Cultivating Healthy Boundaries, Pt III: Important Practices

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In the first two installations of this series, we looked at what boundaries are and how they form, and some ways to figure out where our boundaries may be.

In this final installment, I’m going to walk you through two practices for exercising your boundaries. This is the stuff everyone wants to know, but few people want to do, because this part can be really uncomfortable.

But that’s okay: practice reduces the discomfort over time. And practice makes all the difference in cultivating healthy boundaries. It doesn’t happen overnight!

The two habits I’m going to go over are: mindfulness, or “checking in,” and practicing the art of saying “no,” even if you don’t use that particular word.

Let’s start off by acknowleding that many of us feel, either consciously or subconsciously, that we don’t have the right to say “no,” and that we are asking too much by insisting — gently or firmly — that our needs be met. Changing this attitude requires practice, too, especially if we’re women, trans, non-binary, or a person of color. We’ve been socialized to believe that weshould always make room for everyone else and their needs, that we are selfish and “too much” if we have healthy boundaries and exercise our right to use them. We should definitely never cause discomfort or challenge anyone; we should always be polite, civil, and, if possible, completely invisible. (This societal expectation also holds true for folks with disabilities or mental illness.)

Which is why it’s so important to do boundary work in the first place: society isn’t ever going to do it for us. Keep in mind that everything we’re talking about in this series is about habits and behaviors, which are always changeable. You are not set in stone. You are capable of evolving and crafting a new and fuller way of being. Your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are not you; they are just parts of you that can be shifted with practice.

So let’s get to it!

Mindfulness

I know, I know — you’re probably as tired of hearing about “mindfulness” as I am, but wait! It’s not as bad as you think. When I say mindfulness, I don’t mean mastering hours of meditation per day (although if that’s your jam, do you), or whatever trendy version of self-care corporations are trying to make their undervalued employees perform.

Mindfulness, at its most basic, is just full awareness of the present moment.

A mindfulness practice helps us to become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and the sensations in our bodies. Now, many of us don’t necessarily want to become consciously aware of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but that’s tough luck, friends. This is the work. The reason that mindfulness is so important to boundary work is because our bodies actually tell us when a situation is uncomfortable, long before our thoughts do. (Our thoughts, in fact, often try to talk us right out of our discomfort.) When a boundary is being pressed, our bodies will always send up a flag to let us know that something’s not quite right. Maybe it’s tension in your gut or your chest, or maybe it’s a little wave of anxiety. Maybe its a vague, floating sense of dread.

 Photo by  dorota dylka

Photo by dorota dylka

Some of you might be thinking, “well, my body doesn’t do that.” And I’m going to challenge you to consider that maybe you just don’t know how to hear your body’s messages yet, because we’re socialized to ignore our body’s messages and intellectualize everything. This is especially true for women: if we feel uncomfortable when approached by a man, are we allowed to say, “Hey, I feel a little crowded right now, can you give me some space?” without being made to look like we’re hysterical? No. We’re expected to ignore our own boundaries and needs, and tell ourselves that we’re being dramatic, or judgmental, or whatever — just so that we don’t offend or upset a stranger. (In other cases, it’s a matter of safety, but for the purpose of this series, we’re sticking with situations that don’t pose a threat to our emotional wellbeings, physical bodies, or livelihoods.)

Creating a mindfulness practice is actually quite simple, and with practice, it can postively affect things like mood, anxiety, and how we make choices.

A quick and easy mindfulness habit only requires two things: the intentional act of focusing, and a check-in with yourself.

Some people use a special tool for focusing or becoming present, like a photograph, a fidget-style toy, a singing bowl, a bell, or even food. Another good tool is a quick breathing exercise, like breathing in deeply while this geometric form expands and exhaling completely while it contracts. The key is to practice becoming completely focused on that thing so that your mind isn’t running 100 miles per hour. The key is to become aware of the present moment, which then permits you to become aware of your body, mind, and emotions in the present moment. It’s honestly not that mystical. It’s just slowing down enough to be in this very moment, with no distractions. It only seems mystical because mindfulness and self-care aren’t exactly concepts celebrated by colonialist, capitalist societies.

So figure out what tool will help you, and figure out how you’ll remember to do check-ins. Setting little alarms/reminders on your phone is a great way, or linking the practice to a part of your daily routine, like a meal or your drive home. Focus your attention, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now? (emotions) What am I feeling in my body? (physical sensations) Where are my thoughts right now? (mental state)” Answer these questions honestly. Are you feeling grouchy as hell? Are you hungry, and didn’t realize it? Are you holding tension in your chest? Pay attention: get your immediate needs met, breathe through any tension you may be holding, and ask yourself what’s lying beneath it.

The answers don’t have to be earth-shattering: the point is to get into the habit of checking in so that awareness of your body and emotions becomes second nature. Practice acknowledging where the tension is in your body, and what kind of mood you’re in. Get your immediate needs met, practice some stress-relief, and investigate why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling. In there somewhere is data about your needs, desires, and abilities.

Listening to your body and emotions (or what some folks call our “instincts”) is a key practice of cultivating healthy boundaries, and it will serve you for the rest of your life.

The Art of Saying “No”

On to the second habit. Learning to say “no” is something that brings up a lot of feelings (and physical sensations!) for folks. How do you feel about saying no, or refusing a request, or turning someone down? If it makes you feel icky, that’s okay — that’s why we’re practicing. And that icky feeling is important: it tells you where your boundary is, and can probably tell you where you learned that habit. What I mean by that is, answer this question:

“What are you afraid of happening if you say no/set a firm boundary/refuse a request?”

In fact, if you have time, do some journaling around that prompt, the depth of the answers might surprise you. We’re often subconsciously scared of being abandoned or rejected, and that fear runs deepAnd sure, there are certainly folks who leave us when we cultivate healthy boundaries, but are those the only people you think are capable of loving you? Because they aren’t. We are all worthy of healthy love.

So here’s my big tip for learning to say “no”: start small, and use altnerative language in the beginning.

When I say “start small,” I mean that if you have trouble refusing requests, it’s best to start with really small, non-important things in order to get the hang of it. “Do you want fries with that?” No thanks! “Can I make you some tea?” I’m good! “Do you want to go out tonight?” Sorry, I can’t! Maybe next week.

Building your muscle with things that feel less threatening will prepare you for bigger situations.

Know this: you actually very rarely owe anyone an explanation. It should be enough to say, “That’s not going to work for me,” or, “I can’t commit to that, sorry!” And if you can’t fathom saying “no” without providing a reason, it just means you have a little extra work to do. (Giving a reason if you WANT to is fine; giving a reason because you feel like you have to is NOT fine.)

To help with some specific situations, I asked a few friends to offer examples of their struggles with refusing requests or setting boundaries. Let’s take a quick look at those.

One friend shared that she always had trouble saying “no” — that it always seemed to come out as a “maybe.” She then said that she wasn’t taken seriously until she “blew her top,” at which point she was seen as “overly emotional.”

A “maybe” is a “yes” for a lot of people, especially if you, like my friend, identify as a “people pleaser.” Folks get used to being able to ask anything of a people pleaser, and since the people pleaser never asks for anything in return, a pattern gets established. It’s also true that letting tension build until there’s an explosion is a common way for boundaries to show themselves if we have trouble refusing requests.

One thing I recommend in this situation is to stop giving a definite answer in the moment. When someone asks something of you, practice saying, “I’m not sure, let me sit on that and I’ll get back to you,” or, “It’s possible, but would you text/email me the details so I can check my calendar when I get home?” or, “Let me answer that when I’m not distracted, please ask me again later.”

It’s also completely okay to say, “Can you give me (five minutes/a couple hours/a couple days) to think that through? I don’t want to commit in this moment.” Delaying a yes or no answer is okay, and others will think it’s okay — unless they have poor boundaries! It’s rarely appropriate to expect an immediate answer when asking something of someone.

The other piece to this is the inevitable result of our boundaries being pushed and pushed and pushed until they hit a breaking point: we explode, to the surprise of everyone around us, because we have been committing to things we don’t have the resources (time, energy, money) to do, instead of saying no. Women and people of color are especially socialized to be agreeable, regardless of our own needs and abilities, and many of us fall into this pattern of build up/blow up. Then, we’re labeled “emotional” or “dramatic” or “hysterical,” because 1) we weren’t being clear on our boundaries, and 2) others don’t always take responsibility for how they fail to check in about our needs. And it is the responsibility of people who are in relationships with us to be proactive, just like we should be checking in about their needs, too!

Another friend said she has trouble knowing where to draw the line when doing favors for a friend. She says, “I personally love and don’t mind helping, but others have mentioned that the requests seem excessive in the amount of effort I put in.”

If you’re okay doing favors that look excessive to others, that’s totally okay — so long as you aren’t doing them because you feel like you have no other value to offer in a friendship, and you aren’t doing them out of a subconscious belief that you’re supposed to. The tricky part is recognizing whether or not we really actually enjoy doing all those favors (service-oriented folks exist, and they genuinely experience joy/rejuvenation when providing for others), or we’re doing them out of a need to be seen, valued, loved, or have purpose.

Finally, a friend said she has trouble figuring out how to change her mind about a boundary midstream. For example, she’s agreed to a long-term favor that a friend has asked, but now she realizes she can’t feasibly do it any more.

Situations like this are why conversations about boundaries (needs and wants and abilities) are so critical. Communicating what we’re able to do — and being able to project reasonably into the future about what we’re able to do— is so important! We are often much more optimistic about helping friends in the longterm than we should be, not because we don’t want to help, but because it’s difficult (and kind of taboo) to have open conversations about boundaries and commitments with loved ones.

What’s important here is being honest with yourself and the friend, in saying something as simple as, “Hey, I really thought I was going to be able to keep up with this, but I can’t. How can I support you in finding support elsewhere?” And if some loved ones need reassurance that it isn’t about THEM, that’s okay! Let them know that they are loved, and that it is simply a lack of resources on your part.

Finding the language to talk about boundaries is sometimes the toughest part about them. We’re socialized to believe that talking about boundaries sounds “aggressive” or “cold,” because it is truly a kind of negotiation, but that’s nonsense. Being able to communicate openly and honestly in our relationships is the most important building block for trust and commitment, whether it’s with family, friends, lovers, or even coworkers. It’s completely possible to negotiate the ins and outs of favors without feeling guilt, shame, or obligation.

It’s 100% possible to hold a healthy boundary, and still be loving, kind, warm, and generous. In fact, when we have healthier boundaries, we are more able to be generous because we’re caretaking our own resources, rather than overextending ourselves and burning out. In Part 1, we talked about building fences: just because it’s a fence doesn’t mean it can’t be overflowing with flowers.

And, for the record, energetic boundaries follow the same rules. If your personal boundaries are flimsy, your energetic ones will be, too, which can lead to inappropriate contact with beings from the other realms. Strengthening your boundaries in all the worlds you inhabit will make a difference not only in the quality of your life, but in your ability to feel control over your life.

Whew, that was a long one; if you made it, thanks for reading! To summarize today’s installment, we looked at how important it is to develop an awareness of the signals our emotions and bodies send us, and how a mindfulness practice can support this endeavor. We then went over some ways to say “no” that, I hope, feel like something you could adapt to your own style.

Please feel free to drop any questions or thoughts in the comments, as I’d love to hear your thoughts! If you missed them the first time, here’s Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. May your journey to cultivate healthy boundaries be full of wonderful surprises and blessings! ❤