Relationships get a lot of attention this time of year. Galentine’s Day (February 13), Valentine’s Day (February 14), Single Awareness Day (February 15)…there’s even a Love Your Pet Day (February 20…though isn’t that really every day?). For this month, we’re going to focus on ways to strengthen the different relationships we have.
When I work on relationships, one of my favorite places to start is boundaries! I don’t think they get enough attention. When we talk about improving relationships, a lot of focus is on giving, compromising, and trying new things. All of these things are good but unless they’re paired with healthy boundaries, they can actually damage your relationship and sense of self.
What Exactly Are Boundaries?
A boundary is a limit or space between you and another person – a clear place where you begin and the other person ends. Or as Brené Brown defines it in her book Rising Strong, boundaries are “simply our lists of what’s OK and what’s not OK.” Boundaries are what you feel comfortable with and what you don’t. Everyone’s boundaries will be different. Your roommate may be a super social person that has friends over every night of the week. You may prefer only to socialize on Friday and Saturday. That’s OK – that’s your boundary. Healthy boundaries protect you and your relationships.
Boundaries apply to a lot of different elements of our lives. Physical touch, emotional connections, sexual interactions, money, personal space, possessions, and time are all areas that are protected by our personal boundaries.
What Type of Boundaries Do You Have?
Healthy boundaries are consciously built. Unless you’re actively tending to them, it’s possible they’re out of whack. Here are the different types of boundaries – do you recognize yourself in any of these categories?
Not Enough (Porous)
I TMI. ALL. THE. TIME.
I have a hard time saying “no.”
I’m often over-involved in other people’s problems.
I’m really dependent on the opinions of others.
I accept abuse and disrespect, even though I don’t like it.
I’m scared other people won’t like me if I don’t agree with them.
Too Much (Rigid)
I avoid emotional intimacy and close relationships like the plague.
I don’t ask others for help.
I don’t have a lot of close relationships.
I’m super protective of my personal information.
I sometimes come across as detached.
If I’m being honest, I keep people at a distance because I’m scared of rejection.
Just Right (Healthy)
I value my own opinion
I don’t compromise by values for others
I share personal information, but I know my limits on when and how much.
I know what I need and I know how to share that with others
It’s OK for other’s to say “no” to me.
Most people have a mix of boundaries depending on the relationship and environment. You might have healthy boundaries at work but have porous boundaries with family or romantic relationships.
How Do I Assert My Boundaries?
This is a HUGE question! There are lots of different ways to go about it and everyone has their own style. Here are a few starter tips to get you going.
Know Your Boundaries
To enforce your boundaries, you first have to know what they are! If you haven’t had a lot of practice with boundaries, this step can take some time.
Your first clue will be what your physical body. We usually have physical reactions to boundary violations, like feelings of dread or panic. Your stomach might drop or clench in a knot. You might start feeling shaky, antsy, or panicky. You may cry or go numb. Look for tense muscles, headaches, fatigue, or nausea. A big red flag is avoidance. If you find yourself avoiding a person, place, or situation, it’s usually a big indicator that a boundary is at risk for violation.
Give Yourself Some Space
Once you’re able to notice these changes in yourself, the next step is to give yourself physical and emotional space. You need to understand what is happening and you can’t do that with others pushing you for commitments. We’ve all made decisions we regretted because we felt pressured by the moment. Creating space for yourself will help you avoid such situations.
Excuse yourself from the room. Say you need time to think and will return when you feel ready. Turn off your phone. Once you’re alone, consider the following questions:
- Am I OK with what is happening? Why or why not?
- What feelings do I have right now? Be specific and colorful: pressure, fear, violation, pain, panic, loneliness, etc.
- What am worried about or afraid of?
- Is what is happening a reflection of my values and goals?
- Are expectations being put on me that I don’t want to accept?
- What do I really want to do?
I strongly encourage you to write these thoughts down. Our minds move fast – writing forces us to slow down and really think through our emotions. As you do so, your genuine feelings will become clear. A thought or statement will surface that embodies your wishes and boundaries. People describe it differently, like feeling “something click” or “the light turn on.” As you practice, you’ll become more familiar with what it feels like for you.
Communicate Your Boundaries
Once you know your boundaries, share them with others. Again, there are many ways to go about this. Here are a few common techniques.
Use “I” Statements “I” statements are a great way to assert your boundaries in a non-threatening way. An easy formula to use is:
“I feel ____________ when ____________ because __________. I need ______________.”
For example: “I feel overwhelmed when you want to talk right after work because I’m tired. I need 30 minutes to unwind.” (Definitely not something I’ve been told 😉 )
Get Comfortable Saying No This can be a difficult skill to learn. There are gracious ways of saying no, such as, “That sounds really fun but I’m busy tonight. Let me know next time!” or “I can see the appeal but that’s not for me.” Don’t feel like you have to give excuses or explain your reasoning. “No” is really all you need to say. Anything after that is extra.
If you want to be really eloquent, you can use one of my favorite line from the incredibly verbose TV character, Dr. Fraser Crane:
“At Cornell University they have an incredible piece of scientific equipment known as the tunneling electron microscope. Now, this microscope is so powerful that by firing electrons you can actually see images of the atom, the infinitesimally minute building blocks of our universe. If I were using that microscope right now…I still wouldn’t be able to locate my interest in [insert request here].”
Broken Record Technique Most people will respect your boundaries once you communicate them. However, if you’re dealing with someone who continues to push after you’ve said no, you can use what is called the Broken Record Technique. Think of an old vinyl record stuck on repeat – that is how you respond to someone who isn’t taking no for an answer. Using the same words, without changing, elaborating, or explaining them, simply repeat your boundary over and over again.
Emerson: So, did you change your mind about tonight?
Chloe: Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m going to stay home tonight.
Emerson: Come on! It’ll be fun!
Chloe: I’m sure it will be, but I’m staying home.
Emerson: Please? I really want you to come.
Chloe: I’m staying home tonight.
Emerson: Seriously, though. You need to come.
Chloe: I’m staying home tonight.
Emerson: OK, fine. Be that way.
Repeating yourself without elaboration forestalls further discussion and continually reinforces your main message. It may feel uncomfortable, especially if you want to justify your decision. Stick to your guns, though! It’ll work out!
Good Boundaries Make Good Relationships
Setting up healthy boundaries takes practice, time, and trial and error. Considering reaching out to a therapist for assistance. Working on boundaries is a common topic in therapy, we’ll have plenty of ideas for how to move forward!
Best of boundary luck during this relationship season!
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