Cautionary tale: When I had my first baby, I took 10 weeks off from work to be with my precious bundle of joy. Since I was off from work, I figured I would take my baby girl with me to sleep at night in a separate room so that my husband and step daughter could get their zzz’s.
Eventually I went back to work, but life didn’t go back to usual, not for me at least. I had established a pattern that was coming back to haunt me. My partner was still more than happy to get all the sleep he needed while my baby was up and at it every single hour of the night.
I was averaging 1-3 hours of sleep before getting the baby ready for daycare, taking her to daycare, and heading to a stressful Human Resources job.
Nobody said a martyr’s job was easy!
So yeah, the resentment was amplified because suddenly I found myself without support, without sleep, and without a voice.
I had never asked for help before and now that I was, I don’t think anyone believed me that this superwoman actually needed it. I was hiding it pretty well, but underneath, a perfect storm was brewing.
In that first year after my daughter was born, I got severely ill many times until I ended up with an autoimmune disease. I was no longer asking for help. I required help.
Healthy boundaries have been a huge part of my healing journey. Your cautionary tale may not look like mine, but if either your relationship with others or with the world suffers in any way, it is largely dependent on your boundaries.
Many times, people aren’t even aware of healthy versus unhealthy boundaries. I had no idea before I learned the hard way!
A boundary best described is where one person ends and another begins.
So many attributes of people without boundaries are held to high esteem in our world- the world will reward you, but you are only punishing yourself. Putting others first will get you plenty of positive feedback. Are you a giver? Helper? Empath? The responsible one? Perfectionist?
Part of establishing healthy boundaries is realizing we are part of our problems. We create our problems, but this makes it even more empowering to be part of the solution too. Taking ownership begins with recognizing the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
Signs of unhealthy boundaries:
- Happiness depends on how happy others are around you and its your job to make them happy
- Giving to get something in return
- Giving to get someone to like you
- Sharing too much information too soon
- Striving for perfection
- Wanting to ‘keep the peace’
- Difficulty making decisions
- Falling apart so someone will take care of you
- Controlling others and situations
- Compromise values
- Afraid what might happen if you don’t give in
- People-pleaser, Empath, highly sensitive person (HSP) and/or low self esteem
- Expect others to give the way you do and/or resent others when they don’t give to you in return
- Feeling “trapped” by people who don’t respect boundaries
- Make excuses for people who treat you poorly
- Overly responsible or passive aggressive
- Attract “takers”
- Do things out of guilt and/or obligation. You find yourself saying, “Nobody else is going to do it so I will”.
- Trauma, addiction, abuse, mental illness (dysfunction) in childhood family environment
- Worried about others’ discomfort if I ask for what I want
Examples of healthy boundaries:
- Communicate your needs because you understand people can’t read your mind
- Know what you can give, how much you can give, and sometimes compromise with others about what you can give
- Make your own decisions
- Comfortable saying “No” (this takes time and practice)
- Open to others opinions, but not sacrificing your own values
- Doing healthy things for myself
- Speak up when your boundary has been violated
- Responsible for my own actions and not the outcomes of other people’s actions
- remind yourself that you’re doing your best and have kinder, gentler words towards yourself
- Reveal a little about yourself while checking to see how others respond to your sharing
- Take care of yourself and ask for help when you need it
- Realizing you have choices
- Not too quick to say, “Yes”.
- Not controlling or fixing others
How much of yourself do you recognize in the first list? How about the second list?
The lists above are compiled of both personal experiences with boundary work that I’ve done and also models in psychotherapy.
Boundaries are formed by how we got our needs met from our caregivers. If they needed something from us, parents may have told you that if you don’t do what they say, you’re selfish. Even parents who appreciate overly helpful and appeasing kids, can turn from appreciation to expectation.
How to establish healthy boundaries
- First become aware of when your boundaries are violated (probably after it happens). Make note of how you felt. You may feel icky, violated, tricked, manipulated, uneasy, confused, and uncomfortable. Try to name the boundary that was violated for you.
- Likewise, feel the difference between “obligation” and “enthusiasm”.
- Recognize the types of people who regularly violate boundaries: People who create or gravitate to chaos, narcissists/mental illness, abuse alcohol/substances/addictions, use confusion techniques or sad/dramatic stories, friends and family members, victims, use inappropriate language, super/overly friendly or touchy-feely, disregard your time (call at bedtime or too early, get you to stay on phone). You can save yourself the trouble by recognizing these types of people before becoming involved with them.
- Never put yourself in the position of being the only person who can help somebody. Your responsibility to someone else is more limited than you think.
- Research books about healthy boundaries and codependency: I suggest “Codependent No More”, by Melody Beattie and “Where To Draw The Line”, by Anne Katherine. Also, “Not Nice”, by Dr Aziz Gazipura.
- Begin by treating yourself well, how you want to be treated. Self esteem is intertwined with your boundaries.
- If its overwhelming, work on one boundary at a time. What’s your most important boundary right now?
- If you find yourself saying, “This is too hard, I’ll just do it”, hold your ground, keep going! Remember, if you say, ‘yes’ to them, then it’s the same as saying, ‘no’ to you and your needs.
- Ask for time (this is my favorite). As quick as you would say, “YES” to someone, prepare to say, “Let me think about that”. If the person really needs something, they’ll get someone else to do it in the time you think about it. People like to use urgency to get what they want.
- Practice speaking your needs in the mirror to yourself. Yes! Do it!
…and one more: Make a list of things, and people, that energize and fulfill you and another list of things and people that drain you. Think about how you feel with certain people or how you feel on your way to a certain event or activity. Is there dread? Or enthusiasm?
How will others react to my boundaries?
I wrote this article years ago (When and How To Cut The Ties With Bad Family Relationships) and to this day, I receive numerous emails about how someone’s boundaries are not being respected or well received.
We can set boundaries all day long, but how others receive them is another matter. How other people react to your boundaries will vary from defiance, resistance, to adapting. Boundaries with someone close to you is like saying, ‘What was, is no longer’. We can see typical reactions happening now as we move through this pandemic.
How long someone chooses to stay in a relationship that has poor boundaries is a unique situation for each person. If there is effort in adapting or changing, it can make the work with boundaries rewarding.
I suggest practicing boundaries with others not as close to you before moving to closer relationships. Those closest to you will see the change in you (with others) so that the change between you and your closest loved ones will not seem as abrupt when the time comes.
Remember, a lack of boundaries likely benefitted those closest to you. Establishing new boundaries will obviously benefit you now, and this can cause disruption in our relationships.
It’s important to know that it’s human nature for people to test boundaries and try to take the path of least resistance by getting someone else to do something for them.
Holding healthy boundaries ultimately increases your energy, motivation, wellbeing and connection to you authentic self. Boundary work has the power to change your life!
Peace and Be Well,