We all know the story of the “Three Little Pigs.”
The story begins with the title characters being sent out into the world by their mother, to “seek out their fortune”. The first little pig builds a house of straw, but a wolf blows it down and he ran as fast as he could to his brother. The second pig builds a house of furze sticks, which the wolf also blows down and the pig ran to the third brother’s house. Each exchange between wolf and pig features ringing proverbial phrases, namely:
“Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”
“No, no, not by the hair on my chinny chin chin.”
“Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”
The third pig builds a house of bricks. The wolf fails to blow down the house. And the pigs are safe.
In the story, the pigs are protected from danger by solid walls of brick. These solid boundaries against external threats save the pigs from the Big Bad Wolf who wishes to devour them. In our lives we also need good internal boundaries to protect us from others whose thinking, feeling and behavours can overwhelm us. If we allow that, the message we learn is that our own needs and feelings don’t count – we are required to accept how others treat us without question which is destructive to our sense of self.
Our internal boundaries protect our thinking, our feelings and our behaviors.
Thinking = how we give meaning to incoming data
Feelings = Our emotions
Behaviors = what we do or don’t do
These, in addition to our bodies, constitute our reality. Our bodies, thoughts, feelings and behavior make up what is real from our perspective even if they are not what others would feel in the same situation. That others might experience a different reality given the same stimuli does NOT dis-validate our subjective reality.
Those of us with poor, or non-existent boundaries find it impossible to own all or part of our thinking, feeling, and behaviors:
In thinking, we experience difficulty knowing what our thoughts are. And if we do know what they are we have difficulty sharing them. And beyond those limitations, we often have skewed interpretations of the data that we receive.
In feeling, we have difficulty in knowing what we are feeling, or in feeling at all. And most problematically, we have difficulty discerning if the emotions we feel are our emotions or those of another. We have difficulty discerning what feeling is mine or am I experiencing another’s emotions.
In our behaviors, we have difficulty in being aware of what we do or don’t do. And have even more difficulty in owning our behaviors and its impact on others.
Here are some tips for setting healthy boundaries:
- When you identify the need to set a boundary, do it clearly, preferably without anger, and in as few words as possible. Do not justify, apologize for, or rationalize the boundary you are setting. Do not argue! Just set the boundary calmly, firmly, clearly, and respectfully.
- You can’t set a boundary and take care of someone else’s feelings at the same time. You are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundary you are setting. You are only responsible for communicating the boundary in a respectful manner. If others get upset with you, that is their problem. If they no longer want your friendship, then you are probably better off without them. You do not need “friends” who disrespect your boundaries.
- At first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when you set a boundary. Do it anyway, and tell yourself you have a right to take care of yourself. Setting boundaries takes practice and determination. Don’t let anxiety or low self-esteem prevent you from taking care of yourself.
- When you feel anger or resentment, or find yourself whining or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary. Listen to yourself, then determine what you need to do or say. Then communicate your boundary assertively. When you are confident you can set healthy boundaries with others, you will have less need to put up walls.
- When you set boundaries, you might be tested, especially by those accustomed to controlling you, abusing you, or manipulating you. Plan on it, expect it, but be firm. Remember, your behavior must match the boundaries you are setting. You cannot establish a clear boundary successfully if you send a mixed message by apologizing for doing so. Be firm, clear, and respectful.
- Most people are willing to respect your boundaries, but some are not. Be prepared to be firm about your boundaries when they are not being respected. If necessary, put up a wall by ending the relationship. In extreme cases, you might have to involve the police or judicial system by sending a no-contact letter or obtaining a restraining order.
Once you have learned to set healthy boundaries you will find that as much as others “huff and puff” you will be safe and know what are your thoughts, feelings and behaviors and what belong to others. Build your safe house of bricks by developing a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries. Eliminate toxic persons from your life – those who want to manipulate you, abuse you, and control you.
Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time. It is a process. You will set boundaries when you are ready. It’s your growth in your own time frame, not what someone else tells you.