What are boundaries?
Boundaries determine where you end and other people begin. In enmeshed family systems or codependent relationships there are few, if any, boundaries. Without boundaries, there is no you.
In order to love yourself, you must know who you are. In order to know who you are, you must establish boundaries – you must clearly define the space you occupy in the world, and you must give yourself permission to reside in that space.
Setting boundaries is so much more than telling people “no” once in a while.
Boundary setting involves digging deep to identify who you really are, what you really believe in, and then establishing a protective barrier between yourself and others, to the degree you feel necessary for your own mental and emotional wellbeing.
This means that where you might allow certain people in, say your spouse or your children or closest friends, you may keep others at a further distance.
It is important to note that boundaries can change for the same person. When a child becomes an adult, the boundaries between parent and child must adapt in order for the relationship to remain healthy. If you go through a divorce, the way you relate to your former spouse needs to become entirely different than it was when you were married.
If one or both parties are unwilling to change the dynamics of the relationship, the relationship will become strained and possibly break.
(If you’ve never been divorced, this may seem like a strange thing to say. Isn’t the relationship already broken? Well, yes, the marriage relationship is over. But unless you are childless, one or both of you change all your friends and social connections, and you move across the country from one another, you will still have a relationship. It won’t be a marriage anymore, but you will have to figure out a new way of relating to each other.)
In order to maintain healthy connections, we must be willing to adapt our boundaries as our circumstances change. And we must seek out close relationships with those who approach boundaries similarly to ourselves.
Why are boundaries crucial for Redefining Love?
The first step in Redefining Love is truly and deeply loving yourself. You must realize that you have as much a right to take up space in the world as anybody else. You must draw a line around that space, and determine for yourself who you will allow into your life, and to what degree.
How do I set boundaries?
Speaking from experience, if you are a person who has struggled to set limits in the past, it can feel overwhelming to suddenly begin setting boundaries. The good news is you don’t need to start having big confrontations with everyone around you in order to set healthy boundaries.
In fact, if big confrontations are required for your boundaries to be taken seriously, it may be time to reexamine whether this is a healthy relationship for you to maintain – but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Step 1: Focus on what’s going on for you internally.
How do you talk to yourself? How often do you feel like banging your head against a wall and saying, “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” after someone has gotten the best of you once again, you’ve said yes when you really wanted to say no, or you didn’t speak up when you wish you had.
Can you laugh at your own mistakes, or do you beat yourself up about every little misstep?
You might be wondering why this has anything to do with boundaries. In truth, it has everything to do with boundaries. Here’s why:
If you don’t love yourself enough to talk kindly to yourself, how on earth are you ever going to love yourself enough to expect others to respect you and the space you take up in the world?
Those of us who came of age in the 90s watching Saturday Night Live are familiar with a character named Stuart Smalley, brought to life by comedian Al Franken (before he became a politician). The gist of the sketch was that Stuart was a therapist who encouraged self-love in his clients by talking to themselves in a mirror.
Usually, the person he was “counseling” was a giant celebrity who presumably had a pretty healthy self-image. Think Michael Jordan and Kevin Bacon. He’d face them towards the mirror and ask them to repeat the phrase, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
It was funny because we can assume that the people saying these phrases already were well aware that they were good enough, smart enough, and that people liked them. (Then again, maybe not. How often have you assumed someone else “had it all,” only to watch them fall apart?)
The Stuart Smalley bit was just comedy. But there is actually some good advice there. Before others can respect you and your boundaries, you have to treat yourself with respect. This means you need to dig deep and get really honest about how you’re talking to yourself.
Here’s a great exercise. The next time you find yourself beating yourself up about something, imagine that your best friend did whatever it was you are feeling crummy about. How would you respond to him/her? I’m guessing you wouldn’t call them stupid, or get angry and frustrated, or slap their forehead. So why are you doing that to yourself? Don’t you deserve just as much respect as the next person?
Be your own best friend. When you feel yourself slipping into self-abuse, remember that you are good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you!
Step 2: Take mental notes
If you are new to setting boundaries, you probably have gotten pretty good at ignoring your discomfort cues. In order to survive you’ve disregarded your own feelings to accommodate those around you.
Stop doing this! If something makes you uncomfortable, let yourself think about it. Sit in that discomfort for a little while. Figure out what about the interaction makes you uncomfortable. Do the person’s words feel hurtful? Do you feel as though they don’t respect your time and/or space?
Let’s talk about triggers here for a bit. Triggers are things that illicit a strong negative emotional response. We all have triggers. They aren’t something to be ashamed of. But we do need to be aware of them. Not only are they important for accountability – because left unchecked our triggers can bring out the worst in us – but it’s also important to distinguish between actual boundary violations and our personal triggers.
Just because someone really ticks us off doesn’t necessarily mean they are violating our boundaries. It may be that they are simply doing something that trips one of our triggers. In order to properly set boundaries, you have to be aware of your triggers.
As you can see, proper boundary setting requires a lot of introspection. Again, this is part of personal accountability, which is one of the Three Pillars of Redefining Love.
Step 3: Start small
Once you’ve learned to identify your discomfort cues, it’s time to take the leap into boundary setting. This can feel really scary and uncomfortable at first. That’s totally normal. Most people who struggle setting boundaries have been that way their entire lives, and probably had their lack of boundaries reinforced by unhealthy family, friend, and romantic relationships.
I recommend taking baby steps. Give yourself lots of grace, knowing that at the beginning of your boundary journey you’re going to fall back into old patterns at first. And, if you’re anything like me, your first attempts at setting boundaries are going to be defensive, angry, and/or timid. It’s all okay. You have to start somewhere.
Imagine it like learning to play the piano. Children who are taught from a very young age can pick up instruments much easier than an adult who never had exposure to music. It wouldn’t be fair to expect an adult with no music experience to sit down at a piano and play Beethoven. If you have reached adulthood with little or no experience with boundaries, it is unreasonable to expect yourself to be an immediate expert.
Start with something simple. Do you secretly hate hugs? Figure out a way to communicate this to others in a good-natured way. Be honest. Smile and say, “No thanks. I’m not a hugger.”
Are you always the person the PTA, church, and fundraisers call because they know you’ll say yes, even if you are frequently overwhelmed? The next time someone asks you to volunteer and you get that sinking feeling in your gut, take a deep breath, smile, and say, “I’d love to help, but I just have too much going on right now.”
Does this mean you’ll never be drawn into an awkward hug again? Or never get in over your head with volunteering? Of course not. When it happens, don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t maintain your boundaries. Just love yourself through it, learn from it, and move on.
Whatever you choose to start with, make sure it’s a reasonable expectation of yourself. For most of us, especially those who grew up in enmeshed families or have spent a long time in codependent relationships, setting boundaries feels downright scary.
Simply telling a pushy coworker you need to stop chatting so you can focus on your work makes you sweat! This is your fight, flight, or freeze response being triggered, because you believe that any conflict is negative and all boundaries are mean. Which leads me to…
Step 4: Reframe the picture
Let me clear the air here. You’re not mean because you set boundaries. In fact, setting boundaries is very kind. Wouldn’t you rather know how someone else is really feeling, and who someone really is, than wonder where you stand? The only people who don’t like boundaries are people who aren’t interested in really knowing who you are. Are these people with whom you want to be in close relationship?
A major part of Redefining Love is deciding with whom we want to share our whole selves. There is only so much of us to go around. Emotionally healthy people choose to share their whole selves with those who respect their boundaries, because their boundaries are essentially who they are.
You need to realize that if someone doesn’t respect your boundaries, then they don’t respect you. It really is that simple.
Setting boundaries is an act of love
Most parents know that it’s important for children to be told “no” once in a while. Since I believe that we are all growing until the day we die, we can all benefit from ongoing “parenting” from others. We are essentially all the village raising each other.
When someone sets a personal boundary for us, they are saying, “I love you enough to share my whole self with you.” How’s that for a compliment?! Instead of being offended by other people’s boundaries, we should feel flattered.
Once we have Redefined Love, setting boundaries becomes a lot less scary. Even though the other person may still not see it that way, within yourself you know that you are sharing your whole, honest self with the other person. And you don’t have to be angry, defensive, or aggressive about it because you are sharing an act of love.
Suddenly, telling your enmeshed family members that you are unable to attend an annual reunion becomes less scary. You love your family enough to be honest about your time availability and need for personal space, and you love yourself enough to take care of your own needs.
For those of us in deeply enmeshed families and codependent relationships, it can feel very foreign trying to figure out where you end and other people begin. If you are still having trouble figuring out what your boundaries should be, read The 20 Permissions of Redefining Love.
If you are experience physical or sexual abuse, simply setting personal boundaries for yourself is not enough. You need help! Physical or sexual violence is not because you haven’t set clear boundaries. In fact, it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the abuser’s need for power and control. Speak out to someone you trust, and keep speaking out until you are heard and you are SAFE.
Copyright © Redefining Love 2020.
The author of Redefining Love is not a licensed mental healthcare professional. The information included on this site is for general informational purposes only. For mental health questions or concerns, please reach out to a licensed mental healthcare professional.