Relationships are a fundamental part of being human. We are wired to connect with each other as a source of both healing and survival. With every relationship, personal or professional, comes the need for boundaries. Boundaries are the invisible lines that keep us physically and emotionally safe while effectively functioning. They govern what we are willing to do and not do; say and hear; and give and receive.
Boundaries come in many forms. There are boundaries for personal space, resources, time and energy, information and opinions, roles and responsibilities and emotions. They also vary from relationship to relationship depending on the need. For example, I might share my feelings about a personal relationship with my sister but not my dry-cleaner.
To those who wish to be compassionate and empathetic, the skill of understanding and establishing healthy boundaries is essential.
All humans have boundaries and they slide along intersecting continuums of loose or tight and clear or unclear. What makes a boundary healthy is not whether it is loose or tight; but whether it is clearly communicated, adaptable to varying situations or relationships, and allows us to function safely.
Unhealthy boundaries can either be too loose or too tight and most often they are not communicated in an understandable way. Responses can range from extreme and inflexible to non-existent. They can create an unsafe situation; or if they serve to keep safety, they often do so at the expense of the relationship.
Setting boundaries can be difficult for someone who has had their boundaries violated in the past. Often, they come with feelings of resentment, helplessness and shame. Unfortunately, not setting them allow these difficult feelings to go unresolved. It also creates situations that reinforce an unhealthy view of relationships and robs us of the healing properties healthy relationships can provide.
It is important to recognize that boundaries are a two-way street. Even someone with clear boundaries can accidently cross someone else’s. But, since people with unhealthy boundaries tend to respond in messy ways, sometimes we don’t even recognize their responses as a boundary at all. Instead, they are interpreted as hostility, indifference or rejection. Having healthy boundaries means respecting the boundaries of others, even if they struggle to communicate them.
Although setting healthy boundaries is an essential step for any relationship, they don’t have to be set in stone. They can change as relationship needs change. It is important to ask yourself if your current boundaries are working to keep you safe and allowing you to be effective. In healthy relationships, these conversations might need to involve both people.
There are several steps involved in the process of developing healthy and effective boundaries:
Self-awareness: As with most skill sets, boundaries begin with knowing yourself. This not only involves identifying our emotional triggers, but also exploring our relationship values and needs.
Identifying needs: We start by determining what is needed in each relationship to be safe and effective. Keeping in mind that needs are different for varying relationships. If this step is a struggle, go back to self-awareness. Sometimes it is helpful to begin by keeping a journal of times when we feel unclear boundaries might be the root of a problem. Ask yourself what was needed to make the interaction more successful.
Setting limits: Limits include what are you willing and not willing to do, give and not give, and reveal and not reveal. In other words, what we will say yes to and what we will say no to.
Recognizing cues: How do you know when someone has crossed a boundary or when you have crossed someone else’s? This involves being attuned to our emotions and body responses to having our boundaries crossed. But it also requires the insight to interpret another’s frustrating behaviors as a messy attempt to set a boundary.
Communicating boundaries: We communicate our boundaries both directly and indirectly through our words and actions. Sometimes, when our boundaries are crossed or about to be crossed, it is necessary to make a clear boundary statement. A clear boundary statement involves naming it, communicating your need and offering an acceptable alternative. For example, “That’s a personal question. I would feel more comfortable talking about something less personal to get to know each other. What are some of your interests or hobbies?” or “This is becoming more than I can offer. I need to reserve my time on weekends for my family. I could help out an hour a month during the week.”
By the way, none of this is easy work. Learning to develop healthy boundaries can be a lifelong process that almost always involves stepping outside our comfort zone. However, like every other skill set, it gets easier with practice. The results being deeper and more meaningful relationships and greater peace of mind.
To learn more about compassion fatigue and how to build resiliency in individuals and organizations, check out my book, The Compassion Fatigued Organization: Restoring Compassion to Helping Professionals.