Boundaries from the Inside Out – Part 4 (of 4)

» Posted in Family Life, Marriage and Relationships, Personal Growth | 0 comments


Hopefully after reading this four-part series, you are realizing how core boundaries are to your health, well-being and relationships.  In fact, setting healthy boundaries is an essential component of respecting and caring for yourself, and conversely, respecting others’ boundaries is critical to healthy, thriving relationships.  Hopefully as you’ve read Parts One, Two and Three of this series, you’ve also taken the time to assess the health of your relationships so that you know where you need to make some much-needed changes.

Before outlining the principles of setting healthy boundaries, there are two potential pitfalls to avoid on your road to mastery:

Boundary setting is an ongoing process you must persist with beyond simply taking the first step to establish your personal limits.  This is where many people say, it doesn’t work, because they fail to keep trying and standing strong against the pressure to give in, especially when they’re dealing with boundary crashers.  This is especially difficult when your boundaries are fluid:  although you may have taken the step of setting a boundary, you may be easily swayed by people who want to crash through your boundary. The temptation will be strong to compromise your boundary to make the other person feel happy, as well as to protect yourself from the other person’s anger or relieve your feelings of guilt.  But giving into a boundary crasher’s demands has a downside for both parties.  You’ll feel disappointed and guilty because you’ve betrayed yourself by sacrificing your well-being to make someone else happy. And repeated compromise also results in the boundary crasher never learning to be truly self-sufficient and responsible for themselves.

The second pitfall to avoid is the opposite of the first, where you are so militant about protecting your boundaries that you turn them into brick walls.  This can happen with people who’ve been badly hurt by others.  Boundaries aren’t meant to be walls that keep everyone away. They are a way to reinforce values that you don’t want others to violate. Militant boundary protectors sacrifice real intimacy in order to feel safe.  But unfortunately, these walls keep out the very thing that could help them heal – the love and support of others — while keeping in the pain and the hurt that doesn’t have a chance to resolve because of those walls.

Healthy, intact boundaries fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  To be effective, they must be strong enough to provide consistent protection.  But they must not be so impenetrable that the love, nurturing and support of others can’t reach you.  If an area of your life is badly damaged, you may initially need a strong boundary that keeps people far away because you need the space to heal.  As you heal, you can begin to use softer boundaries that let people closer to the area of hurt.  If this is you, you may find it helpful to work with a qualified therapist or life coach who can assist you in your journey of healing.

Successfully addressing boundary issues involves a variety of steps:

Believe that you have a right to personal boundaries.  You not only have the right but you must take personal responsibility for how you allow others to treat you.  Your boundaries are the safeguards in your life that determine what is acceptable to you and what is not.  They protect and define you, and they communicate clearly to others what your limits are.  It’s also important to recognize that other people’s needs and feelings aren’t more important than your own.  We’re called to love our neighbour as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39) – not more and not less.  We are of equal worth in God’s eyes.

Get rid of the obstacles.  It’s critical to identify and deal with the fears that fuel your boundary issues.  Is it a fear of rejection?  Disapproval?  Others’ anger?  Guilt?  How you were raised along with your role in your family can become additional obstacles in setting and preserving boundaries. Without this very crucial work, learning the mechanics of setting boundaries will be ineffective and only produce temporary results.

Know your limits.  You can’t set good boundaries if you’re unsure of where you stand.  So identify your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits.  Consider what you can tolerate and accept and what makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed.  The clearer you define your limits to yourself, the more you will know when it’s time to set a boundary.

Pay attention to your feelings.  Notice especially the red flag emotions of discomfort or resentment, which can often be indications that your boundaries have been violated in some way.  Assess the intensity of your feelings to determine whether an action is warranted, but before doing anything, ask yourself:  What is causing this feeling?  What is it about this interaction or the other person’s expectations that is bothering me? 

Be direct in communicating your boundaries.  When you identify the need to set a boundary, do it clearly, preferably without anger, and as concisely as possible. Don’t justify, apologize for, or rationalize the boundary you are setting.  And don’t argue!  Just set the boundary calmly, firmly, clearly, and respectfully.  Don’t be afraid to tell others when you need emotional and physical space. Allow yourself to be who you really are without pressure from others to be anything else.  And know what actions you may need to take if your wishes aren’t respected.

Learn to say no.  Many of us are people-pleasers and bend over backwards trying to accommodate everyone else.  We don’t want to be “selfish” and so we end up taking on too much or agreeing to things that may not be beneficial to our own well-being or consistent with our personal values.  If this is you, change your fall-back position to being “no”, or give yourself whatever time necessary you need to think about the request and to check with someone you trust who can hold you accountable.

Expect push-back from others.  When you set boundaries, you must be prepared for some backlash.  Many people don’t like change, but that doesn’t mean that you should back down.  Expect that you will be tested, especially by those accustomed to controlling you, abusing you, or manipulating you.  Plan on it, expect it, but be firm.  Remember, your behaviour must match the boundaries you are setting. You can’t establish a clear boundary successfully if you send a mixed message by apologizing for doing so. Be firm, clear, and respectful.  And deal with the consequences calmly.

Let go of toxic relationships or situations.  Most people are willing to respect your boundaries, but some are not.  Be prepared to be firm about your boundaries when they are not being respected.  Communicate to others that you want to be in relationship with them, but only if they treat you with respect.  But if after several attempts to set boundaries, the person is still unwilling to change, be prepared to walk away.  In extreme cases, you might have to involve the police or judicial system by sending a no-contact letter or obtaining a restraining order.  And also be willing to walk from toxic situations such as your job or church if your boundaries are consistently being violated.

Get support from others.  Guidance and support from a third party can be extremely beneficial as you practice your new skills. Some people, especially those who have suffered trauma or struggle with addiction, may find that help from mental health professionals is particularly beneficial.  And make sure you develop a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries, who can help cheer you on as you take these steps forward.

Start small.  Like any new skill, assertively communicating your boundaries takes practice. Many people who attempt to learn boundary-setting techniques on their own discover that frustration and confusion are common side effects.  This is not surprising, as breaking these lifelong patterns involves learning to interact with the world in a completely new way.  Start with a small boundary that isn’t threatening to you, and then incrementally increase to more challenging boundaries.  Give yourself lots of grace when you mess up, and celebrate every small success.

Take care of yourself.  Remember to take responsibility for your own emotions and well-being, rather than expecting others to do it for you.  Take care of your side of the fence, and let go of your need to control or be responsible for their side of the fence.  Be assertive in stating your own needs and don’t expect others to read your mind.  And steer clear of any manipulative strategies to get your way or to make others take care of you.

At first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty, awkward or embarrassed when you set a boundary. Push yourself to do it anyway, and remind yourself you have a right to take care of yourself. Setting boundaries takes practice and determination. Don’t let anxiety or low self-esteem prevent you from taking care of yourself.

Remember, you won’t be able to set a boundary and take care of someone else’s feelings at the same time. You are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundary you are setting, but only for communicating the boundary and responding to them in a respectful manner. If others get upset with you, that is their issue. If they no longer want your friendship because of your boundaries, then you will probably better off without them. You do not need “friends” who disrespect your boundaries.  You will likely find that as your boundary skills improve, you will lose some “friends” but you will also be better able to make healthy, new friendships.

Setting healthy boundaries allows your true self to emerge – you will find a greater sense of freedom and joy as you become the person that God created you to be, as you stop worrying about what others think, and as you become more clearly defined in your sense of identity.  I know it’s hard work, but I promise you, it will be worth it!

I hope that you’ve found this series on boundaries helpful.  If you have any questions or want advice on how to handle your personal situation, please click on the “Contact” button at the top or else the “Ask Dr. Lin” widget on the right side of the page.  Or feel free to submit a comment to this blog.


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