Establishing healthy relationships means establishing healthy boundaries and clear and respectful guidelines for how we want to be treated by others.
If you’ve ever been to therapy or read self-help books, you are likely to have come across the term, “setting boundaries”. In the past, I would skim over those words or nod my head in agreement with my therapist without giving this idea much thought. It wasn’t until I found myself exhausted from pouring so much of myself into everyone else, and resentful when I felt mistreated, that I realized I needed to perk up and learn what I could do to set my own boundaries.
A boundary is a physical or metaphorical line between ourselves and others. Setting a boundary means requiring better treatment by others and not allowing someone else to run us over. A boundary provides a protective parameter around us, allowing us to operate comfortably within it. Depending on our personalities and life experiences, some of us have stronger boundaries than others.
Women, in general, tend to struggle more with setting healthy boundaries. Often there is an underlying fear of rejection or fear of being unloved if a boundary is set, which feels like it could easily threaten closeness. In order to avoid jeopardizing that closeness, many of us will sacrifice our feelings, needs, and wishes.
The problem with foregoing boundaries is that we invariably invite and tolerate mistreatment. We may not understand why we feel irritable, angry, sad, or resentful. Or, we may wonder why we’ve developed depression, insomnia or a shopping addiction. However, if we look more closely, we may see a consistent pattern of neglecting ourselves in an effort to appease others.
This can happen in any type of relationship: spousal, parent-child, between siblings, friends or co-workers. The more we are afraid to say, “No, that’s not okay,” the more permission we give the other person to continue behaving as they are.
If you’re thinking that setting a boundary will make you come across like a mean, selfish witch (like I was) — it won’t.
There are many ways to start commanding respect without losing the softer qualities you like about yourself.
As for the fear of losing closeness with another if you set a boundary, relationships actually tend to improve when clear guidelines are in place. I am not saying that it is easy for the other person to adjust to your new boundary, but as long as you are consistent, he or she will learn to adapt with a little time (unless you are in an abusive or controlling relationship wherein the other person punishes you for speaking up).
If you have a hard time believing me, think of it this way. Although it is a slower process, over time your irritability, anger, sadness and resentment corrode the relationship.
When you actually speak up and set the boundary, you are creating space for your needs to be met.
After all, you’re not giving an alternative. As time passes, your overall happiness increases and you (as well as the other person) experience greater satisfaction with the relationship. Everyone is clear because the standard for treatment has been established.
Often, by the time you’ve realized a boundary needs to be set, you’ve already been the recipient of mistreatment. It’s important for you to know that even though you may feel powerless to make changes in your relationships, you are not.
I am a big proponent of making simple, clear, and respectful statements so that the other person knows a line has been drawn. I am also careful not to put down the person in the process of establishing my boundaries. The fact remains that we cannot change others, nor can we control their behavior. We can, however, control our own behavior. This is all that is necessary for real change to occur.
For example, I cannot control how someone chooses to speak to me. However, I can control whether or not I am going to listen. Making a statement such as, “I will listen when you are ready to speak respectfully,” lets the other person know that I am not going to engage with them until they modify their behavior. They can rise to the occasion or not, but I am not left to feel powerless, having subjected myself to mistreatment.
This may seem insignificant, but I assure you that it is not. In the above example, I have metaphorically held up my hand as if to say, “Stop. You cannot go further unless you can do better.” This sets the precedent for better treatment and healthier relationships. It is also a highly effective method to use with children as it gently teaches them how to behave without engaging in a power struggle.
Published in Best Self Magazine, May 2, 2017.