How To Set Healthy Boundaries (Without Guilt)

When you hear the words “healthy boundaries,” what’s your initial reaction? Do you feel like you have them in place? Do you feel like you need or want to have them in place? Maybe, you think that you don’t need them at all.

I used to be the third option. But I would never have worded it like that. I would have said, “I care about other people over myself.” “I just want to help and support people.” “I have a lot of empathy.” And these statements were true. In many ways, they still are. I love people. Truly. I want to help out and support and be there and talk and understand why people do, say, and feel the ways that they do. That’s not a bad thing, though, right? Isn’t that selfless and noble?

You could call it that. But when it’s slowly eroding your soul and sense of self, that’s a problem.

What am I talking about when I say “healthy boundaries”? Simply, it’s having a knowledge of what is your responsibility, what is not your responsibility, and when to say “No.” It’s being aware of where “you” end and another person “begins.” 

So, what’s that look like? It’s a lot to dig through. Let’s start at the beginning. Every one of us has “core values”: the beliefs and principles by which we try to live our lives. You may or may not be clear on which values, exactly, are most important to you, but I’d be willing to bet that you tend to have certain ones that you follow without even thinking about it. You could really value having a clean and tidy living space, being in good physical health, your faith, being compassionate, being a “free spirit”, creating art, living as waste free as possible, being politically active… really, your values could be anything. But they are yours. And when you have awareness of your personal values, you’ll be well on your way to being able to set and hold healthy boundaries. (If you’d like to reflect a bit more on what your values are, here’s a fantastic list of over 200 core values to read and consider. Some will jump out and resonate with you immediately.)

Once you have your values defined, consider how those values impact relationships. We’re not just talking romantic here, but every relationship. Coworkers, friends, family members, and lovers. If those relationships are healthy, and have good boundaries, you will feel able to hold firm to your values regardless of disagreement. You will not need to compromise something very important to you for the sake of keeping another person happy. You and the person with whom you are in that relationship will be two independent people, with individual values, and you will each respect those differences instead of trying to change them in the other person or feeling pressured to change your own.

Being able to live by your core values is at the heart of boundary setting. Living by our convictions and values gives us an immense sense of purpose and self-worth. I we are living our lives in a way that necessitates that we compromise our wants and needs in favor of others’ wants and needs, we will not feel valuable or fulfilled. Because personal values are so important in this process, self awareness is key in the journey to healthy boundaries. We each need ask ourselves which values are non-negotiable and which are open to compromise? How do we handle each situation with flexibility to balance our priorities (i.e. rigidly sticking to our values vs building or maintaining a relationship with someone).

Your most precious values should never be conceded in the interest of a relationship. If they are being compromised, or you feel unable to hold true to them all together, that is a massive red flag that you are in a situation in which your boundaries have been violated.

If you find yourself in a situation like that, it is important to take a step back and consider what you need to do to regain personal agency. If you’ve lost core values, or your personal space (either physically or emotionally) has been violated, you have the right to reestablish your boundaries and require that they are respected. If they are not, you have the right to end the relationship. Setting healthy boundaries and sticking to them is never selfish. It’s never not OK to protect yourself and your space. You have a right to decide who gets a seat at the table in your life.

Of course, this concept would be Chapter One in the book “Easier Said Than Done”. I don’t want to make light of the struggle of setting boundaries, especially if you’ve never really learned what healthy boundaries look like, or if you’ve been in a prolonged situation of feeling unable to have boundaries.

In my own life, I still struggle with the concept of boundaries. Professionally, I had it in the bag. Working at the group home, holding boundaries with my clients was pretty easy. I think because I went into the situation knowing that it was required and expected of me, and that it was the only way to truly support my clients in a manner which would help them grow. But there were plenty of areas of my life with zero boundaries. My marriage, family interactions, and even with work. (I spent four years saying “yes” to every single request for me to cover a shift because I didn’t feel comfortable saying “no”. I thought that declining a shift would make me a bad employee. One time, I worked a 108 hour week, which included a shift of 36 hours straight. This is a great example of a lack of healthy boundaries.)

Like many people (and, probably many of you reading this), boundaries in my childhood home were rather blurred. Growing up with alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and the constant threat of danger in the home will pretty solidly eradicate the idea of boundaries; the choices you make and the roles you assume are largely rooted in the need for survival. You don’t have the ability or luxury of worrying about “healthy boundaries” in situations like that. I fell into a caretaker role very early on in my life and maintained it well into my 20’s in one relationship or another. Breaking deep reaching, very established patterns in boundary setting like that takes an awful lot of time and energy. I still struggle with boundaries, to be honest. But I am actively working on that.

So, if you, like me, struggle with boundary setting, let’s look at what we can do about it! Once we’ve reflected a bit on what our core values are and where those values and our sense of self are being violated, how do we establish boundaries without feeling selfish or guilty? I’m glad you asked! 

HERE ARE TEN STEPS TO TAKE AS YOU BEGIN SETTING HEALTHY BOUNDARIES:

GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION: You can’t set boundaries if you don’t believe you have the right to do so. You have the right to say no, to protect your values, to be true to yourself, and to protect your space and your well-being. Believe that. Allow yourself to do it.

START SMALL: If you’ve never had boundaries in place, or if it’s been a really long time since you have had them, making huge, sweeping changes to the ways in which you interact with people will be difficult and discouraging. It could be so overwhelming that you give up on setting boundaries all together. This, obviously, is not the idea. Practice setting “safe” boundaries to get used to the idea. If a friend asks you to go out one night and you’re tired, practice saying, “Thanks for the invitation, but I’m really tired, so I’m going to pass.” If your boss asks you to cover a shift, practice saying, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to do that.” Your friend will very likely not hate you forever to passing on one evening out; you will not be fired for refusing one shift. These are great “baby steps” to take as you get used to setting boundaries again.

CONTINUALLY WORK ON SELF AWARENESS: If you are feeling resentful, uncomfortable, or belittled, it’s very likely that a boundary has been violated. Especially at first, it can take some serious self reflection to determine exactly which boundary that is and how to protect that boundary in the future. Self reflection and radical honesty are really important in recovery in general, and the same is true in boundary setting.

THINK ABOUT THE WAYS IN WHICH YOUR PAST INFLUENCES YOUR PRESENT: Going along with that self awareness, it’s important to start to recognize patterns of behavior. Our pasts strongly influence our present. If you grew up with abuse or alcoholism or neglect, you did not learn how to set boundaries. Our past tends to haunt us until we understand the ways in which we fall into those same patterns over and over again. Only then can we start to break free of them. If you find yourself feeling the need to take care of everyone else at your own expense, and you grew up in a home where you were the caretaker, you can see how those two things are not just related, they are one in the same. Once you recognize these patterns, you can start to break them. (Just remember, “start small!”)

PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU’RE FEELING: If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you may remember post about naming your emotions. (If you’re new, or you want a refresher, you can find it right here.) The skill of naming emotions is very important. When we can identify what we’re feeling, we can also identify the red flags that a boundary has been violated.

PRIORITIZE SELF CARE: Let’s be real, even if you want to be supporting other people (remember, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s not at the expense of yourself or your values), you’re going to be a lot better at it if you’re taking care of yourself. You’ve got honor what you mind, body, and spirit needs to be at your best, and you need to honor your feelings if you want to be able to have healthy relationships with others. So, don’t feel guilty for taking care of you first. I’d give the old “airplane oxygen mask” analogy, but I think you get it.

NAME LIMITS: You can’t hold firm boundaries unless you are clear about them. Know your limits, and make sure other people know them as well. This will make it a lot easier to hold the line when necessary, because you can say, “I told you that this is not OK, so I need you to respect that or else this conversation is done.”

BE DIRECT: Be clear about what you expect. If you send mixed messages, you’ve already got blurred boundaries because it’s very like that the person with whom you are interacting is incredibly confused and unsure of what you want and need. Don’t expect others to be able to read your mind. Remind yourself that you have the right to say exactly what you need, and then to hold strong to it.

BE ASSERTIVE: “Assertive” is a pretty heavy word for me. I’m never quite sure how to do it without feeling like a jerk. Can you relate? Sometimes I struggle with what “being assertive” even means, as I tend to think of it as synonymous with “aggressive”. Realistically, though, “assertiveness” is the balance between “submissiveness” and “aggressiveness”. If you are non-assertive, or submissive, your go to method of interacting with someone is to put their wants and needs above your own and being overly invested in being “nice” or “pleasing”. You will also likely feel guilty, or as if you are imposing on someone, when you do try to ask for what you want or need. People with an aggressive manner of interacting with people communicate in a demanding, abrasive, and even hostile manner, completely disregarding other’s rights and feelings in order to get what they want. This style of interaction is often abusive, with people attempting to gain what they want through coercion, intimidation, and sheer force. Assertiveness, on the other hand, is simply asking for what you want, or saying “no” to something that you don’t want, in a direct, clear manner that does not manipulate, negate, or attack the other person. There is no need for guilt when you are assertive. It is not wrong of you to be direct and clear.

HAVE SUPPORT: Don’t be afraid to tell some of the people in your life that you are working on your assertiveness and your ability to set boundaries and express your wants and needs. If you have some unhealthy relationships, part of “starting small” may mean talking to a friend, family member, or therapist who is supportive of your journey to healthier boundaries. Talk about what you would like to be different in those unhealthy relationships, and maybe even ask them if you can “practice” setting some of those boundaries and having those difficult conversations before you actually engage with the specific person (or people) in those problematic relationships.

There you have it! Remember, as with so many other aspects of mental health recovery or increased mental wellness in general, setting boundaries is a process, not an event. It will take time. It will take practice. It will take work. But it will be worth it. I promise.

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Have a great day, all!

Are Your Relationships Healthy?

Ahhh… healthy relationships. Something we all want, right? Well, in theory, anyway. If you’re anything like me, it’s easy to fall into unhealthy relationships and then forgive the negative or harmful aspects. But isn’t that just being kind and empathetic? Doesn’t every relationship require a certain amount of give and take? Of course! That’s part of our collective human condition – we’re all brimming with flaws flowing through us and, often, bubbling over. The original stream may be our families of origin, our experiences as children at school, past romantic relationships that ended badly, among other things. Whatever the source, our challenges and hurts spring out of us, usually at the worst possible times.

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So, what’s the difference between healthy give and take, forgiveness and remorse, and actual unhealthy relationships that leave us stuck and feeling like crap? At the core, the issue is usually the inability to set and respect boundaries. Again, though, if you’re anything like me, it can be difficult to figure out exactly where the proverbial line in the sand belongs. When am I setting a healthy boundary and when am I over-reacting? Am I consistently minimizing and under-reacting for fear of “being a bitch” or over-reacting? How do I even start to hash out which relationships are healthy and which are harmful?

This workbook has some really helpful tools. In the Partial Hospitalization Program, I did one called the “Relationship Report Card.” I found it really helpful in untangling the enmeshments and warped perceptions of “normal” in which I’d been trapped, in some cases, for years. I hope you will see some benefit in it as well. I can’t find a PDF of this, so I’m just going to give an overview. It’s pretty simple and it works for any relationship in your life. (Friendships, coworkers, and, of course, you primary relations – spouse, parents, siblings, grandparents, etc.)

It’s very straight forward: Pick a Person, Any Person – got one? Cool! We’re going to rate their qualities, both positive and negative. For an example, I’m gonna pick my best friend, Cassie (cause she’s awesome and I don’t want this to be a display of an unhealthy relationship in my life – I have plenty, but I’m working on the boundaries and self care there myself.) It’s easy as can be, as long as you answer honestly: if the answer is “yes”, your person gets a point. If it’s “no”, no points. Totals at the end help you assess whether the relationship is actually healthy or not. I’m just going to use “X” for yes, and nothing for “no” for ease of typing.

Here’s mine for Cass:

First, let’s look at positive qualities. Are the following attributes present in your relationship?

  • Common Interests?  X
  • Good Communication? X
  • Nurturing? X
  • Accepting? X
  • Trustworthy? X
  • Loyal? X
  • Fun to Be With? X
  • Romantic? (Obvious, platonic friendships don’t require this category)
  • Good Sex? (See above)
  • Right Amount of Time Together? X (We both wish it were more, but we definitely make time through visits when possible and phone calls when not.)
  • Open, Sharing, Supporting? X
  • Appreciative of you? X
  • Respectful of your privacy? X
  • Shared Responsibilities? X
  • Resolves Conflict Fairly? X

Total Points: Cassie gets 13 out of 15 (because we aren’t romantically involved. There’s a joke here that I won’t make, and hopefully Cass won’t either :P) 

Now, let’s look at the negative qualities. Same rules – “x” is 1, “blank” is 0. Is this person: 

  • Demanding?
  • Critical?
  • Distant?
  • Manipulative?
  • Boring?
  • Do they try to change you?
  • Do you feel like you “can’t be you” around them?
  • Undependable?
  • Violent?
  • Overly dependent?
  • Dishonest?
  • Do they avoid/mishandle conflict?
  • Do they violate your privacy?

Total points: 0, because Cassie is literally none of these. (And, no, that’s not just lip service. She’s awesome.) 

So, in my example, Cassie scored 13 in the “positive qualities” section and 0 in the “negative qualities”. That’s what we like to call a damn good friend.

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This is Cassie and I at our Senior Prom. And we’d already been friends for 6 years before this, so, you can say, we’ve both been there and done that for just about everything. 

If you walk through this checklist with your friendships and relationships, and there are far more checks in the “positive” than in the “negative” column, congratulations! That’s very likely a healthy relationship. (Unless you’re fudging the answers.) If the “negative” column is full of x’s, you may need to re-evaluate that relationship and establish firmer boundaries with the person in question, which could mean anything from spending less time together to cutting them completely out of your life.

In addition to helping me sort out the mess of unhealthy relationships in my life, this tool helped me evaluate myself as a friend. Being completely honest, there were a couple of “negatives” I would need to answer “yes” to about me in some relationships. I’m a big fan of avoiding and/or mishandling conflict, for example. And sometimes, I can be dishonest about reasons for cancelling plans out of embarrassment or shame: that said, since doing this for the major relationships in my life, I’ve started to catch these unhealthy habits have. I’m doing this crazy thing now where, if I’m having a “bad day” (like, anxiety or depression or triggered day), instead of making up some lame ass excuse right before I’m supposed to be meeting up with someone, I’m actually either texting or calling and telling them the truth. Sometimes, that results in those same friends coming over or insisting that I come even if I’m “not the best company” (in cases of depression/no energy – because those fantastic friends are actively trying to prevent me from isolating) or they give me my space, but either way, they know what’s actually going on and I don’t feel like shit for lying to them. Handling conflict is something that comes with lots and lots of practice and persistence. But, within my truly good relationships, I can safely say, “Hey, I’m really bad at handling conflict, but I’m working on it.” And then they also know what’s going on if I’m kind of stuttering my way through a disagreement or, worse, coming on too strong for the situation at hand. (Both have happened.)

So, there ya have it, folks! A handy reference guide to healthy relationships. Obviously, it’s not the end all, be all, but I know sorting out and naming the positives and negatives in my relationships was very helpful to me. I hope you find it useful as well!

 

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Quick aside not related to this post: my Mental Cleanse Challenge goal for today was to play Mario with my daughter. Mission accomplished, but I don’t think I can write a whole post about that, so I’ll just make note of it here.