The word "boundaries" gets tossed around a lot these days. You know you should have them, sometimes fail at setting them, suffer confusion around how to set them, or wonder how to know when someone has crossed them.
Simply put, boundaries are rules that you set and enforce about what is and is not okay with you. Abuse, or boundary trauma, happens when you are prevented from setting a boundary, your boundary is not respected, and/or something is forced on you mentally, physically, or spiritually. Boundaries can be personal, social, or societal and can look like the following:
Having a guideline about when you will have sex, with whom, and under what circumstances (ex. not having sex on the first date, having sex without commitment, or only having sex with those you are committed to)
When, to whom, and how you lend or give money
Who you allow into your inner circle of intimate relationships
Who you decide to share personal details, stories, and experiences with
Habits that you prioritize in your life (i.e. working out, getting sleep, prioritizing creative projects, spending time with friends)
Political beliefs and action that you take (i.e. social/cultural/political structures that are not okay with you and action you take to change or stop it)
Who gets to be near you, stand by you, hug or touch you and when (boundaries around physical touch)
Who you allow to take up time and energy in your life
How often you see your family, how you let them treat/speak to you, distance or closeness that you establish based on their level of respect for you
How you decide to interact with your thoughts, especially self-critical and self-hating thoughts
Structures of self-care and self-respect in your life
If you are struggling to set a boundary in a particular place in your life, it is likely that you have experienced trauma, abuse, or negative consequences at some point in the past when you tried to set a boundary. For example, if you tried to assert a specific need as a child and were dismissed, you may have formed the belief that no one cares or there is no possibility of that need being met. If that happened, when you go to set the boundary in present time, the repeated impression of that childhood experience may stop you from either asserting yourself or believing you are worthy of good treatment.
Boundary trauma can also exist on a societal level. If you are frequently stereotyped due to an identity-marker (i.e. race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation), you may form an internalized belief that what "they" say is true or that you deserve to be treated the way you have been. For example, if you are called stupid in school, you may have trouble setting boundaries with self-talk or others who call you stupid in adulthood.
We all carry with us our experiences of boundary-attempts. These include times when setting a boundary was successful, respected, supported, or ignored, belittled or ridiculed. Many of us learned a toxic pattern of trading our boundaries for love. Anyone who requires you to engage in self-harm, however, is not exchanging love, they are exercising control.
Sustainably setting and maintaining healthy boundaries comes after we examine and heal negative, toxic, or abusive experiences we have had and restore our sense of self-worth and self-love.
While some people may be able to read a few articles on boundaries and enact the wisdom immediately, it is likely that deeper healing is required to embody the fullness of boundary expression in your life. This is because fear of setting or upholding boundaries is often rooted in the belief or experience that if you stand up for ourselves, you will no longer receive support, love, or connection. You are worthy of having boundaries and love, of saying "no" and receiving connection, and of receiving support even when you can't give someone what they want from us.
Supported boundary healing is often necessary, however, there are steps you can take today to begin to develop and maintain healthy boundaries. Here are a few suggestions:
Have a practice of self-expression like journaling, sharing with a trusted friend, or emailing/texting yourself.
Begin to develop body-awareness in order to be open to signals about what is and is not okay with you.
Develop a practice of noticing when something is or is not okay with you.
Write a list of what is and is not okay with you when it comes to: work, relationships, sex, love, friendship, personal habits, interpersonal relationships, and family.
Allow yourself to express anger and sadness in a way that feels safe to you. This may be alone to begin with, but even to acknowledge your feelings to yourself is helpful.
Pick one person with whom it would be safe to assert a boundary and practice. You can even say "I am practicing setting boundaries, will you help me by supporting me positively?"
Make a list of everything you need to adjust or say no to in the next two weeks. Look at the list. Are you able to actually change any of these plans?
Make a list of ten things you can do to take care of your body, mind, and spirit and commit to practicing at least one a week.
Learning about our boundary wounds and how to set and keep healthy boundaries is brave work. It requires courage and vulnerability. Even just reading this article is an act of self-love, further validation that you are worthy of setting healthy boundaries, that you are worthy of reciprocal love no matter what your life looks like right now. I hope you feel fortified and seen. Reach out if you are interested in more support!
For further resources on this topic, check out the following:
Rachel Maddox - Blogs on trauma, boundaries, and healing
Terri Cole - Videos on dating, boundaries, codependency and narcissists