Healthy boundaries in relationships are a delicate two-step. We dance with partners in many relationship dynamics including our romantic partners, our bosses and coworkers, and friends and family members. While it’s true that some people just instinctively set healthy boundaries and “the dance” comes naturally to them, a lot of us end up tripping all over ourselves in relationship after relationship because we pick up boundary setting patterns at such a young age that we aren’t even aware of our moves. If you have no boundaries, you have no moves to help you get a sense of yourself apart from other people, and you don’t know how to keep others out. You don’t know how to make sure your needs are met because you are putting everyone else’s needs first. If your boundaries are too rigid, you struggle to let anybody in (or let yourself out) and you have no moves to experience meaningful connections with others.
The good news is that it’s never too late to become a better dancer. In healthy relationships, in a healthy life really, functional boundary setting skills are a must.
Having healthy boundaries means knowing and understanding your limits. Here are a few tips to help give you some insight on building better boundaries:
1) Name your limits
You can’t really set a good boundary if you don’t know where you stand. Think about what you can tolerate and accept and what feels uncomfortable or creates stress within you. Those stressful, uncomfortable feelings are what help us to identify what our limits are.
2) Tune into your feelings
Two big “red flag” or cue feelings that can help identify when we’re having boundary issues are discomfort and resentment. When these feelings arise, ask yourself “what is it about this situation, or the person’s expectation that’s bothering me?” Resentment usually comes from being taken advantage of or not appreciated. It’s often a sign that we’re pushing ourselves beyond our limits because maybe we feel guilty (I want to be a good daughter or wife), or someone else is imposing their expectations on us.
3) Move relationships into the gray zone
Dysfunctional relationships are very rigid. Each person plays one role and any attempt to behave differently is met with indignation or even aggression. Functional relationships begin with the understanding that real intimacy isn’t really built on stiff rules; most things can’t be reduced to black or white. People with black and white thinking seem to habitually shut people out to protect themselves, dive into ill-considered closeness, or both. The solution is to move relationships into the “gray” zone. Social choreography is ever changing. Unlike dysfunction, healthy intimacy will pull back, bounce back, and create infinite, fresh configurations. Trusting yourself and the rhythm of each relationship (rather than insisting on rigid consistency) will keep you from panicking when someone’s boundaries move a bit toward or away from you. Insist on continuous connection with just one individual: your own self, who knows where to draw the boundary lines on any given day, with any given person.
Like any new skill, assertively communicating your boundaries takes practice. Try starting small with a boundary that isn’t super threatening to you. You can incrementally increase to more challenging issues from there.
Respect is at the center of every healthy relationship. Be sure that you begin with respecting your own physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits. Consider what you can tolerate and accept and be direct in expressing to others what those limits are. Give your relationships the opportunity to create the yin, yang, and flow of reciprocity.