Written by Cheryl Schenck, LPC, CSAT
This time of year, many of us are spending more time with extended family than usual, which often brings up conflicted and uncomfortable feelings. One of the secrets to surviving these complicated, yet meaningful relationships is to have an understanding of boundaries in relationships.
We need to have good boundaries to love well. Boundaries encompass physical, sexual, and emotional territories, and all are important. When it comes to relationships, emotional boundaries are what often comes to the fore. While it may seem counterintuitive, intimacy actually requires healthy boundaries in both people.
What is a boundary?
A boundary is what distinguishes you from another person. It is the energy, space, convictions, decisions, likes, and dislikes that keep you distinct from the other. When I’m describing boundaries to my clients, I always bring in my hula hoop-basket analogy. Imagine you have a hula hoop around you and inside the hula hoop, you have a big basket. The hula hoop represents the point of demarcation where you end, and the next person or space begins. Inside that basket are all the things that
- Your feelings
- Your opinions
- Your preferences
- Your perceptions
- Your feelings of safety
- Your sense of when danger is near
- Your memories and experiences
Boundaries function in two primary ways:
To protect: Your boundaries allow you to decide what is true and safe and then to choose what you allow across the boundary line (remember the hula hoop edge we imagined above?). It allows you to take an action or hold a belief that protects you from someone else’s expectations, pressures, and needs. It allows you to use your voice, move your body, or internally block an emotion or thought from coming in.
To contain: Holding a boundary doesn’t mean we get to say and act any way we want, demand, or desire. We aren’t allowed to scream, abuse, force, guilt, or impose another person to our way of thinking or our expectations.
Operating with Healthy Boundaries
So, now that we’ve defined the concepts and components of boundaries, how do you make them work in relationships?
First – Own your own basket and all its contents.
- Be in touch with what you believe, feel, and need.
- Allow your reality to count. Let your preference, experience, or need matter.
- Hold an inner resolve – you own your basket and all that it contains. No one else can tell you what you like. No one else can tell you what you feel, prefer, or need. And, no one else can tell you that you don’t feel or need something.
Next – when someone comes to you with a comment, request, cajoling, insult, jab, or opinion – let your boundary be operational – activate it. At this point you decide – is this:
- Not true?
- Need more information?
If it’s True, acknowledge what the person has said and respond as appropriate to the situation. It might mean you apologize, make amends, or take responsibility for what was your part. Another situation may call for you to respond with an affirmation, validation, or confirmation. If it’s a request, you decide if it is something you’re physically, financially, or emotionally willing and able to do. If so, you can say “yes,” and help with joy.
Visualize your boundary as if it is a bell jar dropped over you or is a force field all around you. You can see out and interact with the world, but you get to decide what you let in. If something
If you Need More Information – Sometimes we aren’t sure in the moment if it’s true or not. That’s OKAY. In those instances, you say, “I need to think about that,” or “I need to get some more information and get back to you next week.” Sometimes, we just need more time to process and think through what is being said or requested. Accessing advice or other people’s thoughts on an issue can also be very appropriate.
Important Guidelines about Boundaries in Action
- You are responsible for you and what is in your basket alone.
- It is your job to take care of your needs. You may be able to handle it on your own, or you may need help. However, it’s your job to initiate and work to make it happen.
- You are not responsible for managing the contents of the other person’s basket. This happens when you:
- Try to keep the other person from having bad feelings, such as: “I can’t tell her that…she might get mad.”
- Go along with something – even though you don’t want to or don’t agree: “it might upset him if I don’t participate.”
- Choose to do or not do something you want because you let the other person’s expectations dictate your actions.
- Try to control the other person’s decisions and actions, so you don’t get hurt.
So, when you’re at the family holiday dinner at your pushy Aunt Matilda’s home, and she insists you eat a second piece of Peanut Butter pie (that you didn’t like to begin with)…
- Determine what is in your basket:
I don’t like Peanut Butter Pie.
I am very full.
I might get sick if I eat another piece.
- Decide not to manage Aunt Matilda’s feelings, such as:
Oh… she’ll be so disappointed if I turn her down.
She just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer – she won’t let me say ‘no.’
She worked so hard to make the pie for us.
- Then, when you say, “no thank you” but Aunt Matilda says:
“You have plenty of room for another piece!”, or “I worked for 3 days making these pies!!”, or “I just know you want another piece…”
- Then, when you say, “no thank you” but Aunt Matilda says:
- Determine if it’s true or not –
No, I don’t have room for another piece. I appreciate that she worked so hard on her pies, but I don’t have to eat them because she chose to make them. Moreover, it’s NOT true that I want another piece. She cannot determine what I feel, need, or prefer.
- Then respond kindly but firmly,
“They are beautiful pies, but I have to pass. I truly cannot eat anymore. Thank you for offering, but I will not have another piece.”
While this is a simple and almost silly scenario – the principles are real. They work in many situations in all our relationships. Talk to your therapist if you need help in how to apply boundaries to your particular situation.
Be kind to yourself and let your needs, preferences, and desires count. When you operate with healthy boundaries intact, you will find you have more peace of mind, contentment, and better relationships.