A universal challenge
One topic that comes up over and over again, when I coach couples in crisis is the subject of BOUNDARIES. At one time or another, in one setting or another, most people struggle to stand up for themselves and their boundaries.
Here are the kinds of comments that can signal a boundary challenge:
• “I find it so hard to say “no” when someone asks me to do something, even if I don’t want to do it.”
• “I am SO busy, I never have any time for myself.”
• “I get so frustrated with how my co-worker treats me and I don’t know what to do about it.”
• “I hate it when my mother weighs in with her opinion about how I should raise my children.”
• “It drives me crazy when my son takes my car without asking me.”
We can have boundaries around our time, our bodies, our hearts, our minds, our souls and in the last example, our possessions. Increasing our skill with boundaries can yield high returns. Learning some new skills in maintaining boundaries can help you feel much less conflicted and stressed. The by-product of having strong boundaries can be increased energy, peace of mind and self-respect.
The purpose of a boundary
Thomas Leonard, a pioneer of coaching and the founder of Coach University, described boundaries as “an imaginary line of protection that you draw around you to protect your soul and what’s important to you.”
Your boundaries determine what others can and cannot do to you or around you. They reflect what you will and won’t tolerate. Says coach Cheryl Richardson in her book Stand Up For Your Life, “A strong boundary is like an energy field or ‘psychic barrier’ that protects your body, mind, and spirit from harm.”
Boundaries demarcate those places where WHO I AM bumps up against WHO YOU ARE. The more we can learn to identify and communicate our boundaries, the more we will be treated in a way that feels good and respectful to us. When our boundaries are honored, and when we honor the boundaries of others, we experience less conflict and increased trust and intimacy.
Boundaries are YOUR responsibility
Wouldn’t life be great if we had no need for boundaries? If everyone we encountered just magically knew what was hurtful or intrusive or offensive to us — and never did it? Thinking this way is tempting, however it’s wishful thinking.
Personal boundaries arise out of who we are and everyone has a different personal reality. So your boundaries will arise from your history, your gender, your family, your culture and many other personal variables.
One person’s boundaries won’t be exactly the same as another’s. That person who has offended you may be acting in a way that is totally appropriate to THEIR boundaries, however it may not be appropriate to YOUR boundaries. Hence the need to take responsibility for your boundaries and communicate about them!
This means paying attention to your feelings and making requests of others consistent with what you need to feel safe and thrive. This means giving up your expectation that others will read your mind and “just know” how to treat you.
First things first
There are 2 aspects to maintaining your boundaries: 1) identifying what your boundaries are and 2) communicating your boundaries to others. It’s difficult to maintain a boundary if you don’t know what it is! So becoming aware of and identifying your own boundaries is the first step.
Perhaps in some areas, you are clear about your boundaries and easily able to articulate and act on them. If so, great! However, often we discover a boundary only when it is violated and we experience a negative reaction to something that another person does. Feelings of anger, hurt and irritation in response to another can be powerful clues to a boundary violation.
In identifying your boundaries, it may be helpful to think about them in relation to these four dimensions of yourself:
1. Your physical well-being: These boundaries pertain to your body and physical health and may include boundaries around your time and energy. Examples: I won’t sacrifice my health for my job. I decide who can touch me and how.
2. Your emotional well-being: These boundaries have to do with your feelings and what is hurtful for you emotionally. This involves protecting yourself from both intentional hurt and unintentional hurt on the part of others. Examples: People can’t vent their anger on me. I won’t tolerate jokes about my weight.
3. Your mental well-being: These boundaries have to do with your intellectual health and what contributes to a positive environment in which to learn and grow in understanding. Example: People may not ridicule or make fun of my ideas. People can’t call me “stupid.”
4. Your spiritual well-being: These boundaries relate to anything which has a negative or toxic impact on your spiritual well-being or sense of self. Example: I won’t take part in bad-mouthing another person. I can’t participate in something that violates my ethics.
Listen to your feelings
Is there something you’ve been tolerating or putting up with? Are there particular situations when you repeatedly “lose your cool” or experience stress? Feelings of upset, anger or hurt may be giving you a clue that a boundary is needed. So pay attention!
Ask yourself “What is not OK with me? What boundary of mine is not being honored?” Once you identify the source of the upset, you’ll be empowered to take the next step of communicating your boundary to others. The more we learn to identify and communicate our boundaries, the greater ease we will experience in navigating our life and relationships — and the more we will be treated in a way that feels good and respectful to us.
Invitation to action
Identify a boundary of yours: Think of a relationship in which you feel stressed, uncomfortable or irritated. Ask yourself: What behavior on the part of that person is problematic for me? What boundary of mine does it violate? Is it a physical, emotional, mental or spiritual boundary? Or more than one? Name the boundary as clearly as you can.