I throw the word “boundaries” around quite a bit and it dawned on me, after the look on someone’s face while in conversation, that they had no clue what I was talking about. So let’s begin there.
What are boundaries?
I’m going to share a personal story about my child and I to illustrate boundaries for you. While you read, please try to imagine your upbringing and the boundaries or lack of boundaries within your home. Also, you can try to imagine how these examples work within your current adult relationships as well. It’s easy to judge, however remember this: some of us grew up with no boundaries, damaged boundaries, dysfunction or in some cases some people were lucky enough to have a good dose of healthy boundaries.
When my son was around 3 years old, his father and I divorced. He now had two homes with two different parenting styles. Behavior expected at mealtimes, cleaning up toys, bedtimes, how much time allowed for television, etc. These are simple examples of boundaries. One boundary I taught my son was “toys away after play”. We made signs and hung them on the walls for reminders. I let him make a mess and get creative, but at the end of the day, he needed to put his toys away (at age 3-4 years I was helping by supervising).
The first step to setting a boundary is to establish what it is.
For us, “toys away after play”.
The second step is to hold firm and be your word.
If you say you are going to do something, you need to do it and follow through. In my case, my son was only 3 or 4 years old so he needed reminders and an example from me to be my word with this important boundary.
The third step is positive reinforcement.
“You are doing a nice job putting away your toys”.
The fourth step is consistency.
The more consistent we are with holding the boundaries that we set, the easier life will be and the more trust we will have with ourself and others. For example, when you are your word with yourself and you do what you say you are going to do, it builds self esteem. Others will trust you.
Past emotional and mental habits can limit us at times. Worrying about being liked, guilt, trying to please, being inconsistent and not staying firm on your rules can derail even the strongest intention to hold a boundary.
The fifth step, is follow through on consequences if a boundary is not held.
I began making excuses for my son. He is tired, we’ll clean tomorrow. Or, he sees his dad in the morning, let’s just snuggle tonight and I will clean the toys myself tomorrow. Or he would want to play outside and I didn’t want to disappoint him by telling him to put away his toys first. So we would go outside and I wouldn’t follow through sometimes. I would forget about the rule “toys away after play rule” sometimes. Not all the time, but even a couple times, teaches people how to treat us. and then inadvertently reward him later by making a fun treat in the kitchen and creating another mess…
Here is what I was doing wrong: I was letting guilt get in the way of my leadership. I was allowing my fear of “not being liked” and I was not saying “not now” when he asked to go outside. I was letting him go and leave the toys everywhere. I was not practicing what I preached either. I had a rule and it was simple, “toys away after play” and I was not leading by example by 1) consistently enforcing the rule with him and 2) doing the same with my own “toys” (can you see the piles of unfolded laundry on the couch?) Again, my guilty feelings, at the time, came from lack and not enough. I feared not having enough time with him and I didn’t want to spend it doing the laundry, dishes or cleaning up. It should be noted that it’s important sometimes to leave those dishes and just play with our babies and wash stuff when they are in bed, but that is a different blog.
What started happening was that Manny wasn’t listening to me. He was trying to negotiate with me too. Since I had a lack of clear boundaries and follow through, I began seeing behavior problems.
Also, people, especially kids, instinctively will push boundaries to test their freedoms and to develop a sense of self and learn about the world. It’s completely natural and we don’t need to get upset about this.
There are times, we get angry when someone doesn’t respect our boundary. Our instinct might be to point fingers at “them”.
Ponder this instead:
the person you are angry at is you because you had not been holding boundaries in the past. You could be mad at yourself for tolerating this dysfunction for so long.
It’s your job to model the life you want to live. In my case, it is also my job to be my word and follow through on what I say because I am a model for teaching trust and respect for our words and for doing what we say we will do. This is how we lead by example.
Since we know that a lack of clear boundaries often results in behavior problems, it is crucial to begin creating healthy boundaries when they are still little. Children naturally experiment and push boundaries as they test their wings, develop their own sense of self, and learn about how the world works. It’s what they are supposed to do. So don’t judge kids for pushing back or take it personally. There is really no reason to be angry at them when they do so–they are just doing what kids do.
Had I not let my guilt and fear lead in some of those moments, I would have taught my son to fight for what he wanted. For example, if he really wanted to play outside, then he would need to put away the lego blocks first.
When we do not hold boundaries it not only hurts us and erodes our self trust and esteem, but it also teaches others not to trust us.
I will never forget this: We were at home, and I told my son to put away his toys and he said “no, I want to do it later because you said we could go to the park”. I shared with him that he needed to put away the toys first and then he broke down, started to get all upset and he said that I wasn’t being honest with him because I said we could go to the park. I then said, “toys away after play” and then he said, “mama, you don’t put away all of your stuff all the time!”
I wanted to crawl under my bed in that moment. I was so upset because I could see what I had done. I had trained him to see that we didn’t always follow our rules. I showed him things were negotiable and worse, he didn’t trust me to be my word because I had changed the rules (boundaries) in the past and he could clearly see by looking around that I wasn’t putting away my “toys” either.
Recognizing the privileges we had in that moment, I also simultaneously felt like a failure as a parent. I saw how I wasn’t holding boundaries and following through on the consequences I had shared. I didn’t feel trustable.
The thing about this example is that if we are not holding good boundaries in one area of our life, then you can bet that you are not holding good boundaries in the majority of your life (with food, body, relationships, money, home, being on time, etc).
For me, I taught this stuff and I saw my path towards growth in front of me. It was time to grow up and learn to be my word with myself. A week later, my partner, Rob, called me out for not following through on something I said I would do.
This is what we call a “breakdown before a breakthrough”. I was feeling pretty low and I wanted to shame myself, crawl under the covers and hide. The worst part about all of this was that I didn’t TRUST MYSELF.
I want to be clear – the boundary you hold in a relationship with someone (child or adult) is there to keep you safe and to establish or reinforce the trusting relationship you have with yourself. There is nothing worse than not feeling like you can be trusted.
My son was acting out and not listening, not because he was “wrong”, but because I was not holding and enforcing boundaries.
A boundary is kind of like the front door to your house. This is a silly hypothetical example that I illustrates the need to draw a line in the sand.
Say you leave the front door open and animals come in regularly: squirrels, mice, deer, birds, bats. These animals, eat out of your cupboards and nestle into your cozy couch or bed. It’s so irritating that they just find their way in and eat your food and take over your comforts of home. You feel invaded while you are picking up after them. They aren’t doing their part to help out.
Now if you “shut the door” then this is a boundary. If you have a fence around your yard, that is another boundary. If you have a forest, then that serves as another boundary. You decide and define what way those animals get to show up in your life and what rights they have. This is a boundary.
Now, some of us might say, “but those mice and chipmunks and birds are so cute, let them come in”. I don’t want to shut them out, I feel bad… Then, these cute animals or you are out of control and spoiled and you are in charge and miserable with animal crap everywhere!
Once you shut that door, those animals are going to be mad! They are used to the comforts you have been providing them and the free food. They are not going to understand why you shut them out and they will try to play upon your guilt and shame to have things go back to the way they were.
As we hold boundaries, the people who used to walk all over our boundaries in the past will usually react. They will not like it. You must stay strong.
Where there is a breakdown, there is always a breakthrough around the corner.
It’s in these moments that we can see the opportunity to grow through something painful and breakthrough. We can find self-compassion.
The truth is, I didn’t learn healthy boundaries growing up and for that reason, I was having a challenge living them out in my adult life. This is common with most everyone I speak with in some way or another. The good news is that we can all change. The best news is that we can start today by taking the first step.
7 Steps to holding boundaries
- Make a list of all of the places you feel drained, angry or exhausted. This list is how you establish where in your life you need to start to set boundaries.
- Acknowledge that this is scary and sometimes hard work. It challenges us and you may need support from a coach to help you. Contact me here.
- Challenges are opportunities for your best growth! If you don’t set boundaries with people then you are enabling them to not grow and holding yourself back in the process. They need to learn this lesson, just as much as you do.
- Speak clearly about what specific boundary you want to set. Use simple words, share what you expect and look them in the eyes. Speak to them from your perspective only. For example, “I expect you to speak to me with with respect.” Speak calmly and be crystal clear. Notice the boundary above was a positive statement about what you expect. It wasn’t explaining what you don’t want.
- Work on your No muscle. In my Love Your Life Academy group, I have a list of all of the different ways for a person to say “NO”. My clients love this list. For now, a simple, “no, that doesn’t work for me.” is a good start. No explanation is ever needed.
- Be clear on the consequence if your boundary is not held and communicate that. I find that clients tend to struggle with this part, at first, because it can be scary to draw a line in the sand and hold a natural consequence. However, you must! Setup a consequence and make sure you follow through on it.
- Practice the law of detachment. This means that you will factor in “uncertainty” as an essential ingredient of your experience. In other words, you communicate clear and calm without raising your voice and you “detach” from the outcome. You have positive expectations that things will go well, but it’s not really up to you now. They need to respect your boundary and if they choose not to, the consequence to go along with it.
Here are some extra tips on boundaries:
Try to distance yourself from saboteur relationships as much as possible until you can 1) get clear on your specific boundaries or 2) decide not to be in contact any longer.
Find people who know how to set boundaries, that lift you up, inspire you and that you can learn from. Ask questions, become a student in this area of your life.
Where there is a lack of boundaries, there is codependent and dysfunctional relationships. These may feel like love relationships, but they are not. This is a hard truth to swallow. Dependency and love are not the same thing. When there is love, you won’t feel drained. Energy draining = dependent relationships, which means that at it’s core it is unhealthy for everyone involved.
Anger is always a signal of a boundary violation.
Watch out for people who after hearing your boundaries, they purposefully and consciously try to sabotage or walk all over them. So you have shared yourself and they try to walk all over you. This is not a healthy relationship and could be or feel abusive, get help.
Remember that because you have been tolerating the following behaviors from these relationships, it ultimately means that you have trained these people to not respect your boundary. They will not be perfect at this at first and you can expect a little resistance. You will not be perfect at this at first either! Don’t be so hard on yourself.
What you want to watch for is the person who listens to you with compassion and try’s to respect your wishes – these people you can grow with. If they ignore you and pretend like what you shared does not exist, then, I would create distance and get some help.
As always, I love hearing from you. Do you have any questions for me on boundaries? This is a big topic. Share your stories or post questions or thoughts below in the comments.