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Most people think they have good boundaries. But when pressed, they can’t often explain what their boundaries are — let alone maintain positive ones. Today’s guest, Nancy Kalina Gomez, explains that boundaries aren’t about being defensive or hostile. Healthy boundaries strengthen our ability to honor our needs and wants, showing the world how we expect to be treated.
Gomez also discusses how to communicate those boundaries without offending our loved ones. Listen Now!
Nancy Kalina Gomez is a bilingual professional with 25+ years of experience as a clinician. She earned a master’s degree in clinical and counseling psychology from Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Prior to that, she specialized in clinical psychology with adults/adolescents at The George Washington University where she completed the required academic coursework toward a PsyD.
During her career, Nancy has worked in both programming and direct clinical services. She has treated clients from all over the world for issues surrounding abandonment, anxiety or panic, bipolar disorder, depression (clinical and situational), dual diagnosis, family conflicts, life transitions, personality disorders, and more. Nancy has created several webinars on various topics for Psych Central and World of Psychology. She currently helps clients through her website, CouchIssues.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Inside Mental Health podcast, formerly The Psych Central Podcast. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can save 10% and get a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling into the show today we have Nancy Kalina Gomez. Ms. Gomez has earned a master’s degree in clinical and counseling psychology from Teachers College Columbia University. Nancy, welcome to the show.
Nancy Kalina Gomez: Thank you. Good to be here.
Gabe Howard: Well, I am glad to have you here, and today we’re going to discuss boundaries. Now, boundaries is one of those things that everybody believes that they’re setting. I think that if you walked up to any random stranger and said, do you have good boundaries? I would venture to guess that a large percentage of them would say yes. But the research kind of shows that we as a society kind of stink at setting boundaries. Would you agree or disagree with that statement?
Nancy Kalina Gomez: I would agree, because most people, or a lot of people, think that setting a boundary is being defensive, thinking, oh, I know how to defend myself or I know how to put somebody in their place. And that’s not boundaries.
Gabe Howard: When we talk about boundaries, what exactly are we discussing?
Nancy Kalina Gomez: We’re discussing limits between you and another person or a family unit. For the purposes of this talk, we’re going to be referring to adults. There are emotional boundaries, physical boundaries. Maybe you don’t like public displays of affection. So you tell your partner this is not what you’re comfortable with, that’s setting a boundary. When you say emotional boundaries, what you’re doing is referring to your ability to understand that you live your life for you. The values that you’ve set for you and your life will be the foundation upon which you set your boundaries. You’re responsible for taking care of your needs and wants, not living your life according to someone else’s expectations. It really is the blueprint on how you expect to be treated.
Gabe Howard: When you say that it’s the blueprint on how you expect to be treated, isn’t that just like your rules or your personality or, you know, like don’t yell at me? When you say don’t yell at me, is that setting a boundary? Because I think that many people believe that boundaries are things like, you know, don’t touch me or don’t hug me. They see them as more physical, not as intangible.
Nancy Kalina Gomez: Well, that would be a physical boundary for someone not to get into your physical space. When you say to someone, no, don’t yell at me, you are setting a boundary. You are saying this is not the way that you treat me. If you are upset with me, use your words and I’ll listen to you. But for you to be verbally abusive, calling me names or even the silent treatment or refusing to engage with me, that’s not acceptable. So that would be setting a boundary.
Gabe Howard: Nancy, why are boundaries so important?
Nancy Kalina Gomez: Boundaries protect us from unacceptable behavior. It tells the world who we are and how we expect to be treated. Without boundaries, people can run roughshod over us. Let’s take a very simplistic example, such as the fence. You have a house and you fenced in the backyard. Within that fence, and we’re assuming that the fence is high enough and sturdy enough, you can leave your bicycle out, leave your gardening tools out, hang clothes if you want to. Have toys out for the kids, you can be yourself. Because you have designated this space and this part of your life to look like the way it looks. By comparison with boundaries, you’re saying this is the way I’m going to live. This is what I can do and what I can’t do for others. And it’s going to make me feel comfortable and free to be myself. So, it can be boundaries such as, no, we’re not going to question me about my personal life to family. And certainly, there are a million examples. But the idea is to set a limit.
Gabe Howard: Now, earlier, we talked about different types of boundaries.
Nancy Kalina Gomez: Yes, and there are actually two answers for this. The first set of answers is there are physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, sexual boundaries, financial boundaries, religious boundaries and probably others. For example, the physical boundaries, the example I gave was public displays of affection. You may not feel comfortable with that, expressing that with your partner. And that’s OK. It could be because of a trauma. It could be because of the way you were raised. That’s a physical boundary. How close people stand when they speak to you, that’s a physical boundary. Sexual boundaries have to do with the sexual interaction that you have with your partner. What you feel comfortable with. Financial boundaries can include keeping separate checking accounts and religious boundaries can be, well, this is what I believe in. And therefore, I subscribe to this type of behavior. Those are all expectations that you have regarding what you’re comfortable with according to your values. The second set of answers has to do with whether the actual boundaries are rigid or strong, diffuse or open and flexible. If you have rigid boundaries, you do not deviate. No matter what. And that has more to do with control and an underlying anxiety of having your weaknesses exposed like black and white thinking. Diffuse or open boundaries are, they usually have to do with someone saying yes, regardless of what they want.
Nancy Kalina Gomez: The motivation is fear of displeasing someone, family, partner, friends. In this case, you rarely honor what you need and want. People usually run roughshod and take advantage of this person. Flexible boundaries are usually associated with people who are sure of who they are and what they need, but they’re willing to take other facts into account. For example, let’s say that between six and seven, everyone that knows you knows that you take that time to decompress from work. You don’t accept any phone calls or anything. But someone, it could be family, it could be a very good friend who says, I really need your help at six o’clock because at six-thirty, this XYZ is going to happen. Well, you’re able with flexible boundaries to say, OK, I can do that. I can help you from six to six-thirty. And, you know, within side of yourself that you can take six-thirty to seven-thirty to rest or just take six-thirty to seven to rest. In other words, you are able to be flexible.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much, Nancy. Now, I think a big question that everybody’s going to wonder right now is how do you set those boundaries?
Nancy Kalina Gomez: Well, first, you have to get to know who you are, how you want to live, what your needs are emotionally, physically, etc., and then you communicate those needs. Now, when I say communicate, this has nothing to do with going to a family event or family dinner. And I’m going to focus on family right now and standing up or stopping the dinner, the conversation and yelling or trying to put people in their place. I don’t care what kind of great speech you have to just unload on everybody. They’re not going to listen. You need to teach by doing. People are going to take their lead from you. If somebody says, you know, we’re all going to get together on Sunday so that we can help dad do this and you, for whatever reason, don’t want to you can easily say, well, I can be there at noon. I can stay for about an hour and a half, and then I have something to do. Or if somebody, a friend, says, I need for you to do this for me. Well, I really would like to, but I can’t. It’s about communicating what you can and can’t do. It’s not apologizing. Some people might say, oh, I’m so sorry that I can’t do this for you. You know how much I want to. Please forgive me. No, that’s begging. It’s begging for permission. What you need to do is just state what you can do and what you can’t do.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be back in a minute after we hear from our sponsor.
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Gabe Howard: And we are back discussing boundaries with Nancy Kalina Gomez. It sounds to me like the first time you use these boundaries that you set up for yourselves, the first time you use them on your family or friends, something happens. And I’m imagining that that something is not good.
Nancy Kalina Gomez: Oh, yeah, let’s take family, for example, because the same can happen in a group of friends, which is a mini family, families are made up of a system. Everyone has a role. Even among your friends, you have the scapegoat, the hero, the favorite, the screw up, the one who always makes the plans, etc. And there’s a tacit agreement that everyone has cosigned subconsciously to stay in their role, to play their part. So, when you assert your boundaries for the first time, it’s like a mini revolution. You are upending the family routine, the emotional routine. And depending upon what your particular family or group of friends’ dynamics are, you’ll likely get resistance in the form of mocking, oh, look at her trying to tell us what she’s going to do. Come on. Or shame, guilt. I can’t believe you’re saying that after all we do for you. Or having the whole family or the friends ganging up on you and talk at you. And why is that? It’s because nobody likes change. Everybody is comfortable in their roles. Everyone is comfortable with the role that you have played and you are going to change that. It’s something new. And like I said, it’s basically a request to change the whole dynamics of your family or friends and therefore your behavior has to be consistent. People will eventually take their cue from you after they have exhausted their arguments or they’re expressing their displeasure.
Nancy Kalina Gomez: But if you engage in that moment with their arguments, then what you’re doing is giving them credibility. And what you’re saying is, no, you have a point. I shouldn’t be doing this. I shouldn’t be saying something contrary to what you’ve expected me to say. So, in that type of situation, the best thing to do is to say, you know what, I understand you’re upset, but this is what I can do. You don’t offer any explanation, justification, answer their argument. Well, I can’t believe it. Why are you doing this? Well, this is what I can do. And I want to be there so I can be there from twelve to one thirty. You stick to your guns and you are civil and classy, but you don’t deviate because the more you stay consistent it will start to blunt what they have to say. They’ll get tired. Like a child who is crying about wanting to watch a TV show and you ignore the child. After you’ve explained everything, you go on about your business and move forward. The child has no other choice but to move forward. In simplistic terms.
Gabe Howard: I like it, I like it. Now, we’ve talked a lot about people respecting our boundaries, but how can we be sensitive to other people’s boundaries?
Nancy Kalina Gomez: That’s a good question. We need to be alert to how other people behave and make allowances for other people, their culture, values, and what makes them uncomfortable. That’s tolerance and it’s a good quality to cultivate. Now, you don’t have to change yourself. You just find a way to get along together. And I’m speaking in general terms because there are numerous examples and like I said, a million different situations that can occur. But if somebody is saying in your group of friends or family or partner, you know what, I don’t feel comfortable with this, and it’s not insulting your values and not putting you totally out of your way and out of your comfort level, then you can find a middle ground. That is all you can do, because as you get to know the person, you can get to know how they, what they feel comfortable with, what allowances you can make and hopefully what allowances they can make. So you can, like I said, meet in the middle.
Gabe Howard: Now, what happens if you don’t set boundaries? Can’t we just trust our friends and families to be on their best behavior?
Nancy Kalina Gomez: Yeah, no, we can’t. People will walk all over you if you don’t set boundaries, and worst of all, you’ll feel resentful of them and start beating yourself up for not having set boundaries. That’s a good way to get into a depression and live a stressed life. You need to be able to communicate what you need. And if you have to practice in front of a mirror, so be it. Unfortunately, there are people who want what they want when they want it. Those are the people who use intimidation, manipulation, entitlement to get through life. And if you let them, if you let those people do that with you, they will just take advantage of your kindness or you’re just wanting to be nice and you could even end up teaching everybody to treat you poorly. You do this by excusing unacceptable behavior, rudeness, not taking you into consideration and so on. And pretty soon they take your cue and who you are isn’t being respected.
Gabe Howard: There’s this part of me that wants to give you push back and say, look, my family and friends love me, I don’t have a bad family and friends. I guess the question that I have is, is this just something that, like dysfunctional families have to deal with? Or is this something that even the best families in the world have to set boundaries?
Nancy Kalina Gomez: That’s a very good question. Let me clarify. People are emotional beings, not rational beings. Everybody has their wants and needs. Everybody has good mood, bad moods, great days, awful days. It’s important to keep boundaries. And we’re not talking about rigid boundaries like you being on the lookout every time you interact with someone. You can interact and love your family and your good group of friends. But when they start imposing what they need onto your life and expect you to be at their beck and call in that moment or several moments, you need to watch your boundaries because it can start off with, oh, gosh, you know, I just love my aunt and she just wants me to come over and help her with something having to do with the house. And that day I was going to go with my friends, but I love my aunt. Well, you were going to go with your friends, so maybe you can help your aunt the next day. That would be setting a boundary, not giving up your life for theirs.
Gabe Howard: Nancy, that makes perfect sense, and I suppose there’s probably something to be said that if you have good boundaries, there’s no misunderstandings, everybody’s on the same page and there probably isn’t that pushing. When you say no, your family and friends accept it and you can move. It probably saves a lot of time in the long run not to have an emotional outburst every time you don’t get your way.
Nancy Kalina Gomez: That’s true, because if we allow resentment to build up, resentment at not honoring what we want, who we are and our lives, then inevitably there’s going to be an explosion. And what do people hear when someone else is yelling? They hear I’m being yelled at. They don’t hear your message, which is why I said earlier, the idea is to state in a cordial way or loving way what it is you can and can’t do. It’s not about making a speech, telling everybody off, reliving past events, trying to settle scores. It’s not about that. Whatever happened in the past is in the past. And you go from here on.
Gabe Howard: Nancy, I like that so much, thank you so much for being here and for helping us understand boundaries. Where can people find you online?
Nancy Kalina Gomez: I’m at www.CouchIssues.org.
Gabe Howard: I love that. CouchIssues.org, that’s fantastic. Nancy, thank you so much for being here and to all of our listeners, thank you so much for being here as well. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please subscribe. Also, take a moment to write us a review. It really, really helps other people decide which podcast they will listen to. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations, which of course is available on Amazon.com. I mean, what isn’t? Or you can get a signed copy with free swag for less money by heading over to gabehoward.com. We’ll see everybody next Thursday.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast from Healthline Media. Have a topic or guest suggestion? E-mail us at show@PsychCentral.com. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/Show or on your favorite podcast player. Thank you for listening.