Learning to take care of myself and meet my own needs was the first step in having a healthy relationship with myself. Once I understood myself better, I could define where I ended and others began. This was a critical step before being able to be in a healthy relationship with someone else. Having developed an excessive focus on others and outside conditions to define my identity, I had to free myself of the influence I allowed them to have on me. My task felt Herculean – to stay on an even keel even if other people were mad, sad, or even glad.
In my search for healthy relationships, I have found an amazing tool for disentangling myself from other people’s thoughts, feelings, opinions, attitudes, and advice: boundaries. What are they? I define them in several ways.
Boundaries help me define where I – and my emotions and responsibilities – end, and where others’ emotions and responsibilities begin. I am distinct from others, and boundaries help me to trace the outline around myself. Another way of stating it is that I’ve learned to understand what is “my business” and what is not. My business is my emotional needs and responses. Others’ reactions are not my business.
Just because I don’t take responsibility for someone else’s feelings or actions does not mean I don’t care. I can have compassion, listen, help the other work through what they want to do in a situation, but I don’t have to take on the responsibility for their actions. One of the results of minding my own business and taking responsibility for my feelings and actions was that I stopped blaming others. I came to realize that I generated my feelings, no matter how much it appeared they were caused by others’ behaviors.
Dealing with Others’ Unacceptable Behavior
Another very important definition of a boundary for me was learning to recognize and then draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior in someone else. I could use boundaries to protect myself from unacceptable behavior.
What is unacceptable behavior? It differs for everyone. For me, being yelled at, sworn at, or treated with disrespect felt abusive to me, and I slowly grew an intolerance for it. But I had to learn how to protect myself when it happened. Boundaries are not about requiring something from someone else – I can’t control other people. If they want to swear at me or abuse me, I can’t necessarily stop them. What I can do, however, is remove myself from the situation. Stop engaging with that person. When I engage, I give validity to their words and their claims. When I step back and let them know I will not listen or participate unless they can be calm and respectful, I exercise my boundary.
A boundary is what I do to protect myself. Walking away. Hanging up the phone. Closing my mouth. Taking a break. Sometimes it’s suspending or even ending a relationship. I can let the person know my boundary, give them fair warning, or not, depending on what I think their reaction will be. If I know my boundary will worsen their reaction, I may simply take the action necessary to protect myself so that they do not have the chance to continue unacceptable behavior.
What I love about boundary setting is that I am in control. I am not saying to someone else, “You must do this (fill in the blank) so that I can feel safe.” I am saying, “If you do this, I will take action to protect myself.” This puts the power in my hands and short-circuits the endless cycle of blame, resentment, and recriminations.
How to Set a Boundary
Here are steps I follow to set and maintain a boundary:
1. Identify the unacceptable behavior.
2. Take time for self-reflection to understand the action I can take to protect myself from the behavior.
3. Remember that I have choices in my response.
4. If it helps me in the situation, let the person know my boundary: “If you do X, I will protect myself by doing Y.” If it doesn’t help, I just plan to do the action for myself without alerting the other person.
5. If X happens, actually do Y. I exercise the boundary, take charge of what I do have control over. And the other person sees I am serious.
6. If the person finds another way to perpetrate the unacceptable behavior, and I want to stay in the relationship (rather than end it altogether), I stay flexible with my boundary and consider other choices for self-protection.
Tip: If you try this, remember that your attitude is more important than your words. Stating your boundary from a place of clarity and love will give you more peace and surety than driving it home with anger or bitterness.
How do you define boundaries? Do you agree they are prerequisites to healthy relationships?