What does someone mean when they say “good boundaries”? It’s a phrase that’s tossed around a lot, and yet most people assume their boundaries are “good” and others’ are “bad.” Who gets to be the expert here? If you back up and consider how boundaries are used in other contexts, it will help you understand how to use them relationally as well. Sometimes a boundary is something very rigid, such as an egg-shell. It clearly protects that which is inside and makes a firm demarcation between the inside and outside that is not easily crossed without destroying the boundary. Other times, boundaries are more diffuse. Think of a picket fence around a home – the fence clarifies property, but you can still see beyond it, and even open the gate to enter without harming the fence. Relational boundaries are no different. In some situations, more rigid boundaries are required to keep your stability, integrity, and safety in tact, while other times it makes sense to loosen your boundaries in order to allow for the vulnerability required to form deep connections with others.
What happens, though, is that many people find themselves interacting with the world from only one or the other vantage point without showing flexibility depending on the given relationship or situation at hand. We’ve all met those people who after knowing you for all of 5 minutes will share about their medical problems, their money woes, and ask you personal questions that would make a reality star blush. And then there are others who keep people at an emotional arm’s length, even those who they are supposedly close to, not knowing how to admit to all the complexities and flaws of being human.
This post will speak more to the former. If you are one of those people who often finds yourself in the thick of relational drama, whose to-do list for others is a mile long, who repeatedly puts yourself in positions where you are taken advantage of, and who sometimes can’t even distinguish which emotions belong to you or others, then this post is for you. Let’s look at some tips for firming up your boundaries!
1) It’s ok to say no. For many people, especially women, the idea of saying no feels terrible. However, “no” is actually a primary purpose of a boundary. “No” says you can’t cross this line, because what’s on the other side belongs to me (be it my space, my time, even my body). Thus, it is incredibly important to practice saying no. Some tips for doing so:
a) Don’t be pushed to give an answer immediately
b) Remind yourself that saying yes to this means saying no to something else – check in with yourself about what you’re giving up to say yes (is it your exercise or creative time, time with your children or spouse, your sense of self-respect, etc.)
c) Be short and sweet with your reply. “No, I can’t do that” is sufficient, it doesn’t require a laundry list of reasons, or any apologies
d) Be open to compromise. Maybe this is something you really want to say yes to or it’s your turn to return a favor – see if there are ways to meet in the middle with someone rather than giving of yourself entirely on someone else’s terms
2) Choose your inner circles wisely. It feels so good to meet a new friend or colleague and form a super quick bond. There’s that magical sense of this person just gets me. And those types of quick, lasting relationships do exist! If you have one or more of them, be grateful. But don’t forget that time is also a teller of all secrets. And that it’s over time, with ever-deepening disclosures and need for support, that you come to know you can trust someone. That co-worker you spoke with so openly at lunch the other day may not guard your confidence as closely as his/her own desires to advance. And your new neighbor may pull away when he learns you’re under water on your mortgage. Or conversely, that neat person who was so open and interesting to talk with at first, may now be calling you daily with her “crisis du jour” and you didn’t mean to sign on to be her confidant. I’m not asking you to have people jump through unreasonable hoops, but it is important to make sure those closest to you have earned, not just been given, your trust. And earned trust takes time.
3) Helping versus needing to be needed. We all love people who are naturally compassionate and helpful, who step in to offer a word of kindness or support without immediate expectation for reciprocation. These are the people in our lives who appear to enjoy being kind. These are our saints. However, it’s really important to distinguish for yourself if you like to be helpful or need to be needed. Some people don’t know who they are or what to do with themselves if they are not always in a helping role – if this is you, watch out! There is a fine line between being a saint and a martyr. You may be on the fast track for emptiness and sky-rocketing resentment. If you find yourself constantly in the middle of other people’s crises, being called on in excess to the point that you are angry, or noting to yourself that you are the only one who can do something or the only one who gives of yourself, then it may be time to take a hard look at how you can do more for yourself and let others do more for themselves. If this is a deeply ingrained pattern, the help of a therapist may be valuable.
4) Two halves don’t make a whole, but two wholes make a great life. Many of us have bought into the romantic notion that another person can “complete” us (thanks, Jerry McGuire!). That where you are strong, he/she is weak, where you are practical, he/she is adventurous, etc. That you are somehow empty and less real without the constant attention and affection of another person. This is such a compelling story because it is basically the story of a newborn and a mother – and we never stop yearning to recreate it. However, between two adults, this story can be very dangerous. By depending on each other too much, by feeling ill at ease when apart even for short periods of time, by cutting off from other parts of yourself and your life, you and your partner risk losing the deep connection, passion, and vitality that makes a couple relationship so worthwhile. Challenge yourself to be a whole all on your own! Develop your personal hobbies, passions, and goals. Some of these you may do together, but some of them should be yours alone. This keeps you both going out into the world and coming back to share what you’ve learned and get excited about it together, rather than closing off the world into the little bubble you both live in that eventually either becomes stagnant or pops.
5) Kids need parents to be parents not friends. As a therapist I’ve worked with a lot of families, and one of the common problems that leads a family into my office is that the parents – albeit well-meaning – do not know how to let their kids be upset or dislike them. They are intent on seeming “cool” and being a kid’s friend. I’m certainly not advocating running your home like a military compound without the warmth and nurture and play that kids need to thrive! But kids also need limits. And they need to test your limits and know those limits are real. I often speak of the 3 C’s to parenting: clear expectations, clear rewards/consequences, and consistency in enforcement. I promise if your kid gets mad at you, it’s won’t last. And once an adult, your child will be so grateful to have grown up in a home where he/she learned that gentle and firm are not mutually exclusive concepts.
If some of these tips seem daunting, don’t be too hard on yourself! One could probably write a whole blog post (or book!) about each topic. Just take a deep breath, connect to your present moment, and ask yourself how you can embrace this moment with the balance the moment calls for. If you find it overwhelming to consider, you may seek the advice of a mental health professional.
All content owned by Amanda Bowers.