Some of my greatest lessons in life have come through learning how to set boundaries. These have been great lessons because it is something I had to learn through experience. In my family, love meant co-dependence and enmeshment. My ability to feel safe, to be seen, to be heard was directly related to the lack of boundaries I was allowed to have. What was expected from me was to sacrifice my feelings and needs in order to make others ok. When I did not like what was happening I was told I was fundamentally wrong. As in, my character, my feelings, my personality was wrong.
The only time I was heard was when I expressed anger. I had to get really, really mad before my boundaries would be respected. Although it was quite effective, it was not healthy. I was the kid who was quiet and easy going. I let people walk over me until I would break. Breaking usually meant punching someone or getting into a physical fight. After the altercation I would be praised by my mom for being tough, but inside I felt bad.
To be honest I can't fully blame my family for not teaching me how to have boundaries. I'm not even sure they understood the concept of boundaries. Many of my family members are addicts and/or abusers. For them, family was supposed to be co-dependent; as in, it is your job to know my needs and take care of all of my needs, and enmeshed; as in, whatever I feel you must feel too. The less boundaries someone in the family had meant the more "good" and loving she was.
Growing up with these types of relationships made it hard for me to learn what healthy relationships meant. For the majority of my life I struggled with relationships, especially with females. I had no clue how to relate to other females. I thought that my friends were supposed to feel what I felt. I thought it was their job to rescue me and make me feel better. I thought love meant I had to be needed and I had to sacrifice my needs for the other. This set me up to attract a certain type of person. For many, many years I befriended women who were emotionally unhealthy. I attracted these women as much as they attracted me. I only knew how to relate to these type of women. They only knew how to relate to women who gave them all their attention and energy. Although these relationships were challenging and stressful it was comfortable. I knew what was expected of me and I knew how to keep them around. What I didn't know is how to relate to people who were healthy and had strong boundaries.
It wasn't until after my mother died did I really start to address these unhealthy dynamics. At first this meant I just didn't have friends. I came to the conclusion that if I couldn't have healthy relationships then I wouldn't have any. Although this was a lonely time it was helpful. It gave me some space to look at and address my behaviors and beliefs. It also gave me some space to learn some important parts of myself that I hadn't connected to yet. I spent this time reading self help books and working with therapists. This work brought me to the point where I thought I could attempt to be in friendship again. The people I attracted during this time were not as unhealthy, but they were selfish and self absorbed. It took some time to see this because one sided relationships were natural to me. Once I saw the dynamic I didn't understand why I was attracting this relationship dynamic. Looking back I can see that I still did not have healthy boundaries. I was still operating under the belief that I needed to be needed in relationships. That it was my job to make others "ok" at the sacrifice of my needs.
I again took some space from relationships to learn and change. I set the intention to understand, to heal and to change. Within a year after setting this intention I met one of my greatest teachers in boundaries. As fate would have it I attracted a very abusive/unhealthy woman who had an un-diagnosed personality disorder. Of all the friendships I ever had she was most like my mother. She expected me to drop my life in a instant to take care of her needs. She wanted my life to revolve around her. She treated me horribly and I let her. Every time I expressed my feelings she would twist them and use my vulnerability against me. I tried many times to set boundaries, but she never respected them. Not only did she not respect them she used them against me by shaming me and turning friends against me. No matter how hard I tried to have a healthy relationship with her, it just wasn't possible. This relationship highlighted my co-dependent tendencies in such a way I couldn't ignore it. I clearly saw how I was co-creating this unhealthy relationship. Once I understood my part in it all I decided in an instant to walk away. Without a notice I ended the friendship. I was saying no in a big way. This was pivotal for me because it was exactly what I needed to do. I needed to set my boundary of I will not tolerate anyone treating me this way, so I am leaving. This had to happen because my tendency was to give my all in hopes that the person would change. What I learned was she was not capable of changing and she did not respect me. I realized that it was not her job to respect me, I had to respect myself. I needed to learn that if a person can't respect my boundaries then it's time to walk away. From that moment on I knew I would no longer participate in abusive/co-dependent relationships.
After those 2 years I was changed. I had a deep lesson in boundaries. I clearly knew what I would accept and not accept. I was clear about the relationships I would allow in my life. I knew how to show up and respect myself. I learned that it was my job to respect my boundaries and verbalize them. I learned that it is not my job to make another person ok. I learned that if I set a boundary and it isn't respected then I can walk away. I have power, my power lies in my heart and listening to myself, my needs, and following that. My power lies in saying no, I will not tolerate this. My power lies in being honest and sharing from that place. I learned that no matter what another does it only affects me if I choose.
Boundaries are complex and to be honest I am still working with them. My boundary work still lies in not doing too much for another. Not allowing myself to get into unequal relationship patterns. The gift is, I can see when I am not being clear with my boundaries and I can quickly course correct. Because of this work I no longer attract abusive women. From time to time I still have to walk away from people who are unhealthy and that's ok.
Here are my personal lessons in boundaries
Having healthy boundaries means knowing and understanding what your limits are. Boundaries are essential to healthy relationships and a healthy life. Setting and sustaining boundaries is a skill that is either learned through experience or taught by healthy adults. So if you don't yet have healthy boundaries know that it can change. You hold the boundaries you were taught to hold. However, if you keep choosing to give up your power for love and friendship then you need to take responsibility for that and make a change.
Children who are raised as co-dependent are taught to put others' needs and feelings first. When a child is raised to do this she doesn't get the chance to know her self. Self is grounded in other and the other's well being. Co-dependent children don't have rights. These kid's body, feelings, actions, and needs are not their own. These are decided on by an unhealthy adult. They are taught that setting boundaries jeopardizes relationships, so they have not learned how to say no or stop or I will not allow that. Any kind of abuse violates personal boundaries. In some cases, boundary violations affect a child's ability to mature into an independent responsible adult.
Anger often is a signal that action is required. If you feel resentful or victimized and are blaming someone or something, it might mean that you haven’t been setting boundaries. If you feel anxious or guilty about setting boundaries, remember, your relationship suffers when you’re unhappy. Once you learn how to set boundaries, you feel empowered and suffer less anxiety, resentment, and guilt. Generally, you receive more respect from others and your relationships improve.
Types of Boundaries
When learning about boundaries it's important to understand there are several areas where boundaries apply. This list was found on psyccentral.com.
- Material boundaries determine whether you give or lend things, such as your money, car, clothes, books, food, or toothbrush.
- Physical boundaries pertain to your personal space, privacy, and body. Do you give a handshake or a hug – to whom and when? How do you feel about loud music, nudity, and locked doors?
- Mental boundaries apply to your thoughts, values, and opinions. Are you easily suggestible? Do you know what you believe, and can you hold onto your opinions? Can you listen with an open mind to someone else’s opinion without becoming rigid? If you become highly emotional, argumentative, or defensive, you may have weak emotional boundaries.
- Emotional boundaries distinguish separating your emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s. It’s like an imaginary line or force field that separates you and others. Healthy boundaries prevent you from giving advice, blaming or accepting blame. They protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s negative feelings or problems and taking others’ comments personally. High reactivity suggests weak emotional boundaries. Healthy emotional boundaries require clear internal boundaries – knowing your feelings and your responsibilities to yourself and others.
- Sexual boundaries protect your comfort level with sexual touch and activity – what, where, when, and with whom.
- Spiritual boundaries relate to your beliefs and experiences in connection with God or a higher power.
How to build boundaries
Here are some ideas about how to start building boundaries. This is not complete because boundaries are complex and every person has different needs and boundaries.
Know who you are. This might take some time. If you don't know what makes you feel good and what doesn't, it's time to start spending more time with yourself. This also might be a good time to re-evaluate all your co-dependent relationships and release some of them so you can start developing a relationship with yourself.
Once you have a good idea of who you are, name your limits. Identify your material, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits. Consider what you can tolerate and accept and what makes you feel stressed, uncomfortable or unsafe.
Tune into your feelings. Feelings of anger, discomfort guilt, and resentment are signs that boundaries are being crossed.
Be direct. With some people, maintaining healthy boundaries doesn’t require a direct and clear-cut conversation. Usually, this is the case if people are similar in their communication styles, views, personalities and general approach to life. With others, such as those who have a different personality, you’ll need to be more direct and clear about your boundaries.
Give yourself permission to put yourself first. When you do this, your need and motivation to set boundaries become stronger. This helps you to recognize the importance of your feelings and honoring them. These feelings serve as important cues about your well being and about what makes you happy and unhappy. Putting yourself first also gives you the energy, peace of mind and positive outlook which in turn helps you to be more present with others.
Fear, guilt and self-doubt are big pitfalls when learning to set boundaries. We might fear the other person’s response if we set and enforce our boundaries. We might feel guilty by speaking up or saying no. Many believe that they should be able to deal with a situation or say yes because they’re a good or easy going person. These same people are likely to walk away from a situation feeling drained or taken advantage of. This is a sign that your boundaries are not in tact. Practice self-awareness by listening to your feelings and honoring them. If you notice yourself not able to maintain your boundaries ask yourself why. What are you doing or what is the other person doing? What is the situation bringing up in yourself that’s making you resentful or stressed? Consider what you are going to do about the situation. What do you have control over?
Think about the people you surround yourself with. Are the relationships reciprocal? Is there a healthy give and take?
It's important to know that setting a boundary doesn't mean the person will respect them. We, the boundary setter actually have to follow through to make sure they are respected. It’s important to communicate with the other person when they’ve crossed a boundary. In a respectful way, let the other person know what in particular is bothersome to you and that you can work together to change it.
Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of self-respect. So give yourself the permission to set boundaries and work to preserve them.