Having good boundaries, very basically, means that you know what you want and need, and you act in ways that support yourself. And you support and interact with other people in a way that is respectful of their wants and needs, but without trying to fix them and do things for them that they can and should do for themselves.
That’s a tricky line, because we’re not mind-readers. And thinking that we know what other people want and feel and need, if they haven’t told us, is a really good example of bad boundaries.
It’s kind of like when you’re taking a test and they tell you to keep your eyes on your own paper. It’s really tempting for people to start worrying about what other people will think and do and want, especially what they do and think and want from us!
To feel sad instead of mad when others' boundaries prevent us from getting what we want - and to be able to move on to get the next great thing in our lives.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what having boundaries means for each one of us, because everyone has different boundaries. One person might hate being tickled while someone else loves it. One person might end a relationship if a friend is late all the time, while someone else simply doesn’t care. In order to have good boundaries, we need to know what our boundaries are. So how do we figure that out?
When I first started doing work on my boundaries, I just wanted other people to tell me what boundaries I was allowed to have. And I knew intellectually that that wasn’t how it was supposed to work, but I figured that if someone would just tell me what I could expect most people would think were reasonable boundaries, then maybe I could be brave enough to act like I deserved to have those boundaries. And maybe I would even be able to believe it, eventually!
I did eventually get a list that I could use, but it sounded totally ridiculous to me. At the time, I didn't want to believe that "I have the right to have my wants and needs respected by others," "I have the right to make mistakes and do not have to be perfect," or "I have a right to express all of my feelings, positive and negative," to name a few. I was still spending most of my time with people who did not believe in these rights themselves or act as though others deserved these things.
This list did help me start believing that I had some rights, but it still seemed kind of crazy. Like, it’s all very well to tell me that I have the right to say no any time I want. But that didn’t remove the fear that if I said no when people asked me for rides, I would lose all my friends. It didn’t change the fact that deep down, I was afraid that I didn’t deserve to say no and that it wasn’t safe to say no. And I think that this is a problem for a lot of people: we may even believe that we have the right to say no, but not have the security that we need to stand up for that belief. And so, even if we do say no, we can get very angry and defensive when people challenge the boundary we’ve set.
The first thing many people think of when they bring up boundaries is the ability to say no. There are tons of books that try to teach you how to say no when you need to. In my experience, though, trying to learn all of the ways that you can say no and the times when you want to start saying no and all of that stuff doesn’t help unless you really know what your options are if people don’t want to hear it, and unless you really value your needs above everyone else’s. The goal here is to help instill all that stuff underneath that makes setting boundaries second nature.
The reality is that we need to put ourselves first, and in fact, in the long run we’re not going to be able to take care of our responsibilities if we aren’t taking care of our own needs. We need to be willing to value ourselves and to at least consider letting go of situations and relationships that are harmful to us.
There are some physical ways to see where you tend to be. You can pay attention to your gut, literally. Try saying something that makes you angry, or scares you, or isn't true, and notice how your belly tightens. Say something that makes you happy, or feels very true for you, and notice how that feels. You can use this to help you notice when you are not honoring your own boundaries. If you agree to something that you are not really able or willing to do, your gut will tense up in the same way. Every time you violate your own boundaries, it will tense up. When you listen to your body and take the often-frightening step of respecting your needs even when others want you to do something different, the rest of you may be tense but often your gut will feel open and relaxed. Now that's gutsy!
You can also learn about boundaries by doing balancing exercises with a partner, like leaning against each other's hands. When doing this in a group you can quickly see that some people want to single-handedly make sure that everything is going to work, and some people are used to having someone else fix or organize everything. Most of us probably do a little of both. And it’s easy to think that that’s working and not see what the effects really are, in many situations.
But when we simplify it down like this we can see that what we really need is balance and negotiation. We need to know how much is an appropriate amount for us to take on and how to leave something for other people to do. We need to know when we’re giving up our power in favor of being angry at other people for taking advantage of us or trying to control us.
This written exercise will help with exactly that.
First we’re going to make a list of people, situations, and other things that make us angry. It can be anything at all, from an annoying commercial to an ex-boss.
Then, just choose one or two to write about at first. Write about all the reasons that you are angry about this person or situation. When you have exhausted all the reasons you can think of, write about how this situation and these feelings affect you. For example, you might write that you are angry at your roommate for never doing her chores, and that the way it affects you is that you stub your toes on her things and the house smells bad, and that the anger gets in the way of having a healthy relationship and feeling safe at home.
Finally, write about your part in the situation. We have a part in every situation except childhood abuse. Sometimes it is as simple as "I hang on to my resentments even after I have done everything I can in the situation;" sometimes it is more complicated, like "I don't do my chores either, and I don't ask her to do her chores, I just seethe about it silently, and I'm angry because my parents never cleaned and our house was always in chaos, and I'm projecting those feelings onto her, and...."
This may seem punitive at first. But having a part in the situation does not justify anything that others may do that is not okay with us. It does not make one of us right and the other one wrong. All it does is help us see where our power is in the situation. It shows us anything we are doing that keeps the negative situation going, and what we can do instead to free ourselves from it.
Most of the time, when we are angry about something, it means we are putting some kind of energy into it. It might not have anything to do with the person we’re angry at. It could be that someone is doing nothing wrong, we’re angry, and upon reflection we realize that their actions are reminding us of something from our past that we are still struggling to deal with. When we look at what we are really mad about, we get to see what we can do about it, and take back our energy.
Next we’re going to do it with fear. There are four major emotions: sad, mad, glad, and scared. Everything else boils down to those four. For example, you can certainly say that there’s a difference between shame and terror, or guilt and nervousness, but they’re all different flavors of fear. So when you’re making your list of things that scare you, it might help to think of times when you’ve been embarrassed, or chosen not to do something because you were afraid it would be embarrassing; things you’re nervous or anxious about; things about yourself or experiences you’ve had that you’ve felt ashamed of.
Write about the same things with a few of your fears: why you are afraid, how it affects you, and what your part is. Projection tends to be an even more common problem with fear, because fear is remembered pain. Any time we feel afraid, it is because we are remembering a similar situation in the past that hurt.
Are there any patterns you’re starting to notice about what tends to make you angry or afraid, and what you do with that fear or anger? These patterns are especially helpful in showing us where we are not setting our boundaries. If, as you do this exercise, you start to see that you often are projecting your mother onto people, or getting angry when you have not told people that their behavior bothers you, or some other pattern, you can see that that is an area where you need to work on your boundaries. It helps you see what you need to be doing to protect yourself and make your life better.
Of course, it's probably not possible and certainly not wise to write about every one of your fears and resentments in one sitting. You need time to digest what you are discovering, and time for new realizations in between writing sessions. You will probably find more things that you had forgotten you were angry about or afraid of, and you can write about those later too. The point is not to do this exercise "perfectly." The point is to have a tool that you can use to strengthen your boundaries. To learn more about your boundaries, and find any problems. To reclaim the power that you have neglected in favor of fear and resentment. Every one of us has tremendous power that we are often afraid to use in our own lives. We can use this exercise as an ongoing way to free ourselves and make our lives better, one day at a time.