What images come to mind when you think of boundary setting? Most people think of symbols such as a fence (or possibly even a brick wall if you are thinking of more unreasonable people in your life). In practice however, healthy boundaries are actually a much more flexible idea that can add to your resiliency and help you create healthier relationships. It’s my experience that creating and maintaining healthy boundaries is actually a process that begins internally.
The first part of creating healthy boundaries is knowing yourself, and having a strong sense of self compassion. From a place of self compassion and self understanding it is easier to make decisions about how we are treated, how we communicate, what we are willing to do and what we aren’t. We can communicate with others in a way that is calm, confident and centered. If we do not value ourselves then it can be difficult to identify how we feel, what we want, and what we need. This can lead to poor boundaries, because we may become reactive when our boundaries are consistently disregarded. When we are acting with true self compassion, rather than setting boundaries from a place of defensiveness, we are able to be assertive and ask for what we need from ourselves and others. Healthy boundaries encourage us to walk away from situations and people who are not healthy. They can help clarify communication and maintain intimacy in our loving relationships.
While many people who struggle with boundaries lack self compassion, the good news is that self compassion can be cultivated. Through working with a skilled therapist, practicing self care, and consistent individual practice we learn to value ourselves and reconnect with our internal sense of how we feel and what we need. Dialectical Behavior Therapy teaches us that self compassion is increased through learning four basic skills. The skills are
- Mindful Awareness can be cultivated through meditation. Sometimes when people have anxiety, starting with silent meditation can be challenging. If this happens to you, consider trying the use of guided and time meditation, many of which are available through the use of resources such as Liberate Meditation (which focuses on Black and Indigenous People of Color BIPOC) or Insight Timer. You can also try walking meditation.
- Self Kindness Increases as we show ourselves daily loving kindness. This can be added through simple things such as positive affirmations, and self care. Try writing positive notes to yourself or journaling about the relationships you want, how you want to feel and how you want to be treated. If you have invested time practicing this, it is easier to tell people what you want and need when difficult situations arise.
- Shared Humanity Remembering that others suffer too and you are not alone. Part of a self compassion practice is being connected to other beings, and our environment. For some people this may also include spiritual practices connecting them with a higher power. This also means connecting with the community and learning to build social connections that help us feel supported when unreasonable people or organizations are unwilling to respect our boundaries.
- The willingness to take action to relieve suffering This comes from finding and creating a certain amount of self worth and agency to take action when suffering. With empowerment comes self preservation.
Setting and maintaining boundaries is an important part of resilience. Boundaries can be a way that we can reduce feelings of shame that arise when we experience difficulties or hurt in some way. Showing kindness and compassion for ourselves begins with reconnecting with our understanding of basic rights and responsibilities in a relationship. This includes the idea that you deserve to express yourself freely, receive respect and kindness, and remain free from harm. It also includes the idea that you have the right to change your mind and grow as a person.
What are the judgments, opinions, thoughts, or feelings that might be limiting your ability to express yourself freely with others? Often we think setting boundaries or limits will make us seem selfish. We may think that the other person will feel rejected or think we are pushing them away. However, most reasonable loving people want to create relationships that preserve the dignity and rights of themselves and others. They will be willing to work with us to create relationships based on mutual respect and reciprocity. Healthy boundaries are the foundation of these types of relationships.
Other reasons people may not set boundaries can include negative experiences such as trauma, attachment issues, or even systemic issues- such as discrimination and marginalizaition. All of these things can affect our feelings of self compassion. BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people may especially have experienced marginalization and racial trauma that makes setting and maintaining healthy boundaries challenging. If you are facing these challenges, working with a compassionate and competent therapist who understands your intersectional identity can help you to reconnect with your internal resilience and create healthy connections.