OK.
How do you know you need to set boundaries?
• You find yourself feeling resentful, angry, rehashing the experience with friends without getting any real relief from the sharing.
• You find yourself feeling reluctant to engage or connect with that person again.
• You feel stress in your body as you think about them or about an interaction you had with them.
• You find it difficult to be yourself around them or start shrinking in their presence or during necessary interactions.
Setting boundaries we need offers many rewards
Feeling angry because a boundary that we didn’t know we had had been broken is perfect self-knowledge to build on. Self-love is about self-knowledge. We cannot love ourselves without knowing ourselves. Our awareness and work around boundaries give us critical information about what makes us tick, smile or frown. This information essentially adds to our happiness if we honour it and make requests from others that support us in our pursuit of happiness.
We also feel better about ourselves when we learn how to set boundaries, we get more in-tuned with our authentic needs, increase the level of honesty and intimacy we share in relationships, as well as expanding our emotional options. Essentially, boundaries create the safety we need to show up as we are and still feel close to the people we care to engage with. This is the reason why learning how to set boundaries is a crucial skill to develop and with some care, compassion and patience, we can enjoy the relationship connections we desire without drama and conflict.