How many boundaries in your life have you chosen — and how many have you inherited? What boundaries do you have that no longer serve you?
If you want to choose your boundaries, you must locate the childhood experiences that unconsciously shaped your boundaries. Our boundaries are often shaped by inherited beliefs that took root in childhood. You unconsciously absorbed many of your boundaries from your parents, who inherited them from their parents. Others come from cultural beliefs that have been passed down through generations.
“During your childhood, your family of origin had specific rules of engagement that informed the way members related to each other and the outside world. These rules set the stage for how well or poorly you create boundaries in your personal and professional relationships today.” Terri Cole
My inherited boundaries included: don’t have any needs that you can’t take care of yourself; don’t ask for help; when offered help, decline it in case they really don’t want to help but are just offering to be nice; and if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
I recognize these boundaries come with “should.” When you start “shoulding” on yourself, you can be pretty sure those rules of engagement or boundaries were inherited. Look to see if they align with your true needs and values. When they don’t align, you get stuck in what Terri Cole calls disordered boundary hell. You are trying to live your life by rules that you no longer need to keep you safe. Those rules may stunt your growth and limit your opportunities.
It is no wonder many of us feel restless. We don’t feel comfortable or at ease because we live our lives based on rules that no longer apply. We can never do enough, so we rush around. We are longing for something, but we don’t know what it is. So, we check our phones, open the refrigerator, and keep ourselves busy in a myriad of ways. Staying busy gives us the unobvious gain of not having to feel, face or experience the unpleasant feeling we are repressing.
When we feel this way, the best thing we can do is stop and breathe. Then ask yourself what you get not to feel, face, or experience if you stay busy. Asking this question is a powerful tool for moving past resistance. Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat. It is much easier to live our lives with explicit rules and absolute truths than to question them.
“Connecting the dots between current challenges and unresolved conflicts or injuries from the past can help you make more informed choices and decisions. The goal is to create enough understanding and internal space so you can mindfully respond, instead of instinctually react, making boundary decisions consciously in the here and now.” Terri Cole
If we slow down, we can see more clearly. The goal of mindfulness is to make the unconscious conscious. Instead of burying the hidden rules and beliefs in your mind, we want to take them out and look at them. We can’t change what we can’t see.
- When you think back to your childhood home, were people allowed to have their own private thoughts, conversations, relationships?
- Were you allowed or encouraged to express your ideas and feelings, even if they were different from your families?
- When there was conflict, did you calmly talk issues out? Did you scream over each other? Or brush the conflict under the carpet?
- Were you allowed to have needs?
- What boundaries did you inherit?
There are two ways to implement your boundaries that, for me, are equally challenging. One is asking for your desires or non-negotiable needs to be met. The other is a two-letter word we need to say when people ask us to do things we don’t want to do.
Instead of implementing our boundaries, we often try to avoid the situation. We don’t answer the phone when someone calls. And we don’t return calls if we are afraid that we will be asked to do something we don’t want to do or don’t have time to do. Avoidance has the benefit of putting off the discomfort of communicating our boundaries.
Honoring your boundaries through words or action is the only way people will understand that you are serious about your boundaries. If you explicitly state what you want, there is little room for others to misinterpret what works for you. Assertive statements are the most effective way to do this. Simpler statements are better, like, “This is what’s healthy for me.” If you start explaining your boundaries, you give the other person the opportunity to talk you out of it.
As much as I would like my husband, family, and friends to read my mind and know what I need, it never happens. If I don’t specifically ask for my needs to be met, they won’t know what my needs are. And wishing won’t help; I have tried it. Boundaries are not unspoken.
It is hard to begin to ask someone to do things differently or to do something for you. I worry about being perceived as selfish if I ask for help. But my assumption is sometimes incorrect. I recently asked my ex to pick up our granddaughters in Milwaukee, so I would not have to drive both ways. I felt I was really imposing on him. When I picked the girls up from his house, I heard what a great time they had. So, now I am practicing assuming that the other person will be glad to help me out.
When you begin setting and communicating your boundaries, you will find there is no such thing as guilt-free boundaries. Each time you share a boundary, you will likely feel guilty. But with practice, the guilty feeling diminishes. After asking my ex to pick up the girls, I felt guilty. With some pre-planning, I could have found the time to pick them up in Milwaukee and prepared for the Mindful Moments group at 12:30.
Another issue you can avoid is assuming that the energy between you will become weird when you state your boundary. If you believe things will be weird, you will create the uncomfortable tone you wanted to avoid. So, assume that people will be OK with your boundaries and act accordingly.
The second way to communicate your boundary is by saying no when asked to do something you don’t want to do or don’t have time for. If you are like me, your default answer is probably OK (maybe with a bit of resentful tone thrown in). To change this pattern, buy some time by putting off your response. The delay interrupts your ingrained habit, giving you space to think about what you want and how you feel.
“The takeaway for your boundary success is understanding that the person you are attempting to create a new boundary dance with is not conscious enough almost half the time to choose a new action. So, patience is definitely in order.” Terri Cole
You will have to put in the work to ensure that your boundaries are respected. You must do what you say you will do (or not do what you say you won’t do). When you are not consistent, people will not honor your boundaries. If you’ve said no, and people aren’t listening, tell them to stop asking.
Unconsciously we sometimes self-sabotage, derailing our best efforts of creating, maintaining, and enforcing healthy boundaries. According to Terri Cole, the significant ways we do this are through: The Blame-Shame-Guilt Trifecta, the Boundary Reversal, and the Victim-Martyr Syndrome.
If we blame others, we don’t have to take responsibility for maintaining our boundaries. By making us feel like there is something wrong with us, shame makes us not feel worthy of our boundaries, so we don’t protect them.
Guilt is the hardest of the trifecta, at least for me. I can’t create a boundary without feeling guilty that I did something wrong by setting a boundary. But I can get used to the feeling of guilt and maintain my boundaries even when I feel guilty. The more I do this, the easier it will get.
As soon as you set your boundary, you instantly want to revoke. The adult in you knows that your boundary is fine; it’s the kid in you calling the shots to renege on your boundary. Try waiting two days before taking your boundary back. The delay will give you time to get used to the discomfort of setting a boundary. Over time, if you consistently hold your boundary for 48 hours, your anxiety will lessen, and the impulse to pull a boundary reversal will be in your rearview mirror. I worked with boundary reversal from the time I asked my ex to pick up the girls until the day he picked them up. I had to sit with the discomfort of asking for help and not text him to say that I could do it. I hope next time it is a little easier.
When we feel like a victim, we feel helpless. We don’t believe that anything we do will make a difference. And we feel like what we want does not matter. So, we give up and live by others’ boundaries.
Martyrs are victims who keep score. We feel disempowered. We over-give, don’t speak up, then we secretly feel resentment, as if others owe us something. I was a martyr who over-gave at work. Instead of slowing down and looking at the situation, I changed jobs when I got burnt out every three to five years.
The fix for victims and martyrs is to slow down and look deeply at your life. By calming yourself through meditation, kindness practice, or self-compassion, you will deactivate your amygdala and engage your prefrontal cortex. Instead of seeing only problems, the fresh perspective will enable you to see opportunities that you can put into action.
How Others Sabotage
Some people cannot listen and consider your preferences, thoughts, or feelings. No matter how clearly you state your boundaries, they just don’t get it. They tend to use predatory behavior to ensure that you’ll maintain the status quo. You are particularly susceptible if you suffer from the disease to please.
Flipping the Script
Some people flip the script may take the focus off themselves and their shadiness. They may pretend to make you the object of their concern, wondering why you are so sensitive. Or get upset with you for asking a simple question or blow things way out of proportion. Sometimes they split hairs or distort what you have said.
Gaslighters use denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying to make you question your memory, perception, and sanity. They may say they never heard you ask for something or that you agreed to do something that you said you would not do.
When someone does not accept your boundaries, be sure always to observe their behavior. Call things out as soon as you see them. A boundary destroyer will not apologize and ask how you feel. More likely, they will repeat the offense, mock you for your sensitivity, or drop you altogether. It is pointless to try to win with them.
To set healthy boundaries, you have to begin by looking at what boundaries you own and which you inherited. You may decide the inherited ones have served their purpose and can be discarded. Next, you need to communicate your boundaries in words, not wishes in your head. State them in assertive yet simple terms. To get people to honor your boundaries, you need to be consistent in keeping them yourself, even when you feel guilty. Be mindful of any tendency you may have to sabotage your boundaries, as well as incredibly diligent at seeing and calling out others who disrespect your boundaries.