Cultivating Healthy Boundaries, Pt II: Finding Our Boundaries

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In the last installment of this series, we talked about what boundaries are, the three major ways they show up, and how they develop in childhood.

In this piece, we’ll look at a few ways that we can figure our where our boundaries actually are — because sometimes we just don’t know until they’ve been crossed.

As a quick review, boundaries are the invisible bubbles or fences we keep around ourselves that protect our energy, time, resources, and physical beings. Our boundaries are the place where “yes” becomes “no,” and help us know where we end and other people begin.

Why Is It So Difficult to Find Our Boundaries?

If you’re like most of us, the idea of knowing your boundaries might sound mysterious. Where are these mythical borders that are supposed to keep us safe? And maybe we also wonder, if they exist, why the hell aren’t they doing their jobs?

There are so many factors that influence our boundaries, not the least of which are how we experience conflict, how we were taught to express our needs, and how society demands that people of color and women never challenge those who have more power, lest we cause discomfort or an escalation to threat. Modern society, at least in the US, is inherently abusive to all but a small minority of people, and it often mirrors the abusive upbringings that many of us survived. Both white supremacy and patriarchy demand submission and in even the most subtle ways, this shows up in our personal boundaries.

I want to be clear: for many folks, there is a very real danger in setting harder boundaries. These folks are in situations of abuse or exploitation. We all know someone who cannot challenge their supervisor for fear of losing their job, and messing with your income in an economy like ours? It’s really not always an option. The same is true for abusive partners or family members, or even abusive friends. Danger can be real in many instances, but for now, I want us to focus on situations where there is no actual threat of harm to our bodies, emotional wellbeing, or our livelihoods.

Fear of Conflict & Necessity of Self Love

It is often the case that our deep-seated fear of confrontation and conflict contributes to our having looser boundaries. We’re scared that if we say no, or voice our discomfort, we will cause tension, get rejected, or worse: we will cause our own abandonment by people we value. We have to be willing to recognize the part we play in our needs not getting met (or even acknowledged), and this is one piece: our inability to tolerate the discomfort of tension. A second piece is our own sense of self-worth. Tied up inseparably with our personal boundaries is our ability to value ourselves and our needs — to love ourselves. Which is okay: we can work on those two things while working on boundaries, and the effect is reciprocally positive. Better boundaries leads to more confidence and self-worth, and self-worth leads to better boundaries.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are folks who confuse self-love with self-serving narcissism or ego, and believe that they have no issue with conflict because, in reality, they just don’t care about the discomfort of others. These folks are more likely to take advantage of those of us with softer boundaries, regardless of whether or not they have a reason or a right to show up in that way. And, while we rarely have a choice about how people will treat us, we always have a choice about how we respond to that treatment. Which, incidentally, is another valuable reason to get comfortable with discomfort and learn to love ourselves.

We often can’t know our own boundaries if these things — healthy conflict management and self-love — weren’t modeled for us. And I would wager that the vast majority of us didn’t get an early education in either of those concepts, so it only makes sense that most of us get to adulthood without having any concept of healthy boundaries.

 Photo by  Jose Aragones

Photo by Jose Aragones

How Can We Figure Out Where Our Boundaries Are?

There are a few methods I’m going to recommend to get started, and please jump into the comments section if you have one to add! With each of these, I strongly encourage you to do some journaling around the prompts, questions, and whatever reactions come up for you. Learning how our thoughts and emotions are connected is critical work here. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a start.

1. Ask people you trust.

Sometimes our closest confidants are a great place to start figuring out where our boundaries are. They can often give us examples of when others have taken advantage of us, or when we’ve pushed others away for no good reason. Good friends can usually tell us all of the red flags about situations that we couldn’t see, long before disaster struck. Be aware, though: if you want your loved ones to be honest with you, they need to be able to trust that you can tolerate the discomfort of hearing about yourself.

2. Think about your relationship to conflict.

Do you shudder and run at every hint of tension? Do you give in to other people’s demands even if it takes away from your own time, energy, and resources because you can’t say no? Do your needs go ignored or minimized until you’re so frustrated that you blow your stack, to the surprise of those around you? If someone tells you that you’ve hurt them in some way, how do you respond? Do you blow up, or do you listen gently and apologize? Or do you spiral into shame and self-hatred? Imagine yourself telling someone that you care about, “no.” What’s it feel like in your body, and where? If you feel squeamish, your boundaries may be too soft. If you feel invigorated, your boundaries may be too rigid. Once you’ve done some reflecting on your relationship to conflict, do some reflecting on the “why” — what are you afraid of happening if conflict occurs?

3. Think about your relationship to giving.

Are you “the helper” in your friend group? Can folks call you any time of night for anything they need, and you’ll be there? Do you do things for others that outsiders tell you they should be doing for themselves? On the flip side, have you decided that you simply do not have the time, energy, or resources to give anyone anything? Do you still expect others to meet your needs despite being unwilling to support theirs? Do you believe that you are completely independent and that others should be, too?

4. Think about your relationship to consent.

Do you ask for consent before touching people, using their things, or speaking about potentially upsetting subjects? Do you expect people to ask you for your consent, or do you expect people to just take from you? Do you take consent seriously, or is demanding consent an idea that makes you feel uncomfortable? Do you believe that consent is only for sex, or that it can be relevant for other things? Can you reflect on moments where being asked for your permission or input felt positive?

5. Get clear on your values.

What things do you really, truly value in life? We often have a list of quick responses to this kind of question that involve something like love, honesty, hard work, etc — but this is an opportunity to get really clear on what you actually value. If you value honesty, are you honest with others or do you white-lie because you’re afraid of conflict? If you value honesty, do you let others get away with lying to you? If you value integrity, do you surround yourself with people that reflect that quality? If you value family, are you actively cultivating a healthy family dynamic, or seeking out a non-blood family who will support you in ways your blood family cannot?

What are your values, and how do you act on them? How do you ask others to respect those values in your life? (If you need some help with a list of values, like I did, here’s a helpful little worksheet from Carnegie Melon!)

6. Think back to past experiences.

Try to recall situations where you thought afterwards, “I wish I hadn’t agreed to that,” or, “I wish I would have spoken up sooner.” With softer boundaries, we can experience a speeding up of time and pressure when the tension builds between what we want and what someone else wants from us, which can lead to hasty decision making on our part. Be present with the discomfort that may arise — try to push aside any shame or guilt you may feel, and think through those situations with a more scientific lens. What happened when? What was the comment or thought that triggered the discomfort? What was it that felt wrong in the moment, even if you couldn’t articulate it then? What prevented you from slowing down or saying no? Often, the answer to this question is “old programming.” If our emotions and needs were continually minimized in our childhoods, we often skate right past them under pressure because we’ve been taught that they’re not important.Sometimes we’re afraid that saying no will cause a terrible reaction because that happened in the past, even if this situation is totally different.

7. Look at lists of unhealthy boundaries like the one below.

Obviously no list can be exhaustive, but again — it’s a good place to start! If any jump out at you, they’re good prompts for a journaling exploration.

Physical boundaries
→ Touching others, especially strangers or acquaintances, without asking consent; accepting touch when you don’t want it
 → Borrowing others’ belongings without their consent; lending or giving away your things, even if you don’t want to
 → Having sex or providing any other forms of intimacy because someone else wants you to or because you think it will make that person love you more
 → Providing intimacy in any form because you believe that’s the only real value you have to offer in a relationship
 → Reading someone’s private writings (journal, emails, texts) without their consent; letting someone read those things of yours even if it feels wrong
 → Taking more than you need because you can; restricting yourself from what you could have because you feel bad
 → Being overly controlling around your home and getting angry if every small detail is not kept perfectly; not having your needs or desires for a household met by others living there

Emotional boundaries
 → Feeling other people’s emotions intensely and having no control over it; or, struggling to feel empathy for other people’s feelings 
→ Believing that others should be able to anticipate your needs without you expressing them clearly, or believing that dropping hints is the same as expressing them clearly 
 → Believing that you can anticipate someone else’s every need or believing that you are responsible for someone else’s happiness
→ Falling in love too quickly; believing that infatuation and love are the same thing
 → Denying opportunities for love because the vulnerability is too scary
 → Losing yourself in another person; becoming obsessed with them, or finding that you can’t think about anything else
 → Never actually saying “I’m sorry,” or finding ways to blame a person for the hurt feelings you caused; always apologizing, even for things that you had no control over, or feeling responsible for things that aren’t your responsibility

Okay team, good work. To summarize, we looked at why it’s difficult to locate our boundaries and some tips for starting to figure out where to explore them. I really do always encourage people to journal, because so much comes up while our brains are engaged in the process of writing, but if that doesn’t work for you, try something else — art, music, talking out loud, or having a conversation with a trusted friend or a good therapist.

If you have any responses or questions, please join us in the comments! Thanks for reading today, and keep an eye out for Part III!