FAQ #3: Establish Healthy Boundaries
Understanding the Importance of Boundaries
In our continuing series of the 10 most Frequently Asked Questions on the Pursuit of Identity and Purpose, Healthy Boundaries comes in at number three.
Many people struggle with boundaries; I know most of us do. We want to be good people, we want to be friendly people, we want to help everybody, and we want to do everything for everybody. Especially if you’re struggling with your identity and values, it’s tough to say ‘No’ to people, which is a boundary.
Boundaries are an essential part of your self-awareness, your self-health, and wellness. Being able to say no and defining where you’re comfortable and where you’re not is a significant part of living a healthy and fulfilled life.
Boundaries, whether physical, principal, or emotional, serve an essential purpose. They do the purpose of protecting us. All boundaries have that in common; they are set forth to protect us and our interests.
The Misuse and Erosion of Boundaries
They protect us from abuse and can do that in many different ways. This boundary discussion fits in with the ongoing talks we’ve been having about self-care and being able to take care of yourself.
If you haven’t yet watched the video or read the post about self-care, I recommend that you do that now and return to this post, as this is the follow-up to that discussion.
Okay, let’s get right into it. The problem I see that many people have with boundaries is they will ask me, “How do I set good boundaries?” “Give me some step-by-step process.”
Setting Effective Boundaries: The Role of Values and Emotional Needs
Well, setting boundaries isn’t necessarily a tricky thing. The problem with most people’s boundaries is two-fold: First, they set random, arbitrary boundaries based on their current emotional state. If someone pisses you off, that’s it; that’s a boundary. I’m not going to let you do that to me anymore. They try to use boundaries as punishment or punitive payback for something someone did to them.
That’s a misuse of a boundary that won’t last very long.
Then also, because that boundary was set in an emotional state, when their mood wanes, they forget about the boundary and don’t hold or reinforce them consistently. Those boundaries either erode, or the offenders learn to wait until they can ignore or re-violate the boundary.
I think that’s why a lot of people have trouble with boundaries. They don’t know what’s a reasonable boundary, they don’t know what’s a sound basis for a boundary, and they don’t know how to enforce their boundaries.
Values and Needs Before Boundaries
What I recommend for you is this, you need to put boundaries aside for a minute until you read or watch FAQs #1 and #2, because an effective boundary is based on your values and your emotional needs. If you don’t know your values and emotional needs, then you’re just setting boundaries on superficial and transient offenses.
Without knowing your values and emotional needs (the things that matter), it will be near impossible for you to set effective boundaries.
Take, for example, if one of your values is Honesty. Many people like to set boundaries around honesty because being lied to or deceived hurts, especially in close personal relationships. But if honesty is truly important to you, answer this, what are your values around honesty?
Can you think of any right now? Has anyone ever lied to you? Of course, they have. What was the outcome of that exchange? Did you express your feelings to them? Did you let them know that it’s important to you not to lie? Probably.
We tend to say those things, but do you have a boundary established around that personal value? I would say probably not.
What you have is an emotional response when someone violates one of your values to which you say, “Oh, you just violated my boundary.” (Too late)
That introduces the next challenge around boundaries: your boundaries are your responsibility. It’s not our responsibility to ask, learn, or know someone else’s boundaries.
Your Responsibility: Defining, Communicating, and Protecting Boundaries
It’s our responsibility to define, establish, communicate, and defend them with some consequence.
Many people in recovery have a leg up on the rest of us when it comes to establishing and understanding boundaries because they have very distinct and precise boundaries around certain behaviors and environments. They’re very aware of the consequences of being put in certain situations and protect themselves from XYZ substances or XYZ environments. They know that crossing that line will lead to problems for them.
Recognizing Offenders and Taking Action to Protect Yourself
They also understand that not everybody has the same challenges with substances that they do, and therefore they do not expect that all drugs and alcohol on the planet be removed for their benefit. Instead, they understand that recognizing the violations is incumbent on them. If they cannot influence the environment, they remove themselves from the situation and remove the offense.
So, we must know our boundaries, communicate them to others, and then protect them. This doesn’t mean to make the rest of society conform to our needs, but to be able to recognize when you’re in a situation or have a specific person in your life who continually violates a boundary or an expectation that you take action to protect yourself.
Boundaries as Declarations of Authenticity and Self-Preservation
It’s your responsibility to fix that situation, not the other person’s. Boundaries aren’t set to change other people’s behavior or penalize people for inadvertent transgressions. Boundaries indicate that someone (or thing) is habitually violating one of your tenants and that it’s time for you to take action.
The most crucial characteristic of boundaries is that they should be set and based on protecting your nonnegotiable personal values and emotional needs. And when you decide to protect them, you clearly define, communicate, and follow through on those limits.
Strengthening Boundaries: Knowing Your Values and Emotional Needs
Crossing a boundary, whether inside-out or outside-in, triggers you to take action, not for you to impose your will on others for them to take action. Ask yourself some simple questions: What’s important to me? What do I need to protect? Who do I need to communicate this to?
There are probably offenders in your life right now who are routinely violating your boundaries (we can discuss renegotiating relationships another time) to whom you need to be able to stand up and say, “You know what, I’m not Okay with this anymore and therefore I’m removing me from that situation/relationship/whatever.”
Not as a threat or a manipulation but as a declaration that you can’t be around this type of environment or behavior for you to be true to yourself and live your authentic life. Or it’s a more passive (internal) realization that you need to have different people in your life who don’t rechallenge that boundary repeatedly.
That’s the big stuff on boundaries. You must know your values and emotional needs, or your boundaries will be weak and probably very superficial or circumstantial.
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