Boundary work is one of my favorite subjects.
My rock-solid belief is that living a life with healthy boundaries leads to greater joy, fewer resentments, and more compassion all the way around. I also know that many people, myself included, were not raised with healthy boundary-setting skills. The truth is, most of the people that find their way to counseling offices, treatment centers, and support groups have had their boundaries violated in the past, have violated other people’s boundaries, have violated their own boundaries, and generally don’t know what it feels like to really experience healthy boundaries in relationship with others or with themselves.
It is impossible to have or understand healthy boundaries without a solid sense of Self, and without healthy boundaries, there is no solid sense of Self. These two bits are twistily intertwined.
If you’re thinking, “oh, geez. I’m a lost cause.” Rest easy. You’re not. Here’s the other thing that I want you to hear: You can learn to build healthy boundaries, and through the process of learning and practicing, you will be developing a solid sense of Self at the same time.
Let’s break this mess apart a little. (You’ll notice I use lots of “I” statements. I invite you to do the same.)
First, what does it mean to be well-boundaried? Great question. Here’s a simple answer: I am well-boundaried if I know my Truth and am able to communicate that Truth with others in a respectful, appropriate, value-based way. My Truth contains: my values, needs, priorities, wants, and preferences in the moment. It includes my Yesses and my Nos. My Truth is ABOUT ME, and so are my boundaries.
The first step is to get in touch with my Truth – my values, needs, priorities, wants, and preferences and recognizing that these things are all changeable in the moment at least to some degree. I need to be conscious and in the present moment as often as possible. For me, this level of consciousness takes a lot of practice. I use mindfulness meditation, breathwork, yoga, dance, journaling and art to process and track my Truth.
Try this: Have a seat and take a few deep breaths. Ask, “what is my Truth right now? What are my values, needs, priorities, wants, and preferences in this moment?” Pay attention to how you feel in your body as you do this. Your body will tell you if you’re on target, if you have truths that bring you suffering, and if your truths really belong to you. Truths that are yours (and are healthy) are those that leave a sense of space and comfort in the body. Truths that bring suffering and those that actually belong to someone else tend to make the body feel constricted, pressured, or tense. These need further reflection and evaluation. Remember, your Truth is your Truth. You get to choose what sits under your Truth umbrella.*
Be sure to write down what you learned.
The next step in developing healthy boundaries is learning to communicate your Truth with others (including that deep, often critical, sometimes wimpy, scared Inner Self). I think of boundary communication as having 3 parts.
Boundary Communication Part 1: I learn to communicate my Truth to others in a value-based way. I learn to say, “yes, this is okay (good, great, wonderful, healthy, safe) for me,” and “no, this is not okay (bad, awful, scary, unsafe, dangerous) for me.”
Often, making these statements for the first time feels scary and uncomfortable, so part of the process is simply being willing to get outside the comfort zone to practice. Many people are more comfortable being walked on or moved through than they are standing up and stating their own Truth. If you are one of those people, it’s okay. Honestly. AND. Get support! I mean it. Find others who are practicing being well-boundaried or connect with a therapist, counselor or coach who can help you chart the way.
Boundary Communication Part 2: I learn to discern between garbage that I can toss out and gems that will contribute to my growth when others communicate with me.
Let’s say someone calls me a REALLY MEAN NAME. Part 1 tells me that I get to let them know my preferences regarding HOW they communicate with me. When I engage in Part 2, I evaluate the message underneath the communication style to see if it has meaning for me. Was I behaving poorly? Was I being disrespectful? Did I cause harm? If so, is there an action I need to take as an amends? If not….if the REALLY MEAN NAME and the emotion behind it had absolutely nothing to do with me, I get to let it go. I don’t have to own it. This applies even when the person who called me a REALLY MEAN NAME was my own inner critic.
Boundary Communication Part 3: I become aware of how I violate other people’s (and my own) boundaries both consciously and unconsciously and replace those behaviors with more respectful, healthy and appropriate communication methods.
The best way to approach this step is to listen to feedback from the people in your life. They may tell you directly and respectfully, or they may communicate emotionally in ways that feel painful to you. Be willing to listen to all of it, applying Part 2 when communication is emotionally driven. Here’s a short list of how we might violate boundaries (including our own – I might be a broken record, but this is important!): Abuse of any kind, rescuing/enabling, yelling, giving the silent treatment, cursing at, gossiping, stepping into physical space without consent, answering for, nagging, making decisions for, pushing for a yes or other positive response, telling someone how they should feel (whether it’s good or bad), making assumptions, telling someone to get over it, or invalidating someone’s thoughts, feelings or beliefs. There are more. See if you can think of some that apply to you.
That was a lot, I know. Boundary work has many moving pieces.
It’s important to remember that for most of us, learning to live a well-boundaried life is a journey. It takes commitment and practice. We must stay awake, because if we allow ourselves to run on autopilot, we’re more likely to fall into our old patterns. The work isn’t easy, but it is so worth it, Friends. Good boundaries lead to more energetic space for the things, people, and experiences that we WANT to have in our lives.
*Parents and Ancestors, Religion, Peers, Society, and Culture are all sources of Truths that may or may not belong to you in your life now. These Truths may be causing you harm OR you may have moved in a new direction.
The original article, published on September 6, 2019 at OndHealingandCoaching.com, has been edited by the author, Tara Moorman, for publication on this website.