How do we keep an open, loving heart, while also protecting our own well-being?
‘Healthy boundaries’ is a term I only became familiar with in my thirties. Becoming aware of the whole concept of ‘boundaries’ was a revelation for me, particularly when I realised that all my years of struggle, depletion, exhaustion, overwhelm, and anguish had been because I didn’t know that I was allowed to – and supposed to – have boundaries. I had always allowed the needs and desires of others to dictate my life.
Somewhere along the way I had learned that it was not OK to put myself first; that it was more important to meet the expectations of others, and underneath all that… I felt that I was not worthy of putting my own needs first. I was so busy trying to be what I thought others wanted me to be that I actually didn’t even know what I wanted or needed – let alone have the courage to take a stand for that. Needless to say, that was not a joyful way to live.
For the past five years or so I’ve been learning, albeit slowly and at times not so successfully, how to set boundaries in my life.
Sometimes I’m really tuned in and I can take a stand for myself and my needs. And it feels great when I’m able to do that. To my surprise, those around me adjust quite easily when I’m able to communicate my boundaries effectively and lovingly. And it usually does them a favour too; it helps us all avoid situations that are likely to cause stress and tension when strong, clear boundaries are communicated and protected.
It feels empowering to set a boundary and have it respectfully met.
But there is definitely an ‘art’ to setting and maintaining healthy boundaries and I’m still learning how to do it. Unfortunately just last month, on a holiday with extended family, I experienced again what it’s like to let my boundaries be crossed and to lose control over my well-being because of it. There are some situations in life that we know are going to cause stress and tension. When we willingly put ourselves in those situations without clear and healthy boundaries, it’s guaranteed to cause trouble. My step-father calls those situations “putting your hand in the mincer”. That’s what I did last month, again – ugh.
Why did I willingly put myself right in the middle of a tense and predictably difficult situation? I think because I had naively hoped that maybe this time things would be different; that maybe by now we’ve all moved on enough to be able to handle things differently. But childhood wounds run deep. Despite our best intentions to stay grounded and unaffected, certain family members can trigger us right back to our six-, ten,- or fifteen-year old self and before we know it, we’re behaving just as if we were that age again. If we haven’t been able to work through past family or relationship conflicts through therapy or fair, open discusssions with each other, there’s always going to be residual pain in the relationship, just below the surface.
Unless both parties have been able to work through the issues to the point where unconditional forgiveness is possible on both sides, the relationship will remain strained.
I’m a big believer in always looking at our own role in conflicts and trying to understand how/where things have gone wrong in the past and where we can do better next time. We need to try to understand what we can personally do differently and how we can be more effective at preventing stressful situations or conflicts in future. Perhaps there’s a difficult conversation we need to have to resolve an issue. Or maybe we need to work on our own preconceptions and judgments about other people and cultivate more loving acceptance within ourselves towards others. And yet sometimes we just need to accept that no matter how much we wish and hope that certain relationships could be different, the reality is that the most difficult ones may never change.
It takes two people to build a bridge, and if only one is committed to working through the emotional pain to find resolution, the bridge will never be whole.
We need to learn how to make peace with that and instead of always trying and wishing we could change things, the challenge instead is to learn how to manage these situations more effectively.
How do we know if our boundaries have been crossed?
Psychologist Dr. Dana Gionta says that we can recognize when our boundaries have been crossed by tuning into our feelings. There are two key feelings that are red flags or cues that we need to enforce more healthy boundaries:
If someone or a situation is causing you discomfort or feelings of resentment, Dr. Gionta suggests asking yourself “What is causing that? What is it about this interaction, or the person’s expectation that is bothering me?”
Dr. Gionta says “resentment usually comes from being taken advantage of or feeling unappreciated. It’s often a sign that we’re pushing ourselves either beyond our own limits or because we feel guilty (we want to be a good daughter or wife, for example), or someone else is imposing their expectations, views, values or judgments on us.”
In all these cases, we’ve let the other person’s needs, expectations, views, and judgments interfere with our own values and priorities.
Protect Your Boundaries by Checking Your Personal Engine Light
The way we feel around someone else can also be a big cue to strengthen our personal boundaries. Life coach Britt Bolnick says you should always “check your personal engine light” when you’re around different people. How does it feel in your body when you’re with someone? How does it feel in your mind? How does the presence of this person affect you? Imagine that your body is like a car, with a dashboard full of warning lights. You have your very own “check the engine” light for your personal boundary system. Your feelings are a security warning that your personal energy field has been breached, and you’re letting in stuff that isn’t yours. This is exactly what I unwillingly allowed this past holiday; I was letting in all kinds of ‘stuff’ that wasn’t mine to take on. My personal boundaries were weak, unguarded or unclear, and I was giving away my personal energy unconsciously.
So how do you set stronger and more ‘healthy’ boundaries for yourself?
Here are five tips and strategies that will help you protect your emotional well-being in difficult situations.
1. Know your limits
You can’t set healthy boundaries if you don’t know what your limits are. What is it that you need to protect yourself physically, emotionally and mentally? What is it that knocks you off-centre or leaves you feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, resentful or just plain irritated? What are you able to accept and tolerate, and what are the things that make you feel uncomfortable and stressed? Dr Gionta reminds us that feelings of stress and discomfort help you identify what your limits are.
2. Make self-care a priority
By making self-care your priority, it means you’re giving yourself permission to put yourself first – the first critical step to setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. When you recognize the importance of your own feelings and honour them through prioritizing self-care, “your need and motivation to set boundaries becomes stronger” says Dr Gionta. She says putting yourself first also gives you the “energy, peace of mind and positive outlook to be more present with others and be there for them”. And we all know that when we’re in a better place, we can be a better wife, mother, husband, colleague or friend. If I haven’t made the time to do my yoga or swimming workout, I can become quite the grumpy mum and wife! No one benefits from me not taking care of myself and my needs.
3. Be assertive
Dr Gionta says that even though you know intellectually that people are not mind readers, you still often expect others to know what hurts you. But since it’s most likely that they don’t know, it’s important to find a way to communicate clearly and effectively what you need from any interaction or situation. Being up-front about your needs and expectations and being able to communicate them clearly means there’s much less room for stressful situations to arise.
In the past, I’ve sometimes been a little hurt by someone else’s assertiveness when fiercely protecting their own boundaries (and that was possibly because at the time I didn’t know that I was worthy of asserting my own boundaries), but afterwards I was often grateful for their assertiveness because when everyone’s expectations and needs are clear, it avoids all kinds of uncomfortable situations.
4. Practice makes perfect
Communicating your boundaries assertively is a skill and takes lots of practice. I’ve been practicing for years now and given my recent difficult experiences I realise I’m still far from getting this right. “Setting boundaries takes courage, practice and support. It’s a skill we need to practice and master” says Dr Gionta. But it’s worth taking on the challenge to change, because when we’re able to set up and maintain our own healthy boundaries well, it’s a great feeling.
5. Ground and protect yourself as preparation for maintaining boundaries
Life Coach Brit Bolnik talks about using the technique of grounding to help maintain your boundaries. I’ve been practicing this one lately and it really helps. I love the way she describes grounding: “Grounding is akin to the way a tree sinks her roots into the earth to stay secure in a storm. It’s the first tool in creating healthy boundaries – nurturing a connection with ourselves, our centre. When we’re grounded it keeps us from being blown around in other people’s winds. It gives us a way to focus and still ourselves to connect with our heart and our intuition. That’s what keeps us steady and connected and focused. There are as many ways to ground as there are people. I like to take five minutes to actually imagine my root system connecting me into the earth, like a giant oak tree”. This simple oak tree meditation has really helped me stand my ground and stay centered around people who tend to knock me off centre. I’ve started building this into my daily practices.
It’s impossible to avoid all difficult situations entirely. But when you know you’re about to enter one, take a few minutes to ground yourself and then imagine breathing a bubble of protective energy or light around you. Think of it as space that will only allow in love and positivity and deflect anything else. Really see it and feel the force of it around you. This really works too if you believe it does.
Healthy boundaries are all about getting to know yourself and your needs intimately. It’s about developing enough self-esteem to know that you are worthy of setting and maintaining your own boundaries.
FInd out what is that you need to stay centered and balanced; know the things that maintain your sense of well-being and comfort and fiercely protect those things. Don’t let other people’s expectations or your own naïve hopes stand in the way. If you’re not sure whether a certain situation will ruffle you, take the safe route and build in measures to protect yourself anyway. This is not selfish or unkind; it’s essential to avoiding stress and tension for everyone involved.
So dig deep, have a chat with yourself and find out what you need to stay happy, balanced and grounded. And let me know if you have any breakthroughs in the comments below!
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In service to helping you live your brightest life,
Global Career Coach for Thriving Professionals
Inspired Careers International