Personal boundaries are often discussed as knowing where we end and others begin. Boundaries define who we are — honoring ourselves as a separate individual with needs and wants that differ from others. Without setting boundaries, we may allow others to trample over us and override our own feelings and what’s important to us. We lose our voice; we get lost in their world of desires. Having very weak boundaries, we may get eaten alive by people who are very clear about what they want!
The essential nature of what we call “boundaries” is an external expression of an internal self-affirmation. This requires that we know and affirm what we feel inside and what is important to us.
Before we can set a boundary, we need to know what we’re experiencing. Are we feeling hurt or angry by another’s harsh comment? Do we want to agree to visit our partner’s family for the holidays or would we prefer some other option?
Sometimes what others want from us — perhaps a favor, a date, or visiting with our partner’s friends, feels fine. It can feel good to help someone and make them happy. And we might enjoy it too! At other times, we’re swamped with our own projects or obligations and just don’t have the time — or don’t want to do something that’s likely to make us unhappy.
It often takes some time to get clear about what we want and don’t want. Affirming our needs and wants begins by pausing: going inside and noticing what rings true for us. Psychologist Tara Brach calls this the “sacred pause” — taking time to be present to what we’re experiencing in the moment.
The essence of boundaries is differentiating what we want from what others want from us. Boundaries are an act and expression of self-affirmation. We pause long enough to notice what resonates for us and what doesn’t. If we’re not sure, that’s okay too. There’s no shame in taking our time to get clear about what feels comfortable for us.
Finding a Middle Path
Setting boundaries — expressing our yes, our no, and our maybe, doesn’t mean ignoring what others want and indulging our narcissistic tendencies — being oblivious to how we’re affecting others. But neither does it mean habitually shortchanging ourselves — quickly accommodating others without fully considering how that will affect us.
One extreme is to rarely consider what we want — succumbing to a codependent habit of minimizing our own desires and preferences in the interest of pleasing others. Perhaps we crave being liked and avoid disagreements or conflicts to the detriment of our own well-being. Continually bypassing our own needs is a setup to feel resentment and disconnection. Intimacy suffers when we keep ignoring ourselves.
The other extreme is not giving a damn about how we’re affecting people. Perhaps we feel emotionally deprived and compensate by “wearing” our boundaries. Rigid boundaries — ones that are insensitive and mis-attuned to what others want — keep us isolated.
Not knowing how to allow ourselves to be nurtured emotionally, we might be victims of a cycle where we keep craving or demanding things for ourselves — things that don’t really nurture us. Arrogant, aggressive behavior — leading with our “no” can keep us armored and distance us from people. Sadly, we may not recognize how rewarding it can be to listen deeply to people and give them what they need — if we can.
Boundaries can imply something rigid. Sometimes we need to be firm, such as when we’re mistreated or ignored. Most times, we’re better served by having flexible boundaries. We gently hold what we want while also listening to what others feel and want. We have “no” as a backup, but we engage in dialogue. We remain open to be influenced, but not to the point of dishonoring ourselves. We dance, delight in, and sometimes struggle in the space that lives between ourselves and others.
Finding such a middle path isn’t easy. It takes time, practice, and plentiful mistakes to know our limits and how far we feel comfortable stretching. But engaging in conversations where we have our voice and honor other’s experience, we create a climate for the intimate, loving relationships we long for.
By entering into a collaborative process with people we care about — and even with those we don’t know so well — we maintain goodwill toward them. And we get to know them better. Being mindful about maintaining flexible boundaries, we create new connections, deepen existing ones, and foster a sense of community. It’s an essential skill to develop if we want to live a fulfilling, connected life.
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