Healthy Boundaries
by Diane Linsley

One of the most common problems that my coaching clients are
working on is learning to set healthy boundaries.

Whatever you tolerate in a relationship, that's what you'll get.

"The key to boundaries isn't convincing other people that we have
limits - it's convincing ourselves." ~Melody Beattie, Codependent No More

I learned about setting boundaries by raising children. Children need to know what the rules are, and raising them without rules is a form of abuse. Children need to have clear boundaries with defined consequences. This gives them a sense of security that is essential to their psychological development.

Children have a strong need for fairness. They need adults who not only set rules for them, but who also follow their own rules. Children are deeply disturbed by the hypocrisy of adults.

Child abuse of any sort is a boundary violation. Abused children grow up to have boundary problems. Their boundaries are either too rigid, which prevents true intimacy, or they are too weak, which leads to being victimized by others.

The first step to recovery is learning how you have been violated in the past, which shows where you have holes in your boundaries. I suggest reading Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody.

Creating Boundaries

If you're not sure where you need stronger boundaries, try doing the values process. Once you know what you value, you can begin standing up for yourself in the areas of your life that matter most.

For example, if you value your health, you will need to set boundaries to protect it. This may include reducing your exposure to stressful situations and people, saying no to foods that aren't good for you, and going to bed on time (even if it means leaving the party early).

When you know what you value, you can explain your values to others. This is a good way to set boundaries in your relationships.

My first boundary practice was saying no to my mom's attempts to make me eat sugary desserts after I was diagonosed with gestational diabetes in my twenties. That was a big deal, since I had never said no to her before.

Whenever I have a client who tells me they have trouble saying no, I ask them to practice making "No" their first response. I'm not saying they should never say yes. I'm just suggesting a way to change old habits. Once they are comfortable with saying no, they can go back to saying yes when it's appropriate.

When someone pressures you to make a decision, that's a boundary violation. If you aren't sure what to do, then buy time. Say something like, "I need to think about it. Let me get back with you." Then end the conversation or change the topic. Don't make a decision until you are ready.

The ability to say no is so central to our well-being that it's one of the first words we learn. If you missed that stage of development, you will have to go through it now - if you want to be free.

Setting Boundaries with Manipulators

One of my favorite books is Who's Pulling Your Strings? by Harriet Braiker. It teaches you how to identify and deal with manipulators. You will discover how you are allowing yourself to be violated through your own beliefs about yourself.

If you think it's necessary to always be nice, you will have an incredibly difficult time setting boundaries. It's crucial that you disidentify with the voice of the Pleaser. Pleasers are sitting ducks for abuse. I recommend doing Voice Dialogue to identify the Pleaser. Then work on finding opposite voices that balance the Pleaser.

How do you know you that are being abused? You will experience a lot of CRAP. CRAP stands for criticism, rejection, abandonment and punishment.

You can identify boundary violations by the way you feel. Boundary violations cause feelings of fear, anger, sadness or shame.

Some people don't feel angry because it wasn't allowed in their family of origin. Feelings of sadness and shame may actually be disowned anger from many years of abuse. Abusers undermine a victim's ability to defend himself by forbidding him to get angry.

"Like all emotions, there's a logic and purpose to anger. We typically get angry when we see injustice, believe we've been treated unfairly, or encounter an obstacle to achieving our goals. If we can learn to use anger constructively, it can inspire us to make positive changes on our own behalf - to try harder, to fight for what's fair, and to communicate more passionately." ~John M. Gottman, 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage

In Complex PTSD, Pete Walker says that some people need to practice getting angry. He also says that crying is helpful for dealing with PTSD attacks. I recommend doing the emotional healing process.

Excessive shaming in childhood leads to the development of a toxic Inner Critic, which then attacks a person from the inside and makes it hard to create healthy boundaries. Dealing with the Inner Critic is essential for recovery.

Boundaries and Compassion

Healthy boundaries need to be balanced with compassion. This is difficult if you have a tendency towards codependency. Codependents see themselves as victims, but they are not aware of how they violate other people's boundaries.

An example of poorly boundaried, codependent behavior is giving unsolicited advice. Until you give up trying to control others, you will continue to have boundary problems in your relationships.

Having compassion does not mean that you fix other people's problems. Try thinking in terms of yin and yang compassion. Yin compassion is the feeling side - the part that relates to the suffering of others and desires to reduce suffering.

Yang compassion is the side that recognizes "right action," which includes "tough love." You may have to allow others to learn from their mistakes, instead of jumping in to bail them out - even when it hurts to watch them suffer through the learning process. To make this decision, you have to think about what is best for the other person in the long term.

To get more clarity about these two sides of compassion, try speaking to the voices of Yin Compassion and Yang Compassion using the Voice Dialogue process.

Affirmations for Boundaries

I am a unique individual with my own body, thoughts and emotions.

I have the right to judge my own behavior.

I take responsibility for everything I do and say.

I am responsible for my own time and energy.

I only do what I choose to do. I am free to say “yes” or “no” to other people's requests.

I only say what I choose to say. I am in control of all the words that come out of my mouth.

I have the right to privacy. I only answer questions that I feel are appropriate.

If someone asks me a question that I don't want to answer, I can either remain silent or reply with a neutral response like, “Why do you ask?”

I choose how I want to feel, no matter how other people are feeling.

I may choose to empathize with others, but I'm not obligated to do so.

I have the right to make decisions in my own way. My decisions don't have to make sense to other people.

I have the right to change my mind. I don't have to make excuses or justify my behavior.

I have the right to make mistakes and be responsible for them.

It's okay to say, “I don't know.” Admitting that I don't know is liberating.

It's okay to say, “I don't understand.” I am comfortable with asking for clarification.

It's okay to not care about something. There are some things that I just don't care about.

I don't have to solve other people's problems, and I don't have to listen to their problems, unless I
want to.

Other people also have the same rights as me, and I respect their boundaries.

Strength, Flexibility and Balance

I once attended a performance of the Peking Acrobats. This is a good metaphor for healthy boundaries. The performers are able to do amazing feats because they have great strength (Yang), flexibility (Yin), and balance (making adjustments as needed in the Now).

Flexible boundaries are like the skill of a martial arts master who cannot be overpowered by his opponent because the master is able to deflect every attack with a non-resistant defense. Eventually, the opponent wears himself out trying to fight against the master.

"Properly boundaried people exert quiet but considerable force." ~Pia Mellody, The Intimacy Factor

Reality is a constantly shifting, multidimensional thing/event. You can't cope with Reality with a list of rules. You need inner strength, flexibility and balance. Healthy boundaries are strong, flexible and balanced, allowing for the nuances of different situations and relationships. The more you practice, the better you will get.

This balancing act never ends, so you might as well enjoy it! If you lose your balance and drop the ball, forgive yourself immediately, and pick it up again. It's okay if other people don't understand you. Be your own best friend, and practice self-compassion.

Here's a video on how diet affects your ability to stand up for yourself.

I've created a whole series of guided meditations for boundaries and codependency. Here's my guided meditation for boundaries with affirmations.

Be well,
Diane Linsley

Top of Page