Navigating Healthy Boundaries
Lately, it seems like everywhere I go people are talking about boundaries. Whether it’s a matter of setting them, shifting them or respecting them, “healthy” boundaries are always the goal. But what are boundaries, anyway? Are all boundaries healthy? And my biggest question as a recovering people-pleaser: how do you set boundaries?
I decided to reach out to Cardea AuSet’s Instagram community and gather insight from some inspiring thinkers and researchers (hi, Brene Brown!) for tips on how to incorporate boundaries into my everyday life. If you’re like me and you’re learning to set, shift and respect your boundaries — or you just need a refresher — these tips are a great starting point!
People have a hard time voicing their needs for countless reasons. Maybe their needs were overlooked as a child, maybe they were the mediator in their family, or maybe it wasn’t safe to voice them growing up. It’s important to acknowledge that, whatever the reason, we were adapting to our settings in the best way we knew how in an attempt to protect ourselves. As we’ve gotten older, these tendencies become harmful to our ability to create healthy meaningful relationships — that’s where the unlearning comes in.
The foundational concept I learned while researching boundaries is that we’re all responsible for our actions. Not having the words or capacity to communicate boundaries, might help explain the reasons our needs weren’t met but it doesn’t justify physical or emotional abuse or any other mistreatment. People who have gone through these kinds of toxic relationships often don’t voice their needs because they’ve been told that they are fundamentally flawed and their needs don’t matter over and over until they begin to believe it themselves. When I first started to work through feelings like this, I wrote affirmations (ex. “you’re allowed to do things your own way”, “your opinion is valid”, “you deserve to be yourself”, “you deserve to own your narrative”) as a reminder to myself that other people’s’ treatment of me said more about them than it did me. Nobody deserves to be purposely mistreated, and the difficult first step is believing we’re worth the energy it takes to establish healthy boundaries with the people in our lives.
I’ve heard boundaries described as an elevated version of that old saying “treat people how you want to be treated” because, in reality, we should treat people how they want to be treated. Setting boundaries is ultimately about teaching people how to treat you and if it isn’t intuitive, it can be hard to get into the habit of doing it. Here are some tips to help guide you.
Use sentence prompts.
It sounds cheesy but practicing sentences before you say them can help train your mind to recall those phrases when the time comes, especially if you get nervous during conflicts. Practice saying “When you [action], it made me feel [emotion]. Next time, could you please try [action] instead?” in front of a mirror with past scenarios that are likely to resurface.
2. Start slowly.
As I’ve been learning, it’s helped me to start with small things like speaking up if a restaurant gets my order wrong or asking people to pronounce my name properly. As I became more mindful of the many ways boundaries shaped my life, I also started to notice other people’s boundaries and how it felt to interact with them. More often than not, I was happy to comply to people’s boundaries which helped me realize that my boundaries aren’t a burden on other people, so most of them are probably just as happy to comply with mine!
3. Don’t play offence.
This is a hard one, especially if you come from a place where your boundaries were dismissed as unimportant. In the beginning — especially if you haven’t voiced this need before — try not to approach the conversation expecting the other person to dismiss you. It’s okay to feel upset and honour your emotions while setting boundaries but try to come from an optimistic mindset.
4. Trust your intuition.
Even if you haven’t had a lot of experience voicing them, deep down you know what you need or don’t need and what you like or dislike. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re overreacting or being unreasonable. Phrases like that are attempts to test the strength of the boundary you’re trying to set. People don’t need to be happy about your boundary, but emotionally healthy people will respect it.
I think the most exciting thing about boundaries is their fluidity; they can soften as your relationships grow. Think about a child’s right to privacy: as they get older, they’re usually able to assert their independence to do things like using the bathroom by themselves or keeping a private diary. It’s up to both parties to negotiate the new terms of the boundary while considering each other’s needs and comfort levels.
On the flip side, hardening boundaries with people who have crossed the line is more difficult. For people who have a history of reacting defensively or disrespecting you, the best tip I’ve learned is to communicate to them that this change in their behaviour is what you need to feel respected; that it’s your attempt at continuing a relationship with them. Again, emotionally healthy people will respect your boundary.
Other people’s respect for your boundaries has been a key theme throughout this topic but this step is about respecting yourself. At the end of the day, nobody deserves to be mistreated, disrespected or neglected, and you don’t have to accept it. That’s not to say you’ll never experience it, but as Dr. Nicole LePera says, “we cannot stop others from crossing our boundaries, but we can choose our response”. I know first-hand that enforcing firm boundaries with someone you care about can be painful. You can acknowledge and understand the reasons why someone can’t respect your boundary without tolerating it. Whether it’s disconnecting with them completely or interacting in very limited circumstances, it’s completely reasonable to feel a desire to explain yourself or apologize, but I think in these moments of guilt or loneliness the best thing you can do is turn your care and compassion inwards. Boundaries aren’t about punishing or controlling the people around you, they’re about protecting your well-being.
As Erin Klassen of Vault Zine wrote in a recent editor’s letter, “I strive to set boundaries and protect my energy so that when I am whole, I can give generously.” If people in relationships — romantic, platonic, familial or otherwise — have the power to be honest about their boundaries and respectful of each other’s, both parties are more likely to feel heard and the relationship is more likely to be healthy and sustainable.