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What It Means to Create Boundaries in Relationships

The art of being ourselves while staying connected.

Source: Takmeomeo/Pixabay
Source: Takmeomeo/Pixabay

We often hear about the importance of setting personal boundaries in our lives. But creating healthy boundaries is easier said than done. Let’s explore the subtleties.

Having boundaries means honoring ourselves as a separate individual with needs and wants that often differ from others. Without healthy boundaries, we allow others to override our own feelings and desires. We may get eaten alive by people who are very clear about what they want! The essence of boundaries is differentiating what we want from what others want from us.

Boundaries are an external expression of an internal self-affirmation, which means knowing and affirming what is important to us. Firstly, we need to know what we’re experiencing. Are we feeling embarrassed or angry by another’s hurtful comment? Do we want to say yes to visiting our partner’s parents for the holidays or prefer some other adventure?

Sometimes what others want from us—a favor, a date, or visiting with our partner’s friends—is welcomed. At other times, we may be swamped with our own projects or obligations and just don’t have the time—or don’t want to pursue something that would make us unhappy. It takes time to get clear about what feels “right” for us and what doesn't.

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”—slowing down and being present to what we’re experiencing right now. Boundaries are an expression of self-affirmation, which begins by pausing long enough to notice what resonates for us and what doesn’t. If we’re not sure, we can take our time to get clear about what feels comfortable for us.

A Middle Way

Expressing our “yes,” our “no," and our “maybe” doesn’t mean indulging our narcissistic tendencies and being oblivious to how we’re affecting others. But neither does it mean habitually accommodating others without considering how that will affect us.

At one extreme, we may rarely consider what we want—succumbing to a codependent habit of minimizing our own desires in order to please others. Perhaps we are so beholden to a desire to be liked that we avoid any self-expression that might lead to disagreement or conflict. Bypassing our own needs in order to keep the peace is a setup for resentment and disconnection. Intimacy suffers in a climate of self-neglect and self-betrayal.

Another extreme is being so focused on ourselves that we don't care about how we’re affecting people. We may be feeling emotionally deprived or resentful because we’ve neglected ourselves for so long; we may compensate by “wearing” our boundaries and being overly aggressive in setting them. Rigid boundaries come from being mis-attuned to what others want. Not caring keeps us isolated.

Rigid boundaries are often an expression of a destructive cycle where we keep demanding things for ourselves that don’t really nurture us. Aggressively leading with our “no” keeps us armored and isolated. Sadly, we may deprive ourselves of the emotional reward of listening deeply to people and giving them what they want ... if we can.

The word “boundaries" may imply something rigid. At times we may need to be firm, such as when we’re mistreated. But it's a fine art to gently hold what we want while being attentive to what others feel and want. We can keep our “no” in our back pocket as a backup, while engaging in respectful dialogue. We allow ourselves to be influenced, but without dishonoring ourselves. We dance gracefully in the space that lives between ourselves and others.

Finding such a middle path comes with experience; it's one of the gifts of maturity. It takes time, practice, and plentiful mistakes to know our limits and how far we feel comfortable stretching. Through the practice of engaging in conversations where we honor our feelings and needs while also honoring other’s experience, we create a climate for the intimate, loving relationships we long for.

The path of creating healthy boundaries means entering into a collaborative process with people. By mindfully maintaining flexible boundaries, we can create new, nurturing connections and deepen existing ones. Knowing and skillfully setting boundaries is an essential skill for living a fulfilling, connected life.

© John Amodeo.

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