“Boundaries is simply what’s OK and not OK.” - Brené Brown
Imagine your internal world - your emotions, thoughts, desires, needs - is a village.
In order for your village to thrive, it needs to feel safe. And it can only do that when it has a clear protection around it, one that defines who and what is OK and not OK to enter your village.
Healthy boundaries are elastic and flexible, shifting each moment according to our needs and preferences.
Knowing what is OK and not OK to enter our village - how it is OK and not OK for people to treat us and being able to communicate this respectfully and assertively can build more respectful and trusting relationships built on authenticity instead of Fear, Obligation or Guilt (FOG).
A boundary is a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something.
Boundaries that are neither too flimsy nor too solid - but strong enough - have been linked to:
- More assertiveness / confidence
- Less likely to burn out / less stress
- Less anger / resentment
- More self-awareness / self-care / self trust
Without a clear boundary we are not protected. The world and other people can feel unsafe.
Our boundary style is not something we actively chose, but a way of being in relation to ourselves and others we learned growing up. If our parents modelled good boundaries and respected ours by allowing us to have our own needs, desires, emotions, we probably have good boundaries.
This is not always the case unfortunately, and many of us learned to sacrifice our own needs to be in connection with others, making our own boundaries too weak. Alternatively, we may have learned to cut ourselves off from connection to protect ourselves, leading to boundaries that are too solid. Often, we swing from one extreme to the other.
As adults, we can now bring awareness to this behavior and change it if it is no longer working for us but it is important to go about this gently and with compassion. There is always a good reason why we do what we do - it made sense at some point in our life. Even if a behavior is no longer working for us, it is not ‘wrong’ - it is an adaptation we learned at a time when it made sense, like a survival strategy helping us make the best of the relationships we had in the past.
I wanted to share the information below in a visual way because understanding and awareness are often the first steps in making change.
The village concept and diagrams are my own ideas and my approach on boundaries is inspired by the work of Pat Ogden, Brené Brown, Karla McLaren and Harriet Lerner.
A lot of my personal work in the last few years has been around boundaries - and learning to have a clear boundary around my village in my (on-going) work around self-care, self-trust and authenticity. It is also often where I start with people in individual sessions.
When boundaries are not solid enough
Without solid boundaries, we have a hard time knowing where we start and others end. We let others into our village or go into their village, creating enmeshed relationships.
When we allow others to invade our village...
- We end up doing things we don’t want to do.
- We feel taken advantage of.
- We can end up feeling resentful, bitter or needy - like a victim.
- We do not take responsibility for our village.
- We get overrun by other people’s ‘stuff’ and lose a sense of who we are, feel overwhelmed, unclear about who we are or what we want.
When we spend our time in other people’s villages...
- We feel overly responsible for others.
- We feel taken advantage of.
- We feel depleted and can burn out.
- Our life can revolve around others: Trying to please them and putting their needs first.
- We are constantly looking for external validation or doing what we think others expect from us.
When boundaries are not solid enough, we often oscillate between both going into other people's village and letting them run ours.
In both cases, we don’t really know who we are - in the first scenario because our village is overrun by others, and in the second because we spend so much time in other people's villages that our own village becomes a neglected ghost town.
This can lead to...
- Being unable to clearly say yes, no or maybe.
- Our needs feeling unimportant or non-existent - difficult to even understand or identify.
- Feeling misunderstood.
- Taking on others’ emotions / stress easily.
- Being constantly angry, bitter, resentful, snarky, sarcastic.
- Being unable to properly take care of ourselves or even know who we are. We cannot prioritize ME over WE when we are too busy taking care of other people’s villages or dealing with those who are in ours.
- All this can lead to feeling so overrun we end up hating and even avoiding people.
We let people get away with things that are not okay. Then we just become more resentful and hateful. - Brené Brown:
When boundaries are too rigid
When boundaries are too rigid - more like a stone wall than a fence - this was often an adaptation from a time when relationships did not feel safe and protecting ourselves in this way was what was needed to survive.
In this scenario, we are safe, but cut off from others. Nothing gets in or out.
This can mean...
- WE is sacrificed for ME - but the sense of ME is rigid and not fluid enough to adapt to the environment.
- We can’t connect with others or express ourselves in a healthy way - nothing comes in or gets out.
- It can feel difficult to be vulnerable or share personal information.
- It can feel safer to be alone, be self-reliant, guarded, independent.
When boundaries are avoidance
Physically avoiding people, situations, conflicts or life choices is a form of boundary setting that we can resort to when avoidance was one the best option available to us when we were younger.
This can look like avoiding situation that takes us out of our comfort zone because we don't feel safe enough without strong-enough boundaries.
These may be solutions to protect us in the short-term, yet in the long-term they can lead to disconnection and a life that feels small.
This said, sometimes this form of boundaries - avoidance or completely cutting certain people out of our lives - can be the kindest choice for us. If however, this is our pattern in every relationship, there might be some work to do in building a more flexible boundary that allows more of a give and take in relationships.
Strong enough boundaries
Healthy boundaries that are strong enough to protect our internal village, while still being fluid and flexible enough to adapt to the context are often ideal. This looks like two whole villages interacting with each other in an authentic, respectful way.
This is about being assertive and able to own and clearly communicate our needs, what is OK and not OK for us, to have our own backs. It allow us to have relationships in which we can be ourselves most of the time.
The challenge of building strong enough boundaries is that this can bring up guilt, because many of us were taught to put WE before ME.
In this scenario, ME and WE are balanced. ME is not sacrificed for WE nor is it only about ME.
It can often feel like a delicate dance and yet ME and WE are balanced in adult relationships built on mutuality.
Whose village are you in?
We put our energy into taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, thoughts and behavior and hand over responsibility for our own. - Harriet Lerner
In order to understand boundaries, we need to understand what we are and are not responsible for. I wrote more about this here - and below is a more visual summary.
Healthy boundaries mean taking responsibility for our own actions, needs and emotions and realising that while we may be able to influence how others feel or think or behave - we can never fully change this.
In adult relationships, we can care about other people - but it is not our job to take care of them.
We actually cannot change or ever guarantee how someone else reacts or how they feel, so we cannot be responsible for their actions or reactions or emotions in a healthy adult relationship.
When people try to manipulate us in some way, by getting us to feel or do something, we do not need to take this on - this is where a strong boundary enables us to ask questions, and make a conscious choice about how we are going to react - for example by saying no, standing up for ourselves or walking away.
How boundaries work
No matter how solid our boundaries are, others will always try to cross them.
This is a given in life. And it’s OK when we trust ourselves to be able to repair our boundary when they are crossed.
As Jonice Webb writes in Running on Empty:
"A primary rule of assertiveness is that anyone has the right to ask you for anything; and you have the equal right to say no, without giving a reason."
Repairing a boundary
When we repair our boundary this can look like:
- Saying a clear yes, no or maybe based on our needs in the moment.
- Communicating what’s OK or not OK.
- Owning our own needs and asking for them.
- Standing up for ourselves WITHOUT invading the other person’s village. This is what we often call assertiveness.
It is only by repairing our boundary that we build self-trust - that we know that we have our own back.
Boundaries crossed repeatedly without repair leaves us as more of a blob than a whole village.
This often leads to:
- passive-agressive behavior
Where to start
This is a big topic, and there are tools for how to set boundaries or open up more to connection depending on what feels more relevant to you in a situation.
Perhaps a good place to start is to simply notice - with kindness and curiosity - where you are at and what works and no longer works for you.
How do you react in relationships? What is the balance between ME / WE? Is this working for you? Are you living with a lot of resentment, apathy or passive-aggressive behavior in your relationships? Do you feel you can trust yourself to understand and communicate your needs?
As Pat Ogden writes, "You can transform your relational boundary style into a choice rather than an automatic habit."
Said another way, you can change the signpost at the entrance of your village to one that is more aligned with the life you want to create today - perhaps one grounded in authenticity, assertiveness and connection.