Boundaries in Relationships (Part I)
I believe the two most pivotal skills for being in healthy relationships are boundaries and self-esteem. They are the foundation from which everything else flourishes. This post is going to address boundaries. Because boundaries are complex and so pivotal, beware that this is a longer-than-usual post…
Okay, so what are boundaries? Boundaries are a system of protection. They are meant to protect us as well as those around us. I like to see them as an mosquito net we encapsulate ourselves in. This net is strong enough to keep harmful comments, energies, insults, etc., (I.e. mosquitos) out, yet permeable enough to allow constructive criticism, authentic feedback, and true comments (I.e. air) in.
We are the controllers of our boundaries. We decide what we allow in and what we keep out. The way we determine what comes in, is if it’s true or not. We ask ourselves, “Is this true for me? Is this something I need to take in and look at?” If the answer is yes, then we let it in. If the answer is no, then we simply let the comment bounce off our net (boundary) and move on.
If we choose to let something bounce off our net then it is done with. There is no need for us to get defensive, have a reaction, or stew about it. If it’s not true, then don’t spend time on it. Examples of things that we don’t want to let in are: Your partner coming home in a bad mood and snapping at you; someone accusing you of something you know you didn’t do; someone swearing at you, calling you a name, or putting you down.
The reason you don’t want to take any of these in is because these comments are not about you…they are about the person who is speaking to you. If your partner comes home in a bad mood and is snapping at everyone in the home, then they are having a bad day–keep your boundaries up and don’t allow their bad day to become your bad day. Instead, as I once heard a person say, imagine that your net just got slimed. Spray it, wipe off the slime, and move on.
Let me use the “kick the dog” story (only I’ll use a different term than kick). Say Tom comes home and had a terrible day at work. He’s angry and fed up with everything. The dog comes up to greet him and Tom shoves the dog to the side and says, “Stupid dog!” Now is this because the dog’s a stupid dog? No. It’s because Tom is having a bad day and he thinks that bad day justifies his cruelty. His comment has nothing to do with the dog; it has everything to do with Tom.
It is the same with people. We need to get better at determining what we need to take in and look at and what has nothing to do with us and we need to keep out. If for example, you simply walk into a store and the cashier is rude to you, chances are it’s not about you, so don’t let it in and make it about you. Likewise, if your child is hungry, tired, and cranky and says you’re stupid–use your boundaries. See it for what it is–a child who is cranky and struggling with his/her emotions. It’s not about you being a bad parent. Because something is not about you, does not mean you allow your child or husband etc., to call you names, it just means that first, you have to realize that behavior is not about you. (Step two, deciding if you let something go or address it, is a different post lol).
Learn to decipher what to take in and what to keep out. It’s important that we don’t only let in “nice” feedback. When we are given feedback that is hard to hear, we need to be careful to not just block it out. If the feedback is honest, it is in our best interest to let it in and look at it. We do this even when we don’t like what we hear. If there’s truth to it, taking it in and looking at it will help us in our present and future relationships. Feedback is a gift and works like air to us–it helps us grow. We take things in from a place of humility, knowing that we are human just like everyone else.
For now, remember that you don’t want to keep everything out because that would be a wall, not a boundary. Nor do you want to let everything in because that would be boundary-less. Neither of these are healthy boundaries.
Challenge: Boundaries protect the core of who we are while also protecting the core of who others are. For the next week pay close attention to protecting yourself. Begin practicing healthy boundaries by paying attention to when you are in boundary failure (feeling wounded, defensive, offended). Pay close attention to what is true about you and what is not and filter the information accordingly.
Also watch others and their use of boundaries; this is a great way to learn about your own.
Note: Boundaries are a big topic that I could not cover entirely in a post. There are two books on boundaries that I recommend for those interested: The Intimacy Factor by Pia Mellody and Boundaries (Where You End And I Begin) by Anne Katherine, M.A.