Healthy Boundaries, Healthy Relationships
by Wananan Phualek, LMSW, CAPP
I used to wish that people would always respect my boundaries and understand what I needed to do to take care of myself, without me having to tell them what I want and without judging me for my preferences. I used to wish that people would never pressure or shame me to do anything I didn’t want to do, especially if I had to sacrifice part of myself for it. I have done a lot of saying yes when I wanted to say no because I didn’t feel safe saying what I really wanted. I have also made up stories to avoid doing things that I didn’t want to do. I told one of my friends that I got the flu so I didn’t have to attend her sister’s wedding, but in reality I was fine. I didn’t want to go because I always felt bullied and criticized by her sister, never felt safe to be around her.
From time to time, this strategy helped free me from situations I didn’t want to be in. However, I had to pay a price for it, as I would still end up feeling bad for having to “lie” to protect myself. It was terrible because it didn’t really solve problems for me. It actually created more problems. I ended up feeling distanced from my friend and feeling like I was carrying a secret around her, and I couldn’t just be honest with her like good friends are supposed to be. My friend and her family would sometimes mention how I missed the wedding and that I should spend more time with them. To cover up my real reasons, I had to keep lying, which made me feel even more distance from them and more shame for lying.
Another time when I started to date someone, a close friend of mine became frustrated with me for not spending as much time with her as I used to. It was very hard for me to solve that and I had to go out of my way to “make her happy,” but we both ended up being annoyed at each other because we felt insecure and were passive aggressive to each other. I felt like I was giving up time to make more time for her, and it still didn’t make her feel better.
Although I had done a lot of what my friends wanted me to do, I pushed them away and felt emotionally unsafe with them at the same time. I realized that if I didn’t do something about it, I might lose some of my greatest friendships because I couldn’t find clear boundaries between my needs and theirs, and even when I could see a boundary, I couldn’t keep it.
Setting emotional boundaries is not just essential with friends or co-workers, but it is also absolutely vital for family and intimate partners. When the boundaries become blurry, we feel invaded and unsafe with these people. We can’t relate to them in an authentic way and we disconnect ourselves from them, making us less happy and less healthy. As humans, we all are wired for connection, biologically, physically, and emotionally. In order to stay alive and thrive, we need to feel a sense of connection and belonging. We want to be able to love from a deeply accepting place and be loved for who we truly are. Boundaries enable us to keep ourselves safe without sacrificing anyone else’s happiness and keep others safe without sacrificing our own happiness. Therefore, being able to identify the kinds of boundaries we have with each individual in our lives is essential for our well-being.
Here are some things to think about that may help improve the quality of your boundaries:
- Think about a time that you really wanted to say no, but you ended up saying yes.
- Where were you?
- Who were you with?
- How were you feeling?
- What was at stake for you?
- Which part of your body felt uncomfortable?
- Then consider these more general questions:
- If you don’t say yes, would you be accused of causing someone to be unhappy?
- Do you often feel responsible for other people’s happiness?
- Do you often blame yourself for not being able to “come through” for other people?
- Can you let go of feeling guilty, or do you tend to ruminate about it in your head even after the event happened?
I hope that your answers to these questions may help you become more aware of the quality of your boundaries with others.
So, why do many of us still go through all these troubles of making up stories? Why drain our energy, why not just tell the truth? It’s because being authentic feels vulnerable and risky. We risk hurting someone’s feelings, we risk being judged, we risk being shamed, we risk being attacked, and we risk being rejected.
However, if you want to save your relationships and live an authentic life, you have to care about building healthy boundaries with your loved ones and teach them how to do that with you. This practice will bring you closer to each other, allowing you to be more genuinely loving, and help you be your best selves with each other.
With this practice, there will definitely be times when you feel challenged because the person you interact with has a hard time hearing your needs and an easy time shaming you. Please know that these people are having a difficult time honoring their own needs, which is why they’re having a difficult time honoring your needs. You’re not harming them by honoring your needs. In fact, you are modeling healthy self-acceptance, helping them do the same for themselves.
I have learned through my own experience, practices, and trainings that the only way to solve this problem effectively is to:
1) Recognize the quality of my relationships and the kind of boundary I have for each one.
2) Assess whether a relationship really nourishes me, or if it makes my feel tense and limits my freedom.
3) Share my concerns with the particular person from a compassionate and vulnerable place rather from a defensive or blaming place. The message is, “these are my needs, and I have to honor them. I hope you can understand, and I hope you honor your own needs.”
In my example of the flu and the wedding, even though I might not have been able to tell the truth at that particular time because of what was at stake in that event, I could revisit the issue later. When I was ready, I could tell my friend that, in general, I had certain feelings about her sister’s behavior toward me.
Here are some ideas that could help you initiate the conversation with your loved ones.
- Find a good time to initiate the conversation. Make an appointment. It can be on the phone or in person.
- Express gratitude about the relationship or friendships, going into details about the benefits you feel from it.
- Share your difficult feelings, using the phrase, “I feel ____ when you ____, and my way of protecting myself is to ____.”
- “I could imagine that you might feel ____ when I do that.
- “I appreciate you being open to hearing what I have to say. It has been difficult sharing this with you because I care about you and don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I hope you understand that I am telling you this because I value you so much, and I don’t want to hide this from you. I want to be able to share my feelings with you and be honest with you. “
It will definitely make you feel risky to have such vulnerable conversation with people we have never actually had clear boundaries with before, especially those we feel close to and care about so much. But it is very important to know that firm boundaries will help us feel closer and more connected with them, more than having no boundaries. This is because boundaries give us a safe space to be our authentic self and be seen and accepted as we are.
Through expressing my needs compassionately, I am asking for what I want. I speak up for myself, I honor my needs, and more importantly, I set firm and healthy boundaries. The practice of asking for what you want can be a form of spiritual practice when it consists of expressing your gratitude, activating your self-compassion, acknowledging and owning your needs, communicating through loving-speech, and trusting that your request will be received with understanding and open hearts. If you want to have healthy boundaries, you have to be willing to build them yourself, because you are the expert of your own experience. Everyone is capable of building healthy boundaries, and only they can do it for themselves. Setting boundaries is a fascinating journey, as it requires you to be vulnerable as well as courageous when experiencing emotional challenges, which often come up in the process.
Honoring your needs can be done through the practice of self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-care.
- Self-Awareness is being in the present moment fully and being aware about your own mind, your own feelings, your own needs, and your own struggles. Questions you can ask yourself to access self-awareness are:
- How is my breathing quality right now? Is it shallow or deep? Am I breathing or holding my breath?
- What are the thoughts that come to my mind at this moment?
- How am I feeling?
- What are my needs?
- Self-Compassion is the ability to treat yourself the way you treat a friend asking for help, to be kind, with the intention to relieve suffering and lighten sorrow.
- What can I do or say to be kind and gentle to myself?
- Give yourself the permission to be human.
- Choose to be your own ally and support your own decisions without judgment.
- Self-Care is the ability to soothe oneself and get one’s needs met in a nourishing way when in need of comfort and care, physically and emotionally.
- Set up the time to do activities that make you feel refreshed and energized
- Reach out to people who you trust and feel safe with to discuss with them your dilemmas.
- Practice speaking from a place of courage and authenticity.
- Take care of yourself with a form of self-care that makes sense to you. Keep in mind that self-care helps you feel refreshed and energized afterwards, not drained and numb.
Creating boundaries is not easy because it requires courage, vulnerability, and self-compassion. This means you have to be able to look at people you love in the eye and tell them that you care about them and you want to make them happy, but at the same time you also want to have you needs met and take care of yourself, even when it may disappoint them.
By taking care of yourself, you are also taking care of other people. When you are asking for what you want, you are owning your truth and honoring your needs. In addition, the practice of building healthy boundaries takes time and patience. It is important to meet yourself where you are and honor when it feels right to just sit back and observe.