Learning how to set healthy boundaries in a relationship is transformative. Knowing how to identify, set, and maintain your boundaries has the power to dramatically change your relationships. This skill can transform unhealthy relationships to healthy ones.
On the surface, it may be hard to identify just how many problems, or concerns, are tied to boundaries. Boundaries involve your sense of self-worth, communication, and intimacy to name just a few examples. In my 11 years as a relationship therapist, I have discovered that in one way or another, every single client was struggling with boundary issues which made their problems worse.
What is a boundary?
A boundary is any limit you set to protect your sense of safety in a relationship and wellbeing. Healthy boundaries have two parts. There are external limits you set with others to feel safe and respected. There are also internal limits. These boundaries are both the limits you set on yourself to be a safe, respectful person to others as well as to yourself.
Healthy boundaries are consistent. They are like a fence around your house. There are bottom line things that just won’t work for you. These are your non-negotiable needs and being clear on these is essential for healthy relationships as well as mental health. A example of this is not allowing other people to yell at you.
At the same time, healthy boundaries are flexible. We say “no” where we must, but we can make exceptions when we feel generous, or it aligns with our values. You may choose, for example, to not loan other people money as a rule. However, lets say a friend is crowdfunding for her pet that needs surgery and you’re an animal lover, you may choose to say “yes” if you want without compromising yourself or the relationship.
How do I know if I have unhealthy boundaries?
Boundary issues impact every aspect of our lives. They impact our relationships both with others and ourselves. They impact our ability to communicate effectively. But they also impact our self-care and sense of self-worth. They also impact our mental health and wellbeing. Without healthy boundaries, it’s common to feel anxious, confused, overwhelmed, and depressed.
On the surface, there are many issues that don’t seem related to boundaries even while they are. Common ways boundary issues show up in people’s lives include:
- Being a chameleon in your relationships
- Trying to keep the people in your life happy all the time
- Not knowing what you want or need
- Avoiding telling other people what you feel, think, or need
- Believing you are a “burden” if you make requests of others or say “no”
- Having a sense that you have lost yourself or never knew who you were to begin with
- Not being able to stick to a self-care routine
- Expecting other people to read your mind (or believing that you know what others are thinking or feeling without speaking to them)
- Feeling overwhelmed by other people’s feelings or problems (there is a difference between caring for other people’s concerns and carrying them)
Is it selfish to have boundaries?
It is common to feel like setting boundaries is mean or selfish. After all, a lot of us were raised to believe that we needed to be good, nice, and polite to others at all times. This meant that many of us, on some level, learned we needed to not be angry and keep the peace with others no matter how much it hurts or drains us personally.
Despite what many of us have learned, establishing healthy boundaries is one of the most loving things even if it feels awkward or uncomfortable. They allow you to have a truly intimate relationship based on mutual respect and understanding. This is true intimacy, and it allows you to connect with others from a place of empowerment. From this place, you get to feel safe and secure while also ensuring the people in your life feel this way too.
They know, when you have healthy boundaries, that you speak with integrity. The people in your life know that if you say “yes” to them it’s from a spirit of generosity and availability. They also know that if you say “no” it’s because you respect them too much to later resent them for your poor boundaries. After all, when people don’t set boundaries because it feels mean or selfish the only eventual consequence is to resent this person and have this come up directly in a fight or passively aggressively!
Boundary setting is hard
While the value of healthy boundaries may be immediately clear, it can be very difficult to implement healthy boundaries. This is because the process of having healthy boundaries involves numerous skills. We need to be self-aware. Self-compassion must be practiced. We must be able to manage our emotions like anger, frustration, guilt, or anxiety effectively. We also need to have effective communication skills.
In my book, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle, I describe numerous steps and skills to having healthy boundaries. You also learn about self-love, self-care, and communication strategies. In my course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, I go deeper and cover my entire 4-step system for healthy boundaries which I teach my clients.
Getting the support you deserve
I created my course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself because after a decade of being a therapist I saw just how common it is to struggle with healthy boundaries. I wanted to help as many people as possible as quickly as possible. This course covers all the skills a client would learn in a year of therapy in only 4 short weeks.
To support you immediately, I’m going to provide you a free excerpt from my book, The Codependency Recovery Plan, with my favorite boundary skill. Truly, I use this skill every day throughout the day to maintain my recovery.
I cover this skill in greater detail in the course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself and it’s one of many (over 50!) skills covered.
Free excerpt from The Codependency Recovery Plan follows:
What Do You Want?
Establishing healthy boundaries allows us to fundamentally transform our lives. I liken boundaries to the fence around a house. This fence allows others in but also protects from harmful words, behaviors, and expectations. We care about others, but we also honor what works for us.
In codependency, we live in a state of extremes when it comes to boundaries. At times, you may have no boundaries and feel like others are walking all over you. When the pain of this becomes too much, you may emotionally disconnect from others altogether. Without healthy boundaries, we abandon ourselves, which can lead to self-loathing or losing a sense of who we are.
Healthy boundaries allow us to protect ourselves so we can feel self-respect and self-love, just like a fence protects a house without completely shutting others out.
What Bothers You?
Prior to asserting our boundaries, we must first identify what they are. When you begin this work, pay attention to your words and emotions. If you feel resentful or find yourself saying things like “I can’t stand it” or “I can’t believe you are doing this to me,” you’ve identified a personal boundary. When interacting with others, your body will give you clues as to what works for you and what doesn’t.
For example, if your stomach drops or your chest tightens when the person you just started dating says they only want something casual, this is a clear sign the arrangement does not meet your needs. However, if your body stays relaxed and open when others share their expectations, then you will know the situation aligns with what feels good for you too. Building awareness of your own truth is an ongoing practice, and you can use the following exercise to guide you.
Exercise: Imagining Your Boundaries
Set aside some time to be alone, and write down a list of beliefs in your journal. On this list, include statements that you know are true for you, as well as some you know are not true but that others expect of you, such as “I believe in God,” “I value being a parent,” or “It’s important to have children.” On this list, also include some beliefs you have picked up from your family or culture such as “Mistakes are unacceptable” or “Pursuing my the highest-paying job is more important than pursuing my passion.” Next, put the list aside and begin to visualize your boundary. You may choose to make an audio recording of the following to help guide you:
Close your eyes and imagine you have a marker in any color you like. Begin to draw a circle around yourself with this marker and imagine this circle begins to grow up around you in the form of light. Breathe deeply as you allow this light to form a bubble all the way around you. In this bubble, you decide what is true for you and what is not. Now, read your statements and notice you body’s reaction. If a statement resonates as true, reach out your hand and pull that statement into your bubble. If it’s not true for you, then extend your arm in a stop gesture and say aloud “That’s not true” or “That does not fit” to keep the statement out.
Take some time to journal about what you noticed about yourself. How does it feel to imagine this bubble around you at all times, protecting you from others’ words and expectations so that you can see if it meets your needs, too, prior to reacting? Some people initially struggle to visualize their bubble. Just noticing that we can be protecting in this way is a big, and sometimes, scary step toward recovery…It may take practice – in codependency, we have a lot of experience being unprotected, so just being honest and patient with yourself as you develop your bubble is a major step toward recovery.
About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She does this by teaching the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
Her third book, Therapy Within Reach: Setting Boundaries, will be released September, 2023.
If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to email@example.com or DM her on Instagram. Your name and any other identifying information will always be kept confidential.
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