“You need to set healthy boundaries.”
Seems like we hear it from every self-help guru, therapist, and life coach. They tell us that boundaries will give us more freedom and improve our relationship with others.
The question is, what exactly is a boundary? And how does one enforce a boundary without feeling selfish or creating an awkward situation? Especially when it comes to close friends and family. If you’ve ever had these questions you’re not alone.
We recently spent time with Shauna Roberts of Bridges Counseling Center in Roseville, California. Shauna is a licensed therapist with years of working with individuals and couples. We asked her about setting and enforcing healthy boundaries hoping to unravel the mystery.
WHAT IS A BOUNDARY?
A boundary is comprised of a physical, mental and an emotional limit that we set in our social sphere or out in the workplace or in our family dynamics that keeps us safe. A boundary will help us define our self and how we want to spend our time and energy.
SIGNS OF HAVING NO ESTABLISHED BOUNDARIES?
If we don’t have healthy boundaries, what tends to happen is you derive your sense of worth from others. You start to morph in and out of whatever other people think and feel.
Common are feelings of being angry, tired, undervalued, and worn down. You feel that you’re basically doing everybody’s life for them. You lose your sense of self.
Specifically are feelings of resentment. If you are feeling resentful, you need to do a quick check and say: ‘Where are my boundaries? What’s happening with my boundaries? Do I even have any boundaries?’
HOW TO SET BOUNDARIES
First you’ve got to identify what the behaviors are. What are the actions of the people around you that are not acceptable? You have to be clear on that. You may be feeling resentful and upset and you have all of these feelings, but you got to identify who, what, when and where.
Second is now you’ve got to give yourself permission. You have to believe you and your time are valuable enough to say ‘here’s my boundary line.’ You’re important and you’re valuable and it’s okay to set a limit. You’re not selfish.
Once you set your boundaries remember they don’t have to be set for the rest of your life. Boundaries are fluid. They change with the context of your life. Be prepared to shift boundary lines as situations or relationships evolve. Given context and timeframe you may want to readjust your boundaries when needed. Don’t be afraid of this.
WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF BOUNDARIES
Let’s take the example of a young, newly married couple in their first home, and living in close proximity to the husband’s mom and dad. To this point the young wife has had a great relationship with her nearby in-laws. Suddenly these in-laws start making unannounced visits. Just kind of showing up. That progressed to — they had a key to the house.
The wife would come home, mother-in-law had done the laundry, cleaned the house, bought the groceries, etc. And the wife started to feel this was very invasive. So the she sat down with her husband and they identified what was acceptable and what was not acceptable. So identifying that behavior. The wife felt awkward because she didn’t know how her husband was going to react, but he was very supportive.
The couple agreed: scheduled visits; no key for mom and dad anymore.
Then they did maybe the hardest part of the process which was sitting down with the in-laws and saying, “Here’s how we’re feeling. This is not about us being mean, this is not about us pushing you away. This is trying to establish our autonomy. We ask that you respect these boundaries and here are the parameters.”
There was some push back in the beginning. There was some little bit of hurt feelings but in the end, the in-laws were totally onboard, understood and were completely supportive.
The takeaway is if the wife hadn’t given herself permission, if she had been resentful and angry, what do you think would have happened to that relationship with her in-laws? It would have disintegrated. And maybe sooner or later that could have spilled over to her relationship with her husband. “Why don’t you see this? Why aren’t you stepping up for me?” So they have this really healthy discussion. She was terrified, quite honestly, to bring this up, first to him and then to them. But it was a beautiful ending because she gave herself permission to set a boundary, to believe in herself and to know “This is me, this is what I need.”