Secrets of a Happy Life: Build Healthy Boundaries

Pre-read: Blog “Creating Your Own Happiness: Ask, Listen & Learn”

In the blog, Ask, Listen & Learn, I address the importance of learning how to ask for what you need.  This is such a fundamental yet challenging “skill” that Brené Brown, a well-known American scholar who studies shame and vulnerability, includes it in her personal definition of the word courage:

“1. Asking for what you need

2. Speaking your truth

3. Owning your story

4. Setting boundaries

5. Reaching out for support.”

Ask, Listen & Learn delves into numbers 1 through 3.  On numerous occasions, I have also discussed how imperative it is to both seek and accept support (#5) -- whether that be simple encouragement, extra resources, or therapy.  However, we have yet to discuss boundaries.  And.  Boundaries.  Are.  Essential.

When we ask for help and open-up about what we want and need, we show our vulnerability.  Vulnerability is a good thing, but it does require some caution in terms of when we share it and who we share it with.

So Just What are Boundaries?

Personal boundaries are kind of like the unwritten ‘rules of engagement’ in our relationships.  They determine the way we communicate, how much we give of ourselves both physically and emotionally, and what we are willing to accept from others.  

Boundary-setting is tricky for many.  We often struggle with how and where to draw the line, sometimes as a result of insecurity, self-doubt, or a need to please that has morphed out of control.  Many women, for example, become fixated on the idea that they are failing unless they keep everyone around them happy.  This so-called “Good Girl Syndrome” is often ingrained from a young age, since girls have traditionally been taught that they need to “play nice” and keep the peace or they are being “bad”.

Setting appropriate boundaries is complicated by the fact that our relationships, our roles, and life in general are constantly in flux.  As a result, personal boundaries must also be dynamic and fluid, requiring regular reflection and reevaluation.  

How to Recognize Unhealthy Boundaries

If boundaries are too restrictive, we lose the ability to love deeply, intimately, wholeheartedly.  Consciously or not, we construct walls and reinforcements to protect ourselves from harm.  However, these walls become unscalable barriers that prevent others from getting to know our true and authentic selves.  We may be in a marriage or relationship where we are physically intimate, yet feel disconnected and unseen.  Should our walls be demolished or crumble under pressure, we risk feeling conquered and defeated.

On the other hand, when our boundaries are too loose, we sacrifice self-respect.  Our overwhelming need to please may lead us to link our self-worth to the happiness of those around us; to look to others for validation and approval; and to say and do things that compromise our values and integrity.  Should we lose sight of our own thoughts and feelings, this can impair our ability to make decisions or even voice differing opinions.  

Another clue that our boundaries are too permissive is that we give to the point of neglecting our own needs.  If we give less, we feel guilty.  But when we give more, we wind-up exhausted and resentful, and start to blame other people for our hardship and unhappiness.  As a therapist, I know that my boundaries have become problematic if I leave clinic feeling as though I am bearing the weight of a patient’s burdens on my shoulders.  The same can be said of a friend or acquaintance.  If we are in a relationship where we routinely walk away from get-togethers feeling drained instead of rejuvenated, sometimes boundary issues are the culprit.

Many of us gravitate to one end of the boundary spectrum or have experienced both extremes, sometimes even within the context of a single tumultuous relationship.  Clearly, the goal is to learn how to find a healthy middle ground.  Proper boundaries allow for mutual respect.  They enable us to clearly define the scope of our needs, set limits, and express who we are without being defined by others.  Boundaries are the way we stay true to ourselves and uphold our personal integrity without the fear of being undermined, railroaded or relegated to “inferior” status.

So What Now?

Once we determine that we do, in fact, need better boundaries, action is required.  This may sound simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  Here I will summarize the main points above and provide some strategies to help you build healthier boundaries and healthier, happier relationships.

  • Recognize that you matter.  Your worth comes from being you, not from pleasing or agreeing with others.  Looking after yourself, setting limits, saying no -- these are not selfish acts.  They are acts of love and respect.  Start with yourself and you will discover a deeper love and compassion for others.  

  • Get to know the real you.  Whenever you catch yourself simply going along with what others want or expect, hit pause.  Give yourself the space and permission required to figure out your own feelings, needs and opinions.  

  • Make friends with your gut.  Learn to recognize and trust your intuition, your so-called gut instincts, and what feels unacceptable versus healthy and “right” for you.  This will give you strong clues about your boundaries.  Rigid boundaries can result in a sense of alienation and loneliness.  Loose boundaries are associated with feeling overwhelmed, bitter, anxious or violated.  Alternatively, relationships with proper boundaries are ones where you feel comfortable, confident and connected.

  • Speak-up.  As discussed in "Ask, Listen & Learn", we can’t expect people to read our minds or respond kindly to passive-aggressive comments or guilt-trips.  Instead, we must open the lines of communication around physical, social and emotional needs and limitations.

  • Start small and build.  Practice giving voice to differing opinions or feelings in low-pressure situations where the consequences are minimal.  Once you have gained some confidence with this, move-up to tackling more significant issues and decisions.

  • Practice saying no.  The start small and build principle applies here, too.  If you already have enough on your plate, say no to the position on the PTA.  Tell your friend you can’t lend him any more money until he pays back what he already owes you.  Let your girlfriend know that you love her and you cannot call in sick for her because she’s hungover again.

  • Use specific “I” statements instead of vague “You” statements.  Consider the difference between the following:

    • “You never help around here.” vs. “I am feeling overworked and would appreciate some help making dinner tonight.”

    • “You never listen to me!” vs. “I feel like I am not being understood and it’s upsetting me -- can we talk about it?”

    • “Who was your servant last year?” (yes, I have actually said this!) vs. “I will do the laundry that has been sorted before school Monday morning.”

    • “You never trust me!” vs. “Trust is essential in our relationship and I want to talk about any concerns you may have.  However, I feel violated when you read my texts and emails.  It is important to me to have my privacy respected.”

“I” statements help us own and articulate our personal feelings.  They are also less likely to sound accusatory and incite defensiveness.   

  • Adopt the sandwich approach.  This is akin to giving feedback where we sandwich our constructive criticism or request between a couple of positive statements.  Here are some examples relating to boundaries:

    • “I would love to spend time with you tonight.  There is some work I would like to get done this afternoon, so why don’t we set a time and make it a date?”

    • “I am looking forward to hearing about your day!  I’ll be done writing this article in 15 minutes and can give you my undivided attention then.”

    • “That’s an important problem for us to talk about.  It’s hard to have a productive conversation with so much yelling.  I’m happy to discuss this when we’ve both calmed down.”

When we work to implement new interpersonal rules, we can expect at least a few growing pains.  Some relationships will adjust and strengthen with relative ease.  Others will face difficult truths and challenges.  If the boundary issues are complex or the scope of the implications far-reaching, the guidance of a trained professional such as a therapist may be required.  And remember that you aren’t expected to “fix” everything overnight.  As with so many fundamentals in life, setting and adjusting boundaries is an ongoing lifelong work-in-progress.