Despite common assumptions, boundaries are not actually walls to shut people out. They are GIFTS that help people know how to love and connect with each other. When honored consistently and mutually, they create safety and trust.
Reframing this essential tool of relational health
In my 20s, I became aware of this thing called “Boundaries”, but I had only the vaguest concept of what it was. One thing I had gathered was that it was something I could stand to improve upon. But what did that even mean??
In my 30s, I came to learn more about what they were, and how they showed up – or didn’t – in Relationship. And something I discovered about them as they pertained to me was that I was afraid of them.
It felt like I was being mean to draw a line in the sand and tell someone No, or to not do everything I could to help ease another’s suffering or burden. And it felt really harsh when someone would tell me No, or wouldn’t help me out with something.
Another thing I came to notice as I started paying more attention to this whole Boundary thing, was that people (myself included) will get super resentful when they “give and give and give”, and the targeted recipient of all this effort is ungrateful or doesn’t reciprocate in the desired manner.
Somewhere along the way, I came to view Boundaries as “Resource Limits“, and I saw that they are our own responsibility, and no one else’s.
By my 40s, I came to the conclusion that they are synonymous with Empowered Compassion, and I learned how to implement them in my relationships accordingly.
Like encountering a whole new language
I participated for a time (in my 30s) in a community of beautiful souls who practice “Authentic Relating.” One of the skills most of them have in spades is healthy Boundaries.
For the first time in my life, I encountered receiving a No without disconnection, but with the person staying present and connected with me. I could feel clearly that it wasn’t personal.
I discovered incredible Relief in being able to say No to them without having to worry about their feelings getting hurt, because I knew that they were fluent in Boundaries and wouldn’t take it personally.
And I never felt the need to delve into explanations that simply weren’t needed. Unless, of course, I did want to talk about it; then, if they were available for it, they would hold the most beautiful space for me.
I also found immense Safety in being able to trust a Yes that I knew was sincere, not given out of obligation or fear of my feelings getting hurt, and wouldn’t later result in resentment towards me. And I could so thoroughly enjoy their true desire to engage fully in whatever it was with me.
Those experiences inspired in me a whole new relationship with Boundaries. I wanted to be able to provide that sense of safety and trust for those I cared about, too. And I realized that what I had been doing was not nearly as loving as I’d thought.
Whence the misconception?
Our culture has run amok with “Romanticism” and deeply normalized Enmeshed Codependence. We actually idealize being boundaryless:
“It’s so beautiful! Our two beings become one. I can’t tell where I end you and you begin.”
GAG!! That is not a healthy dynamic, dear reader. From that perspective, it totally feels mean – violent, almost – to enforce a boundary or to have a boundary enforced against us, and it definitely feels mean to call out or be called out for crossing a boundary.
But how rude is it to be so dishonest about our feelings with others? We think we’re being “kind”, but we’re actually being quite manipulative.
And how awful is it to give so much more than we have within ourselves that we then get mad at the other for “taking” from us? THAT is mean to both parties.
People aren’t mind readers. We go by the precedents that people set out. On some base level, we expect people to know and honor their limits. How crummy does it feel when someone gets mad at us for believing that they were fine with something they never said otherwise about?
So what are Boundaries? Here’s my comprehensive definition:
Boundaries are the expressed and honored acceptance of our naturally limited and precious resources, communicated with ownership, so that others know how to be successful in relationship with us, and consistently upheld for the sake of our wellbeing and the health of our relationships.
Boundaries are not weapons of disconnection.
Neither are they barriers to connection.
They are not preferences, nor are they demands or even requests.
Boundaries are not the same thing as needs. They do not require anything from others.
Boundaries sound like: “When I receive harsh criticism, I feel shame, and so to care for myself, I will remove myself from the situation.”
Such clear information is gifted to your counterpart as insight into your limitations and the consequences that occur when they are exceeded.
> Boundaries are HONORED with integrity and ENFORCED with consistency. <
When we neglect to say No when we need to, or fail to follow through on our boundaries, we over-give beyond the limits of our resources, and we end up feeling depleted, resentful, and victimized by the beneficiary of our outpouring of “love”, blaming them for extracting from us what was ours to protect.
Why do we do such a thing?
Out of a misplaced sense of obligation to rescue them from their discomfort – or rather to buffer ourselves from our discomfort with their discomfort – and to prevent them from rejecting us, because we lack the internal security to trust that we will be loved no matter what, even if it’s not by them.
And then we pile more blame on them for not rescuing us from our discomfort.
> Boundaries are our own responsibility. <
There is a whole construct that most people often operate on, based on misplaced responsibility, where we think that we’re responsible for other people’s emotional experiences and they’re responsible for ours, and that no one is responsible for – or even capable of handling – their/our own strong emotions.
So everyone ends up feeling powerless, seeing others as powerless, and/or blaming someone else’s power over them. It’s a terribly convoluted notion that deeply disempowers everyone involved.
When we each claim our personal responsibility, allow others theirs, and also take appropriate interpersonal accountability for our role in every dynamic we participate in, we create a fertile space for love to flourish with empowered compassion.
> Boundaries provide the parameters and structure for a relationship to thrive. <
Think of how important it is for a building to have integrity and solid boundaries. Consider even the boundaries of your body – your skin and bones. How effective would you be if the physical boundaries of your body were not clearly defined and consistently enforced?
Likewise, your relationships will not function without clear and consistent boundaries.
> When Boundaries are honored mutually, people and their relationships thrive. <
Respecting other people’s boundaries can be prickly at first. Of course, we all want our boundaries respected, and we all feel resentment when they’re trampled, but when we’ve still got healing work to do in order to develop the skill of honoring our boundaries so that we don’t allow people to trample them, we have a hard time understanding what they are in general, what OURS are in particular, and what other people’s are when we encounter them.
As we start to develop boundaries, many of those who were enjoying our apparently higher limits (and who are not fluent in Boundaries) will feel victimized by our newfound boundaries and villainize us for the change which will feel like an affront to them (yet another byproduct of normalized enmeshment and misplaced responsibility).
AND while we’re still learning, we might start to notice ways in which WE’RE feeling victimized by other people’s boundaries, as well, or their perceived “failures” to rescue us from our discomfort (which is also our own responsibility to navigate).
> The more limited a resource, the more precious. <
We each have a finite amount of resources – time, energy, attention, care – this makes them PRECIOUS, and this preciousness calls on us to honor them.
Much like the Oxygen Mask Imperative, we must prioritize our own wellbeing in order be resourced enough to support others in theirs.
Claiming responsibility for your limits will free you to be your Truest self, and empower you to be LOVED as your Truest self. Honoring the responsibility of others as well, extends them the gift of owning their Life.
In addition to our own limitations that we’d like to have accommodated, in order to nurture a healthy Relationship, we will have to make accommodations for our partner’s limitations as well. This is the “compromise” people refer to in the realm of Relationship.
But we don’t have to compromise on our boundaries when we collaborate on strategies for honoring both partners’ parameters.
Love is unconditional. Relationships are not.
That’s what Boundaries are for.
But how do we traverse that valley between our enmeshed conditioning and healthy boundaries??
It is vital that we develop Internally Rooted Security.
Coming from the externally oriented state of enmeshment, we find ourselves with rather insecure foundations because what’s outside of us is always in flux. We can only find lasting security within ourselves.
With Internally Rooted Security, we have the grounded confidence to trust in our own resilience, our unconditional worth, and our right and duty to be exactly who we are – limits and all.
It can help to do some Shadow Work in order to reconnect to your self-acceptance and your worthiness of putting your needs before those of others – for their sake as well as yours.
We have to follow our own rules, too.
Practicing healthy boundaries means being responsible with our resources even when it’s just us.
Managing our time, finances, energy – these are acts of self-love.
“Reparenting” ourselves and becoming the responsible, loving adult that our inner child needs is part of the process of healing our formative wounds and nourishing our Internally Rooted Security.
I am still working on employing loving self-discipline and saying No to my inner child when she’s being irresponsible with our resources.
One thing we have to do is learn do be with ourselves in healthy discomfort, instead of scrambling to get away from any discomfort. And practicing Boundaries for newcomers – particularly with others – is very uncomfortable at first.
One of the most beneficial things I’ve incorporated into my regimen is an Embodiment practice. Spending time bringing our awareness from the mind, down in the BODY (you know, that 1/3 of the holy trinity: Mind, Body & Soul) strengthens the skill of feeling into our limits.
Once you get familiar with your limits, and fumble around a bit with implementing a Boundary practice, aim to stay in connection with your counterpart when you express your limits. Note that if a “boundary” sounds like a “F*ck you” it’s neither empowered nor compassionate.
Cheers and Namaste