THIS AFTERNOON I pondered the subject of boundaries and all the ways boundaries serve us in life, both professionally and personally. Boundaries are, in essence, the lines that mark where the emotional and physical space of one person ends and another begins. They are invisible borders over which we should not cross without permission. We can have strong, healthy boundaries, weak boundaries, or overly rigid boundaries.
Like any fence, boundaries protect and take care of the “territory,” the Self within. To this end, boundaries delineate our sphere of responsibility and personal space. When we have strong, healthy boundaries, we know our limits; we can say yes or no to others’ requests, based on what we know we are or are not willing to do, and we don’t mind when others say no to us. We have a strong sense of identity and respect for ourselves as individuals. We don’t tolerate disrespect or abuse. We are able to communicate our own needs and feelings clearly, and at the same time, we understand that we are the only ones responsible for our own happiness and success. We stand, calm in the storm of demands and sometimes manipulative behaviors of others around us. Healthy boundaries are like friendly, white picket fences between neighbors.
Weak boundaries are more like fences that have fallen down. We once knew, perhaps, where our property lines were, but we’re no longer really sure. We have difficulty saying no to requests, a tendency to over-commit to others and then resent that commitment. We get emotionally involved in other people’s business and have a difficult time separating our own issues with those of others. We have trouble saying no for fear of rejection, are people-pleasers, and rarely have time for ourselves. Perhaps we are even wishy-washy, unable to clearly communicate a no or a yes.
Rigid boundaries are like high walls, built as a defense against invasion. People with rigid boundaries often say no reflexively, as a way of avoiding emotional involvement with others and the possibility of hurt or rejection. They rarely ask for help and tend to work in isolation. They may feel that they are the only ones who can do something “the right way” and reject others’ ideas and ways of seeing things.
For most of my life, I had weak boundaries, taking on too much commitment and feeling responsible for others feelings and lives. It has only been over the last ten years that I have been able to develop a clear sense of self and to set healthy limits, clearly delineating my sphere of responsibility.
Healthy boundaries are important to healthy relationships with ourselves, family, friends, and professional relationships. Where do you think your boundaries fall along the spectrum from healthy to rigid? If you recognize that you have overly rigid or wishy-washy boundaries, what can you do to create healthy ones?
- Value and respect yourself—your time, your feelings, your desires, wants, and needs. When you value yourself, you will not allow yourself to agree to things that are not in your own best interests, and you will be less open to manipulation by others. When you write in your journal, write about the ways you value and respect yourself and the ways in which you don’t. Explore ways to strengthen your sense of self-worth. What would inspire and excite you? Write about why you deserve to be and do all that you desire to be and do.
- Set flexible boundaries based on love and compassion, not fear. Both weak and rigid boundaries are based on fear. Weak (or nonexistent) boundaries occur when we fear disapproval so much that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for others in order to “keep the peace.” We say yes when we should say no. Rigid boundaries occur when we fear hurt, manipulation, or abuse so much that we say no, even when saying yes would be in our own best interests. Healthy boundaries, on the other hand, are based on respect and love for self and others. We are able to set clear boundaries, and we may also temporarily set those boundaries aside as an act of charity or for a greater common good. Write a short list of three to five clear boundaries you can set, with a sense of compassion for self and others.
- Define your moral values and refuse to agree to anything that would go against these values. People who have unhealthy boundaries may end up saying yes to things they don’t feel good about doing, things that go against the grain of their moral values. For this reason, it’s important to understand your own values and to respect them as essential boundaries. For example, if you value honesty and a friend asks you to lie for her—and she may even have a compelling reason for her request—respecting your personal values will require you to say no. With healthy boundaries, you will be able to say no clearly and with compassion. Write about times where you’ve crossed the lines of your own boundaries by doing things for others that compromised your personal values. Now, write about times where you’ve held your ground firmly, yet compassionately. What were the end results in each of these situations and how did you feel?
- Use your feelings to help define your boundaries. Whenever someone makes a request, imagine saying yes and then notice how you feel. Then, imagine saying no and notice how you feel. If, after imagining a yes, you feel warm, a sense of relief, or excitement, then saying yes may be the appropriate answer. If, however, you feel a contraction or tightening in your solar plexus region, a constriction of your chest, or any increased tension, saying yes may not be the correct choice. When you imagine saying no, do you feel relief? Like a burden has been lifted from your shoulders? Then perhaps a no is the right answer. Think about a request that someone is making of you. It could be someone at work, at home, or a request to volunteer your time or money for a good cause. Write about how you feel when you say yes. Then write about how you feel when you say no. Which feels better?
- Ask others for help when you need it. People who have built the high walls of rigid boundaries often have a difficult time asking for help. People with healthy boundaries recognize that reciprocity and shared responsibility is a part of healthy relationships. When you feel that you don’t have the skills to do something correctly, or feel overwhelmed by a task, asking for help and/or delegating a part of the work may be all that you need to do to restore your boundaries. Write about how it is for you to ask for help. Is it easy or difficult for you? Are you able to ask for help in a balanced way, without attempting to manipulate through guilt? What do you need help with right now?
The old proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors,” has managed to survive centuries for a reason: it holds the truth that well-defined boundaries are good for you and everyone you interact with. This is a subject I will continue to explore and write about in my life, and, if you think you will benefit from doing so, I encourage you to do the same.