*This is an experiential blog post so grab a pen and a sheet of paper if you don’t already have one nearby or you can just read through and do the exercises later or in your head.
Boundaries. We hear this word thrown around a lot. And we’ve all heard affirmations like ‘It’s okay to take care of yourself’ or ‘It’s okay to say no’. We can all get on board with that, right? But then why is it so hard for some of us to actually put these affirmations into practice? For many of us setting boundaries brings up discomfort. We may have grown up in a situation where speaking up was unsafe or resulted in disconnection with a caregiver. Or we may just have been born with a sensitive nervous system in which is was hard to separate someone else’s reaction from our own experience. Regardless of the whys, we can all learn to be more solid in our boundaries!
But in order to do so, we must first look at what the most difficult part of setting boundaries is for us and how we habitually deal with this discomfort. When we just dive into setting a boundary without addressing the discomfort and how we navigate it, we’re not prepared to deal with it in a different way when it comes up. And oftentimes, we end up backtracking or doing whatever we usually do to get back to a place of safety and/or connection with the other person.
So for those of you still reading this (because it speaks to you), I’m guessing you often either don’t set clear boundaries with others or set boundaries and then feel guilty and anxious. Oftentimes this comes from the place of fear that the boundary will threaten our sense of safety or connection with the other person. In other words, we’re worried that if we really show up, the other person will get mad, shut down, attack us, or leave us altogether. The paradox is that when we manage our connection by negotiating our boundaries, we’re not actually creating a true sense of safety and connection. Rather we’re creating a facade of secure connection and over time this creates distance and resentment.
So first let’s take a look at what we’re afraid of. It may be that we’re afraid that the other person is going to get angry and yell or shut down or stop engaging altogether. Or we’re afraid that someone else’s hurt or disappointment means something bad about us. That someone we are hurtful or did something wrong. We might even feel worried this person will tell others we’re hurtful. These are all real possibilities.
Take a few moments and think about a time when you had the opportunity to set a boundary (regardless of whether you did or didn’t do so). What were you most afraid of?
There are a couple of things I’d like to remind you here because this is tough stuff. And often when we are working with a part that’s afraid, that part might not be aware of the following truths. You are worthy of love and belonging regardless. No matter what. There is nothing you could say or do that changes this worthiness. You no longer depend on someone else’s love and attention for your survival (though at one time you did). The anxiety, fear, guilt you feel around setting boundaries, speaking your truth, acknowledging your needs IS valid but no longer necessary.
Now let’s take a look at how we avoid feeling the discomfort, guilt, anxiety around boundary setting.
- You might try and control or convince the other person to do to understand why your boundary is okay.
- You might manage what, how and when you speak your truth so that the other responds in a supportive way (aka doesn’t get mad or hurt).
- You might avoid the anxiety and guilt altogether by not speaking up and just shelving your needs.
- You might rationalize the situation and decide that you actually don’t have a boundary to set (aka the situation is actually okay even if it’s not).
- You might dissociate and leave your body so that you don’t even feel the discomfort
Take a few minutes and think about the ways in which you get around the discomfort of setting the boundary. Jot down what you come up with. It’s helpful to notice the ways you’ve adapted so that you can notice when these strategies come up. Be gentle with yourself. It’s hard to change patterns that have been with us for a lifetime.
Before moving on, I want to take a moment here to appreciate how helpful these ways of navigating our discomfort around boundaries have been in our lives. As a child, there is nothing more important than staying safe and connected to our caregivers. So if that meant sacrificing our truth, our needs, our boundaries, it was totally worth it. We wouldn’t have survived otherwise. So if you haven’t already, take a moment to really appreciate the ways that you’ve learned to adapt. But the good news is that, as adults, we get to choose who we’re connected to. Our survival is now in our own hands.
Next let’s take a look at the current costs of avoiding this discomfort around boundary setting. How are those strategies above working/not working for you now in your life? It might be that you’re feeling distant from your partner. Or you’re feeling resentful and angry. Or you’re feeling anxious and exhausted by managing how and when you say things. Maybe you’re not doing the things you want to be doing. These are just some ideas but jot down whatever comes up for you. If it seems like the above strategies are working alright for you, no need to read on. You might not be ready to do something different and that’s okay.
If you’re reading this, you must be ready!! So take a moment and really celebrate this readiness to show up in a different way. So now that you’re ready, what does that look like? Mostly just speaking your truth with kindness and being willing to tolerate whatever discomfort comes up–knowing that you are worthy of love and belonging no matter what. So it might look like setting a boundary clearly and lovingly and just giving the other person space to have their experience. Knowing that their experience is not your responsibility and doesn’t mean anything about you. I like to think of the metaphor of staying on your side of the road, keeping your side clean and clear.You can’t control someone else’s response but you can control how show up.
Taking care of your side of the road also means attending to how you set boundaries. Are you blaming? Criticizing? Judging? Or are you just stating what’s okay and what’s not okay with you–in a kind way. Setting boundaries allows you to show up from a place of love, empathy, and compassion. When we find ourselves in judgment or resentment, we have probably pushed passed some boundaries or been holding stuff in. Then when we finally speak up, it’s full of anger, blame and resentment. Set the boundary before the build up so that you can come from a place of neutrality.
As you practice setting boundaries, notice any tendency to try and manage the other person’s reaction or use any of the avoidance strategies you identified earlier. When we manage some else’s response, not only do we reinforce the notion that our truth is not okay but we also rob the other person of opportunity to grow from their own discomfort. Again, be gentle with yourself. You won’t change this pattern overnight. It takes practice. Celebrate the times you feel successful and learn for the times you don’t.
Once you’ve stated your position, practice centering and grounding. Take a few moments here and brainstorm a list of resources, practices, thoughts you can turn to to comfort yourself when faced with the discomfort of boundary setting (these are different from your avoiding strategies). You might sit outside in the sun, pray, exercise, journal, talk with a friend, listen to a certain song, snuggle with your pet. Remind yourself why you are choosing to do things differently. Here are some examples of phrases it might be helpful to remember:
- You are entitled to your experience, to your needs, to your emotions.
- Your partner (or the other person) is entitled to his or her emotions and experience.
- Just because someone is frustrated, disappointed, angry with you doesn’t mean that you are frustrating or disappointing.
- It’s okay to disappoint (this person). It’s okay that (this person) is angry.
- It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. You are not responsible for (this person’s) feelings.
- You are safe.
- You are lovable and worthy no matter what.
- Setting boundaries is the key to creating a deeper sense of safety and connection for everyone involved.
- Being honest allows you to show up for yourself and for (this person) with love and compassion.
Your boundaries might not work for some people. That’s okay. I know this is a little simplistic and the reality can be much more daunting when we start to realize that someone we’re in relationship with can’t accept our boundaries. Remember, you are worthy of love and belonging. We all are. There is often an opportunity for growth when there’s conflict boundary setting. So decide if it works for you to stay engaged with this person but don’t let their stuff (aka anger, disappointment, frustration) dissuade you from continuing to show up. Take space when you need it.
Lastly, I know I’m really encouraging the boundary setting in this post. But all of this said, you still have a choice and only you know what’s best for you (you really do!!). You can choose to table your needs so that you don’t rock the boat. But do so consciously, knowing that it is a choice. You might not feel ready to deal with the clarity that comes up when you start to really show up. That’s okay.
So I’ll leave you with this. You are way stronger and more resilient than you realize. You can handle the discomfort. Be compassionate towards yourself. Be compassionate towards the other person. Stay the course. Reach out for support. You will feel freer, more empowered, and more connected because of it.
*If there is actually a threat to your safety when setting boundaries, please seek professional support. If this is the case, know that you are not alone and there is a lot of amazing support out there. Reach out to me if you don’t know where to start.