The first time I remember hearing about boundaries, I was a 12 year-old sitting in a psychiatrist’s office in Canmore, Alberta.
“You love monkeys right?” Asked the doctor as he leaned in.
“Well, primates but yes, monkeys too.” I replied.
There was a second of silence as I quickly realized I was missing the point.
“Yes, yes.” He continued. “Well let’s imagine we all have a bunch of monkeys that follow us around. We have to corral them and look after them. They are our responsibility.”
I nodded, slightly confused.
“The problem is that not everyone looks after their monkeys. Sometimes they get out of control and try and jump on our shoulders. They distract and upset us making it difficult to look after our own monkeys.
So, in order to make things work, it’s important to learn how to focus exclusively on our own monkeys. We do this by creating boundaries and remembering:
Not my monkeys. Not my problem.”
We locked eyes and he quietly made what I imagined was supposed to be a monkey noise.
It’s been 20…excuse me…23 short years since I heard that line and it still finds me every now and then.
The doctor probably went into more details about how to create boundaries but I remember absolutely nothing about that part.
I’ve had to fumble in the dark trying to figure it out ever since and this alone has been one of the hardest parts of managing my mental health. Part of the reason why it’s been so hard is because I don’t want to fucking do it!
Creating boundaries is hard and enforcing them is even harder.
Now when you think of someone who has boundary issues you might not think of yourself.
Maybe you say “no” to people. Maybe you are careful not to let people blatantly walk all over you. Maybe you even write angry letters and vent.
Just because you have boundary issues with one or two people doesn’t mean you have boundary problems with everyone. That fact can cloud your judgement.
Also, boundaries go two ways. There are boundaries regarding how people treat you but also about how YOU treat people in return.
I’ve found that most boundaries infractions happen in micro actions. They are sometimes so subtle that someone looking in might not even notice. They can be very relationship specific which makes them a bit hard to diagnose and treat.
Sometimes it’s not about saying NO to someone else. It’s about saying YES to yourself instead.
So, I hear you wondering aloud. Who do I have boundary issues with?
Drum roll, please….
My lovely, crazy, complicated, unusual, incredible parents.
I feel terribly guilty whenever I don’t put my life on hold for them or drop everything to make things easier when they need me.
Let me be clear, they don’t guilt me into this. They aren’t purposefully manipulating me. They encourage me to look after myself and my marriage. They desperately want me to be happy.
Problem is, I’m addicted. I’ve been addicted to “fixing” things for them since I was very small especially when it comes to my mother. It’s a codependency thing, but that’s a topic for another day.
It’s become a big part of my identity and THAT is my own fault. My actions and reactions are my own responsibility.
At first this is scary but, when you really think about it, it’s actually very empowering. If you’re the problem, you can just as easily become the solution.
WHAT EXACTLY ARE HEALTHY BOUNDARIES?
I love this definition of personal boundaries from (of all places) Wikipedia. It states:
“Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.”
Boundaries are necessary in any relationship. Even if you don’t notice or actively enforce these boundaries, there are always certain boundaries in play.
For instance, you wouldn’t tell your boss details about your sex life. There is an implied boundary there. If you did, your boss would most likely tell you it was inappropriate thereby reinforcing the boundary between your personal and professional lives.
We grow up learning about many implied boundaries but most of us don’t actively know how to create or change them.
3 WAYS TO FIGURE OUT YOUR PERSONAL BOUNDARIES
So now we understand the value of boundaries. While that’s all well and good but how do we enforce our boundaries if we don’t know what they are?
When we don’t have a good grasp of our own boundaries, we are more likely to “go with the flow” and follow the boundaries of other people.
In order to figure out your boundaries, you have to figure out yourself. It’s really important to know yourself and your limitations.
Some ways to do that include:
~ Spending some time thinking about what you will tolerate and what kinds of things make you feel stressed or uncomfortable ~
For me, people raising their voices in anger makes me really uncomfortable and I will immediately leave any space where it’s happening.
I have made an agreement with myself that I will never have to tolerate that kind of behaviour and, the few people who have yelled at or around me, have witnessed my limitations.
It can be helpful to create a list. It’ll never be exhaustive because people are people and some of them will always find ways to push you in ways you couldn’t predict!
You can think of situations in the past and imagine upcoming situations where you might run into boundary issues. Jotting them down in journal-style entries may also help.
~ Get good at being mindful ~
When we are mindful we are fully engaged in the present moment. We pay attention to what is happening around us.
If we are not used to enforcing our boundaries, we can often find ourselves in uncomfortable situations.
Once in these types of situations happen it can be really easy to “zone out” in order to avoid confrontation. You might be so used to it you don’t even notice you’re doing it!
Get into the practice of noticing as I like to call it so that you can plug into your present reality.
I’ll be honest, it’s not something that will happen overnight and it can be tough, but it’s worth the effort.
I recently wrote a blog post about getting started with mindfulness. You can find it by clicking here.
~ Start a conversation ~
There’s nothing to say you can’t open up a conversation with others about what their personal boundaries are. It can be a casual one over a cup of coffee.
I do suggest, however, that you don’t have these conversations with people that you are currently having trouble establishing or maintaining boundaries with. Figure things out for yourself before letting their ideas cloud your judgement.
Choose someone whose boundaries you respect. Chances are, they will have asserted them with you in the past.
7 WAYS TO ASSERT YOUR BOUNDARIES
1. Give yourself permission.
It’s important that you make a conscious effort to assert your boundaries but, before you can do that, you need to give yourself permission to put yourself first. That can be extremely difficult if you’re out of practice.
Start treating yourself with the respect and care you’d give your best friend. When you get into an uncomfortable, boundary-pushing situation, give yourself the advice you’d give to him or her. You’d never let someone walk all over them.
2. Pay Attention to Your Feelings.
If you feel resentful or uncomfortable, that’s a cue that your boundaries are being pushed. If you’re used to rolling over in situations with a certain person, it’ll be very important to tap into the way you feel around that person.
When you feel unsettling emotions, analyze the situation to figure out why you’re feeling this way. Really dig into the situation – if not in the moment – then later on when you are alone. Journaling your feelings can help.
3. Start Small.
Setting and enforcing boundaries can be a bit scary so, if you’re feeling nervous about the whole thing, start small.
An example of starting small is politely sending back your drink when a waiter brings you a coke instead of the diet coke you ordered. Perhaps you’d usually just suck it up. Practice being polite but assertive.
4. Pick Your Battles.
Just because you are now asserting your boundaries doesn’t mean that every single issue has to become a war-zone.
I’m not saying you have to let the big things go, I’m just saying you might exhaust yourself early on if you take on too much at the start.
The goal isn’t to become confrontational. Confrontation is just a possible by-product.
5. Avoid the need to debate or explain.
Your boundary is your boundary. Don’t get into a tug-of-war over whether it’s right or wrong. That is not the issue. The issue is how the interaction is making you feel.
6. Back up boundary setting with action.
It’s usually not enough to simply say something is making you uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to assert the action you will take if that boundary continues to be infringed. This is a bit of a judgement call and you will need to assess the severity of the situation.
For instance, you wouldn’t tell the waiter to bring you the right drink and then say you’ll complain to their manager if they don’t get it right this time.
That’s a bit much.
However, if someone is yelling at you, it IS important that you say something along the lines of, “Unless you lower your voice and speak to me in a respectful manner, I will leave the room/house/office until you’re ready to speak about this calmly.”
Follow that up with immediate action if the behaviour continues.
7. Expect Anger.
You are not responsible for the way other people react to you asserting your boundaries. You are only responsible for the way you do it. Expect that some people will get angry or annoyed when their always amenable friend/daughter/mother suddenly develops a backbone.
Try to remove your emotions from the equation and think about the situation logically. Is it fair that your coworker has dumped his extra work on you because he has time management issues?
Is it fair that you politely direct him to a manager to help him restructure his workload?
Of course it is.
Trust me, I know that figuring out, setting and maintaining boundaries can be super difficult. It’s not something that will feel natural overnight so be patient with yourself and celebrate every small victory (ideally with an act of self-care).
Have you had any success asserting your boundaries lately? Let me know below…