One of the most difficult challenges when working with couples and families (especially addicts/alcoholics and those who love them) is helping them understand healthy boundaries. It seems counterintuitive, but the most loving word in any relationship is very often “no.”
Researcher in the areas of shame and vulnerability, Brené Brown writes, “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.” (Brené Brown: The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.)
Healthy boundaries help us to understand where I end and you begin. And, the most important distinction anyone can ever make in their life is between who they are as an individual and their connection with others. Many of us have a problem figuring out where other people ended and we begin. When that happens through having rigid or collapsed boundaries, we are prone to take on the world’s, and other people’s, hurts and emotions.
What kind of boundaries do you have?
Looking at the following characteristics can help you determine what kinds of boundaries you have:
- You can’t say no, because you are afraid of rejection or abandonment.
- Your identity consists of what you think others want you to be. You are a chameleon.
- You have no balance of power or responsibility in your relationships. You tend to be either overly responsible and controlling or passive and dependent.
- You take on other’s problems as your own.
- You share personal information too soon. . .before establishing mutual trust/sharing.
- You have a high tolerance for abuse or being treated with disrespect.
- Your wants needs and feelings are secondary to others’ and are sometimes determined by others.
- You ignore your inner voice and allow others expectations to define your potential.
- You feel responsible for other’s happiness and fulfillment and sometimes rely on your relationships to create that for you.
- You tend to absorb the feelings of others.
- You rely on others opinions, feelings and ideas more than you do your own.
- You allow others to define your limits or try to define limits for others.
- You compromise your values and beliefs in order to please others or to avoid conflict.
- You are likely to say no if the request involves close interaction.
- You avoid intimacy (pick fights, stay too busy, etc.)
- You fear abandonment OR engulfment, so you avoid closeness.
- You rarely share personal information.
- You have difficulty identifying wants, needs, feelings.
- You have few or no close relationships. If you have a partner, you have very separate lives and virtually no shared social life.
- You rarely ask for help.
- You do not allow yourself to connect with other people and their problems.
- You can say no or yes, and you are ok when others say no to you.
- You have a strong sense of identity. You respect yourself.
- You expect reciprocity in a relationship-you share responsibility and power.
- You know when the problem is yours and when it belongs to someone else.
- You share personal information gradually in a mutually sharing/trusting relationship.
- You don’t tolerate abuse or disrespect.
- You know your own wants, needs and feelings. You communicate them clearly in your relationships.
- You are committed to and responsible for exploring and nurturing your full potential.
- You are responsible for your own happiness and fulfillment. You allow others to be responsible for their own happiness and fulfillment.
- You value your opinions and feelings as much as others.
- You know your limits. You allow others to define their limits.
- You are able to ask for help when you need it.
- You don’t compromise your values or integrity to avoid rejection.
How do I change?
Understand that developing healthier boundaries (as with any life change) is a process, not an event. Thus, it will take time and practice. There are no quick fixes. However, healthy boundaries will lead to improved self-esteem and increased intimacy in your relationships. So the payoff is big, if you are persistent! Below are a few suggestions to help you stay on track in the process:
- Identify the ways in which your boundaries are unhealthy. Make a list of how they express themselves in your life.
- Write letters to yourself encouraging change and addressing the fears that work to prevent change. Nurture your right to have boundaries!
- Make a list of personal rights (i. e. boundaries) in your relationships and paste it where you can read it often.
- Keep a journal and record the pain associated with not maintaining healthy boundaries in your relationships. (Sometimes pain is a great motivator.)
- Write an entry in your journal answering the question “Who Am I?” Do this periodically.
- Look for role models of healthy boundaries in your life or in the media. When confronting a boundary challenging situation ask yourself “What would my role model do?” Better yet, if your role model is a part of your life, ask them!
- Build in time for yourself away from your relationship on a regular basis. This will include alone time, time with your close friends, time for spiritual growth, and time to attend to life’s little responsibilities.
- If you have difficulty saying ‘No,” look for opportunities to practice. If you have difficulty saying “Yes” to any activity that involves interacting with others, look for opportunities to practice.
- Seek counseling to examine the roots of your unhealthy boundaries.
People who don’t set limits (boundaries) are always at the mercy of others. Without limits, you are helpless. On the other hand, people with developed boundaries have agency over their lives as they realize that they have a choice about the behaviors they will tolerate. The power is truly yours…the power to say no.