We often hear that it’s important to create good personal boundaries. However, doing so in a healthy way is not so easy. Setting boundaries is a skill that requires continual refinement. How can we set boundaries that support us rather than bind and constrain us — and push other people away?
Personal boundaries define our space and protect our well-being. If someone is mistreating us or shaming us, we have the capacity to take of ourselves by responding in a self-supportive way. We can say what’s not ok.
Boundaries regulate how how responsive we want to be toward others. If a friend asks a favor, such a ride to the airport or a request to meet for lunch, we know that we have the right to say “yes” or “no.” Our caring prompts us to consider their request and take it seriously. Our caring toward ourselves prompts us to consider our own well-being and needs. We weigh our own needs while considering the desires of others.
Some people who pride themselves on having strong boundaries actually have rigid ones. They wear their boundaries as a defensive shield. For them, setting boundaries is equivalent to keeping people away. They are quick to say “no,” and slow to say “yes.” They have difficulty with “maybe” because it requires the inner strength to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty.
Healthy boundaries require flexibility — a pliability of mind and heart. It requires a capacity to pause and consider what we really want, as well as how we’re affecting others.
A subtle, counterintuitive point is that we may set boundaries in a rigid way because we’re so afraid of losing ourselves — ignoring or minimizing our own needs — that we quickly send a “no” message because we’re not really sure about our right to say “no.” When we’re uncertain about our rights and needs, we have a tendency to either ignore them, which leaves us feeling resentful or depressed (or both!) or we assert them aggressively.
Pausing Before Responding
As we become more confident about our right to say “no,” we won’t be so quick to slam the door in another’s person face. The more confident we are in our capacity to take care of ourselves, the more we can pause and “let in” another’s request without immediately feeling obligated to respond positively.
An automatic positive response to a person’s request might reflect a fear of losing their love or friendship. Or it might reveal our tendency to cling to a self-image of being a caring person. Setting boundaries does not mean we don’t care about people. Healthy, flexible boundaries means that we’re developing enough inner strength, wisdom, and compassion to balance others’ needs with our own. It means we can set limits with kindness rather than with a sword in our hand — an irritability in our voice or a hostile demeanor.
An angry demeanor is sometimes appropriate and necessary, such as when there has been abuse, injustice, or a serious violation of our boundaries. But anger is often a secondary emotion that covers up our more vulnerable feelings, such as fear, hurt, and shame.
Setting Boundaries with Sensitivity
Healthy boundaries require that we consider how our boundary-setting affects others. When our fear or shame gets triggered, such as when we know we’ll be disappointing someone or when we feel criticized, we might shut down emotionally or wrap ourselves in a self-protective blanket of anger.
John Gottman, who conducted research into what makes marriages succeed or fail, tells us that intimate relationships invite us to be affected by each other. “Accepting influence” is one of the factors that helps relationships thrive. This influence doesn’t mean a codependent surrender to another’s needs without considering our own. It means letting in another person and being affected by them. This requires that we expand our tolerance for ambiguity and complexity. It means having compassion for ourselves and our limits while keeping our heart open to another person.
Being present and sensitive toward others without being insensitive to ourselves takes much inner work and practice. It’s an ongoing practice of checking in with ourselves while also staying connected with others, which, after all, is what healthy relationships are all about.