Boundaries: it's one of the greatest troublemakers and best problem solvers of our time. And healthy boundaries is a concept that's become quite buzzworthy. Yet, it's a concept that's misunderstood and a practice that's not practiced enough.
First, let's put some definition to what boundaries are.
Boundaries are physical, emotional, and mental, none of which can be separate from your energy.
Boundaries are parameters identified by you that allow you to feel ok. Saying yes when you really mean no doesn’t feel good. This is where passiveness, resentment and unreliability breed.
Boundaries keep you safe physically.
Boundaries can be too rigid just as they can be too loose.
Becoming clear on what your boundaries are may take time to identify, and they most certainly will change over time.
How do boundaries connect with health?
Let's start with the example of saying yes when you mean no. There are many possibilities that could happen in this situation.
You may overextend yourself and use energy you didn't have, letting sleep or other essential self-care slip.
You took on someone else's need or desire only to neglect your own.
Saying yes means you have to say no to something else, which, I'm guessing so far, is probably pretty hard for you to do.
If you avoid saying no, it's likely someone else or something else is going to suffer as a result. Ditching a friend and hurting their feelings or getting behind on work, for instance.
Saying yes when you mean no can lead to resentment, which may lead to blaming others for the problems your choice resulted in.
Would you want someone to help you who didn't really want to be doing it?
There's a belief connected with this inability to say no, and whatever this belief is, is a repetition that's giving instruction our cells to act accordingly, eventually manifesting into a physical pattern that mirrors the subconscious thought. This can result in symptoms that are unique to an individual, such as digestive issues, thyroid problems, or back pain.
Lack of boundaries most always results in anxiety. When you are asked to do something you don't want to do but believe you can't say no, that'd make a person feel a lot of emotion, wouldn't it? I can picture the adrenals revving, releasing stress hormones to get ready for the fight or flight and all the biological mechanisms essential for survival. Your body can't tell the difference between a boss and a bear.
Often times, people will be in a state of anxiousness fearing the moment a boundary could be pushed, because it's simply become second nature. And that state of anxiousness keeps the nervous system on edge, ready to react, and the adrenals are kept in a constant state of hormone release. When hormones become excessive, bodies can go haywire.
What do appropriate boundaries look like?
It's going to be different from case to case, and it's definitely going to vary from one person to another. There is no one-size-fits-all because we each have entirely unique life experiences that shapes what we want, what we like, and what we can handle.
In the case of saying yes when you want to say now, here are some examples of what an appropriate boundary might be:
"Lia, would you like to take the lead on gathering volunteers for the school's fall festival in October?" -Moe
"Thanks for asking, Moe. I have a lot going on over the next month and won't be able to give this task the time and attention it deserves." -Lia
"But you did such a great job with it last year. We need you, Lia!" -Moe
"That's so kind of you to recognize. But volunteers are essential to putting the festival on, and I don't want to do drop the ball and put the event at risk. Why don't you talk to Maya? She has expressed interest in getting more involved lately." -Lia
In this situation, Lia navigates a request, and another request that dismisses her initial no. She offers another solution to help, but offering help in other ways isn't always necessary. Here's another example.
"Mateo, I have this brochure that needs to be designed right away!" -Tina
"When do you need it completed by?" -Mateo
"Two days from now. I know it's a big ask, but we had bottlenecks in other areas, and we absolutely need this to be done ASAP." -Tina
"I have a couple other upcoming deadlines, and I wouldn't like being a bottleneck for someone else. One of the projects is for your team. If that one can wait to be finished until next week, I'll be able to fit this in. Would that work for you?" -Mateo
"Nope, that one is essential right away, too!" -Tina
"Unfortunately, I won't be able to get to this brochure until next week, then." -Mateo
In this situation, Mateo offers a possible solution alongside his no. When that doesn't work, he states clearly to Tina that he is unable to help, allowing her to be responsible for solving her problem this time around.
Making change to the way people expect you to be can be hard. Making change to the way you've always done things can be really hard. Especially if it's paired with guilt or shame. Here are a few questions that can help you start to establish what your boundaries are:
Notice what feels good and what doesn’t.
Take it a step further. It might feel good to help out a friend, organization, committee in need, but when you get past that mental construct, will it still feel good? Or, will you feel guilty for backing out of another commitment, not giving time to your own projects, missing out on time with children or loved ones? Will you feel burdened by the extra responsibility? Will you feel stressed?
Do you say yes or agree to avoid conflict or hurting someone’s feelings? Do you agree because it’s what you believe you “should” do? Because it’s the way things have always been? Ask yourself WHY you avoid expressing what you truly want.
Do you have enough energy right now to follow through, or do your body and mind require more rest?
How do you feel emotionally when engaging? Does anger, resentment, insecurity, fear, pain, etc. arise? “I’m always picking up everyone else’s slack.” This thought is a clear indicator that you’ve got some work to do with boundaries. If emotions that don't feel good to you arise, this is a clue toward what your boundary is at this time.
Begin to express what your boundary is. Because boundaries can be a bit edgy, because we live in a culture that isn't used to No, it's perfectly ok to offer explanation with why your boundary is what it is. It's also great to offer something that does work for you, if that is true in the situation. For example, "I notice you often check your phone while I'm talking, and it makes me feel like I'm not good enough. It'd feel great for me if you stayed fully present while we're in conversation."
Exploring your Struggles with Boundaries
Notice the thoughts that accompany the situations that test your boundaries. What is that voice inside your head telling you? This is a goldmine when it comes to understanding what gets in the way of establishing your personal boundaries.
I don't want to be mean.
I feel rude.
I should be able to accomplish all that.
People will think I'm incompetent/stupid/unreliable/lazy.
I'm afraid to lose my job/relationship/status.
I'm afraid something bad will happen.
People like me don't get to say no.
I'm a failure.
Identifying the voice of the inner critic can help you get to the root of where these beliefs stem from.
Lack of boundaries are often a result of situations in childhood. For example, a parent could have discounted your feelings and emotions consistently, controlled your time, or became disproportionately angry when you made mistakes. In addition, physical and sexual abuse and emotionally abusive patterns can lead a child to believe that in order to be loved, to not be rejected or abandoned, they must do as they’re told, rather than do for self.
Boundaries are essential, and it’s up to you to determine what works for you, what doesn’t, and communicate these to people you interact with. Setting boundaries might feel harsh (another indicator you’ve got work to do!), but boundaries absolutely can be set in a compassionate way.
Beginning in March, I'm offering a year-long program called Presence Practice. Each month we'll meet as a small group in Grand Rapids and cultivate practices that contribute to better boundaries while stripping away the stories that disable healthy boundaries. Over the course of the program, you'll increase your skillsets while strengthening your ability to fully and confidently embody yourself. You can read more about Presence Practice here, or let's schedule a call to talk more about how Presence Practice will serve you.