Some of us have poor boundaries. Let’s admit it. When we were growing up we were shamed or ridiculed or bullied for asking for our needs to be met. We might have been made to feel “less than” when we stated what we wanted. This left us with a sense that we are not worthy to protect ourselves, that we are selfish or ridiculous to ask others not to trample us with their words or actions.
This lack of boundaries can cause serious anxiety in us and our relationships, causing us to “over-give” “over commit” or “over accommodate” in an attempt to earn the behavior from the other that we desire, or to put up with bad behavior because we are afraid of having the negative feelings of childhood triggered when the other responds to our boundaries. Couple this with the fact that we tend to be attracted to people whose issues and needs are the opposite of ours and we have a scenario that is bound to keep us in knots.
Developing loving, firm boundaries is essential to maintaining self esteem and a sense of safety in a relationship. Without these boundaries we set ourselves up for mistreatment and resentment whether active or passive. People with poor boundaries have trouble getting in touch with a sense of righteous anger when they have been wronged. They internalize the anger and feel shame that they were not “worth” being treated well or respected.
Learning good communication skills goes a long way towards being able to assertively state your needs. I frequently have my clients practice taking a deep breath to get centered and saying in a very neutral tone “I feel hurt when you ______, what can you do to help me with that?” in an attempt to get the partner on their “team” and to express their needs without anger. I also like for clients to confront bad behavior in a neutral tone and to move on afterwards so that everything doesn’t have to be about conflict and confrontation “It is not ok for you to speak to me in that tone of voice. What would you like to have for dinner?” allows you to confront the behavior and to move to a less emotionally charged subject. If the partner does not respond to this gentle confrontation then there are more direct ways of addressing the issues. However since people with poor boundaries tend to be highly anxious I like to start with gently addressing the behavior in a way that feels less aggressive.
Boundaries define who we are. They establish ‘what is me’ and ‘what isn’t me.’ Personal Boundaries help us create ownership and protection of ourselves. Boundaries are our personal security. Limits are really about having preferences. It is deciding who you are; who you aren’t, what is a part of your reality and what isn’t a part of your reality. It’s no different from saying I don’t like Chinese food therefore I won’t eat it, and I like Thai food and therefore I do eat it. Preferences and limits establish a strong sense of ‘who you are,’ which means that only certain aspects of life and others can enter your ‘field of reality’. Life is an unlimited and assorted mix, and we have always filled our personal world with whatever frequency we are vibrating at. Saying “Yes” to certain aspects and “No” to others shapes and creates this vibration – thereby shaping the truth of our life.
Honoring who we are and what we desire and will and will not accept protects the other person in the relationship also. If you internalize your negative feelings about an interaction then they do not have the opportunity to self correct and to be who you need in the relationship. They may actually end up losing you due to your refusal to give feedback that would allow them to meet your needs. You are really doing a kindness when you offer them this opportunity, and you are nurturing your relationship.
Stating boundaries can feel scary at first, especially after a lifetime of not expressing your needs, but getting clear on what is and isn’t you will assure that you maintain your truth in a relationship. If certain situations and people aren’t matching your truth, they will either adjust their behavior or depart from your reality. Boundaries can be a gift to others as well as protection for your time and resources. Telling someone no can be a sign of trust and respect. Setting boundaries with others gives them permission to do the same.
Carolyn Tucker LAPC is a psychotherapist at TRU Integrative Health and Wellness specializing in the treatment of anxiety.