Healthy Relationship Practices: What Part of You is Setting Boundaries? (including 6 Steps to Healthy Boundaries)

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

I’m just in between trips today. I arrived yesterday from a week in the Netherlands with my partner, and tomorrow we’re leaving for Germany’s Black Forest for a week with my two children. This post is my anchoring point at home, in between unpacking and re-packing. Not just in a physcal sense, but also emotionally. I need that docking point, by myself, in my own physical and mental space.

In the past week, we did more than just travel. We also participated in a training in constellation work and systemic coaching, in which we partly received a theoretic framework but mostly actively engaged in coaching and being coached by each other. It was incredibly intense, beautiful and inspiring.

Only a few days later, I was able to put all this new knowledge and skills into practice with a client of mine. As is often the case, in the days leading up to this session, the themes that came up were also scattered throughout my environment and experiences, and one of those was ‘boundaries‘.

I’ve discussed boundaries in various situations before (see a list of posts here), but today I want to talk about where our boundary setting comes from. My client expressed that often others react negatively to their boundaries, that they are triggered by it and blame my client. So we worked on where the energy behind these words is coming from and how you can tell.

The strongest impulses we have to set boundaries are fear and anger. Both of these emotions alert us to the fact that either a boundary has been crossed (anger) or a boundary is about to be crossed (fear). When the feeling behind a boundary is really strong, it affects the scope of that boundary, the way it is expressed and the energy behind it (and thus the effect on the other person).

With my client, I then went on to investigate what it means to set boundaries out of fear/anger or, as an alternative, out of love. A boundary out of fear is often much stronger than one out of love, which is an appropriate reaction to the emotion you feel. You use the boundary to protect yourself (or others) from a perceived threat, which is a very healthy reaction. When you express that boundary to someone, they will sense that energy, too. They will sense that you see them as a threat or a perpetrator, and that, in itself, can feel threatening to their sense of self.

I’ll give you an example from my own life. In the early days of our relationship, still very much plagued by our dynamic of fear of abandonment/fear of attachment, my boundaries were mostly set out of fear. I would avoid contact at times, ask for long periods without talking or ask my partner to sleep in his own house. He would respond to the feeling of being pushed away by redoubling his efforts to get closer, fuelled by his fear as well. Our fear-based boundaries kept reinforcing each other making it so that neither of us really felt safe in the relationship.

Fast forward a few years, several books, numerous therapy sessions and countless talks, and we have both learned that when we set our boundaries out of love, first for ourselves and then for the other, they don’t trigger the same fear in the other. “I feel I need to be with myself right now. How about we spend this night apart and meet for breakfast?” is very different from the “I don’t think I ever want to feel like I have to share my bed again” from a few years ago. I still don’t HAVE to sleep with my partner in the same bed if I don’t want to. The difference is that it doesn’t scare me as much anymore because I know I have a choice.

When we express boundaries out of fear, it is often not the other person that we fear but our own inability to set boundaries and to uphold them. What we fear most is not that the other person will cross our boundaries, but that we allow them to do so.

So how do you switch from one to the other? How do you go from setting boundaries out of fear to setting boundaries out of love? You follow a few simple (though not necessarily easy) steps:

Step 1: You find a place where you feel safe. Maybe this is with a close friend, or in your own home, or maybe it’s a mental place. What matters is that you find a place in which it is safe for you to relax and to calm your nervous system. If this means that you initially have to set a boundary out of fear, you can do that: “I need to be alone right now / to see a friend / to go for a walk…

Step 2: You then calm your nervous system through breathing, talking it over, meditation, a walk, a bath… any way that works best for you to reduce your stress level in the moment.

Step 3: Then you ask yourself some important questions:
– What am I afraid of?
– Is this threat a real danger in the here and now?
– Now that I am calm and relax, what boundary would feel safe/healthy for me?
– What boundary would feel safe/healthy for the other person (if appropriate. In some cases – e.g. abuse of any kind – your focus is solely on yourself!)?
– Do the boundaries set traditionally in this kind of relationship match what I need? (We are sometimes unfaithful to our own needs because we feel they are inappropriate in the situation.)

Step 4: Practice! In the beginning, especially if you’re not used to expressing your boundaries, it can help to practice them. You can use a mirror, a teddy-bear, a good friend, or a coach/therapist. Practice saying the words, practice what to say if they are being challenged.

Step 5: Express your boundaries in a healthy way. “I need to be alone for a day. I need clarity about what you think and feel. This kind of discussion isn’t healthy for me and I want to establish some rules for situations like this.”
Listen to the reaction, and repeat the boundary if needed. Remind yourself that this is you loving yourself, caring for yourself, and that this is your responsibility, not the other person’s.

Step 6: Do NOT apologize! You are entitled to your boundaries, we all are. So do not apologize for drawing a line. Don’t make others feel guilty for drawing theirs either (even if they seem ridiculous to you). “I know it’s kind of silly of me but I would really like you to wear underwear to bed” is not loving to yourself. If that’s what you need to feel safe, own it. You owe it to yourself to own your boundaries, that’s what makes you safe to yourself, and by extension, to others. Your partner might feel like it’s a hassle to wear underwear (and might express a boundary there, which you can then discuss with respect for each other’s experiences), but they won’t have to worry about crossing boundaries that are never made clear.

Adopting new patterns isn’t easy. It’s hard enough when emotions aren’t running high, but when you are triggered into a primal reaction such as intense fear, as is often the case in close relationships, it is that much harder. Still, it is possible. I can attest to the power of working on boundary setting, as can many people I know. This is the way we learn to take care of ourselves and of those around us. And by setting our own boundaries in a healthy way, we become models to those around us.

And now, back to packing!

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