Do you have trouble saying no, and feel resentful, tired or overextended a fair amount of the time? If you answered yes, you likely have boundary issues. Join the club. (If you answered no, please forward this article to someone who does).
Crossed boundaries are everywhere and on my mind. I recently learned that some well-respected teachers I knew at the posh, New York City private school I attended for years crossed unthinkable boundaries with some students. It saddens me deeply to think of the isolation, pain and confusion caused by people in positions of authority taking advantage of the vulnerability of those lesser in years and power.
In case you are not familiar with or clear on the term, boundaries are a set of rules and guidelines we use to set preferences in relationship, define ourselves, claim our space and preserve our emotional, psychological and energetic territory. I don’t like my dog in the kitchen. Because I am clear about this, I have a dog -free kitchen. But it’s not always so simple or easy.
Boundaries protect us, but at the same time, are slippery and ever changing. You may have no trouble putting your kids to bed, but when it comes to your own dear self, you’re up too late creating mornings fraught with alarm clock hostility. You may find yourself mysteriously opening up with one person, when you usually keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself.
When the organic process of discovering one’s boundaries as a child is interrupted by abuse or neglect, confusion about one’s boundaries can lead to a lifetime of struggle in relationship and work. I find that many women, even without history of outright abuse have trouble creating boundaries. Woman or not, you may have already figured out why boundaries feel so hard. If you haven’t, I’ll tell you. You fear if you say no or something like it, you will be alone forever. Or your children will hate you and/or be damaged for life. You fear you will be attacked, abandoned or rejected; you will make waves, you will disappoint; you will be judged and humiliated.
You may also know that these fears do not warrant living a boundary-less life, but that doesn’t help you, because the belief in them is programmed deep, like the hidden faulty coding behind a software glitch. And then there’s the question: What if establishing boundaries will rock the boat in our lives and for those who have depended upon us to be boundary-less?
But only in a good way.
So how to make boundaries? Here’s my 4-step advice.
1) Get Clear and Don’t Do Anything
If you try to make a boundary before you are organically ready, a type of craziness ensues. You know you need a boundary but you feel you can’t make one, so you beat up on yourself, and then you can’t find a boundary to stop THAT. This inner conflict comes from trying to buck the current of those deep, unseen fears without respect for how powerful they are. So after you have clearly established the boundary that you or others are crossing, purposefully do not pressure yourself to enforce it. Simply watch what happens.
2) Feel Your Anger
What we hope happens is that you feel angry. Anger is a signal that a boundary has been crossed and the energy of anger in turn is good for making boundaries. You need aggression to make boundaries, even though you don’t have to make them aggressively. Why? Because aggression is the energy behind protection. Don’t stuff it. We want access to it.
3) Accommodate Your Worst Fears
As you are beefing up in strength and courage to act differently, make a plan that will accommodate your worst fears. If you fear your spouse will be enraged that you no longer want to attend his or her business dinners because you have your own business to attend to, have somewhere to go for a spell so your spouse can let it sink in without your having to absorb the projectile vomit of reactivity. If you fear that making a boundary with yourself to stop dating unavailable people will leave you alone forever, pack your weekend with fun things to do alone and with friends, and while you’re at it, book a single plot at your local cemetery. (Yes, I’m teasing.) If you fear your child will be emotionally damaged as a result of your making yourself inaccessible to him or her for 30 minutes of daily alone time, then start saving up for their therapy fund.
4) Go for It
Finally, when you have been through Steps 1 and 2 enough times, and are good and angry and sick and tired A.K.A. READY for change, but not one minute before then, use the energy of the anger (not necessarily the anger itself) to give yourself a boost, and make the boundary. Go to the bathroom and breathe into a paper bag after if you have to. Schedule a call with your best buddy near any talk times, or request that they be on call if you need them.
You may be clumsy the first few times around. You may make some waves. But hold on. Let the boat steady itself. Once you have made the boundary — and are able to enforce it — it is like bike riding, you’ve got it. You may be scared to get on the bike again, but you will see that everyone survives and that you can have what you need.
And even if your worst fears come true, as they hardly ever do, remember you will survive more easily with self-respect, loyalty and confidence.