Life Coaching Tip: Although many of us were taught otherwise, clear boundaries are vital in healthy relationships. Establishing boundaries is something you do for yourself AND others to improve your relationships, not punish anyone… although it may feel uncomfortable at first. It’s a true act of self-love and self-care.
“You’d be proud of me Tracy; I was mean to him like you taught us.”
Hold up, what? I sat in disbelief as I listened to my client, Tina, explain in a group I was facilitating that she did not take medication to her adult son who had the flu.
It was 2012 and I was working in the community mental health field at the time, facilitating support groups for people who have loved ones living with mental illness.
Tina (not her real name), was a kind, compassionate human who had a lot on her plate. She worked two professional jobs, was married, and had three adult children struggling with various mental health symptoms.
When she first contacted me, she was overwhelmed and exhausted, running around taking care of everyone’s needs but her own. She was juggling a range of emotions from feelings of resentment to empathy for her children, and heaps of guilt on the rare occasions she said “no” to one of them.
The concept of setting boundaries was foreign to Tina, who grew up in a family that had few, and so we started with the basics. Clearly, from her comment, we still had lots of work to do!
“Okay Tina, I think I need to clarify a bit more. I am not encouraging you to be mean to anyone, especially not your children,” I told her.
“Boundary setting is something you do for yourself AND your children to improve your relationships, not punish anyone… although they may not see it that way. Your needs are your primary responsibility, and when you put everyone else ahead of you, it feels draining. And the guilt and resentment you are feeling is causing you to want to avoid your family altogether, right? Setting healthy boundaries is one of the most loving things you can do for them and yourself. It’s definitely not mean.”
As a person looking in from the outside, it seems obvious that not only was Tina’s lack of boundaries harmful to her mental and physical health, but it was causing a co-dependency that was preventing her adult children from being independent.
And although it seemed obvious from the outside, it’s often not that way when you’re in the thick of it.
I’m sharing this with you today because I don’t think Tina’s situation is unique. Many of us (including me) were taught that it’s impolite to say “no” to anyone. From an early age, we learned that it’s selfish to consider our own needs, and it’s our duty to fix other people’s problems, no matter the circumstances.
And so, here’s what I want you to know…
Boundaries are an important ingredient in healthy, balanced relationships. They’re also a vital part of maintaining your mental health, physical well-being, and identity.
So, what exactly is a boundary?
A boundary is an action or thought practiced by people to feel safe, secure, and grow.
The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines a boundary as “A real or imagined line that marks the limits or edges of something and separates it from other things or places, a dividing line.”
Just like a fence around your property can protect you from dangers in the environment, boundaries are like an invisible fence that provides a sense of safety and self-protection.
As you set boundaries, you decide your personal physical and emotional limits that align with your values, needs and desires. It’s a genuine act of self-love and self-care.
*Clarify expectations and individual responsibilities in your relationships.
*Separate your needs, thoughts, emotions, and desires from those of others.
*Reduce codependent habits and emotional enmeshment.
*Allow you to regulate and meet your own needs and desires, providing a sense of empowerment, independence, and self-respect.
*Safeguard your physical and emotional comfort and protect you from exploitive people or systems.
*Help you to fully show up as yourself and learn to trust your inner voice.
In contrast, relationships without healthy boundaries can be anxiety-provoking and overwhelming. They can be toxic and lead to dysfunction where people’s needs are being trampled upon and safety in the relationship feels compromised.
If you have a tough time communicating your needs and desires, or if you easily compromise your values and opinions to satisfy others, then you may want to work on this as we move into the holiday season. Fortunately/unfortunately, you’ll likely have lots of opportunities to practice:)
When you set a boundary, you’re teaching other people how to treat you. If you’re not sure where to begin, start small and be direct about what you are wanting or needing.
Feel free to test drive some of these …
*My plate is full right now, and so my answer is no.
*I’m not able to help with that right now.
*I appreciate the offer, but I’m not interested in participating.
*I need more time to think about it, but I will get back with you.
*No, that doesn’t work for me.
*I don’t like the way I’m being spoken to, and I won’t tolerate it.
*We can talk about this later, now is not the right time.
*I am willing to discuss this when we can be calmer about it.
What do you think? Does this give you the heebie-jeebies?
Listen, it’s understandable if it does. It’s going to feel uncomfortable for a while. But don’t give up! You’re going up against a lifetime of old patterns and beliefs! It will take practice, for sure, so be patient with yourself. Eventually it will get easier and will be worth the initial discomfort.
Imagine how it will feel to look forward to the holidays and spending time with your loved ones, without the anxiety producing worries of how you will deal with “that” relative once again.
While you can’t control other people, you can set boundaries to help you feel safe and secure in their presence. It will be good for your family, and more importantly, good for you. You deserve to enjoy the holiday too!
You’ve got this, my friend!