So much of the language around boundary setting is that it is about saying "No!" and this unfortunately gives boundary setting a bad reputation while it is in fact probably the single most important skill that a person can master for their wellbeing. What are boundaries? If you have been following the Instagram page then I hope you have a good idea by now, if not here’s a re-cap in someone else’s words.
Given how much we are obliged to consider others over ourselves in childhood as proof of being “good”, it’s no wonder we have a hard time as adults making decisions that may not please others. We insist that children finish their food even when they are crying because they are full, we tell them to hug uncle so-and-so even though they don’t want to and we rifle through our teenagers’ stuff in search for the thing that’s causing their bad behavior. For most of us childhood was one long experience in boundary violation.
As adults, we struggle to listen to our bodies and fall into a natural rhythm of healthy eating because we are driven by external ideas about how we should eat. We are unable to even acknowledge sexual harassment at work let alone report it for fear of being “that girl” and we are uncertain on whether to apologize or be mad when our partners’ confront us with “suspicious” messages which they found while rifling through our phones. Where do we draw the line? Should it be drawn in sand or chiseled out in stone? These are the struggles we face when we are out of touch with our authentic selves because ultimately, boundaries are simply about being true and compassionate to ourselves and communicating that clearly more than rejecting or resisting another person opinions or ideas. When you set a boundary, you are saying “Yes” to yourself.
In her book It’s Not Always Depression, Hilary Jacobs Hendel describes a model she calls the Change Triangle. It is “a map of the mind” that “takes you from a distressed state to calm and clarity.” If you’d like a more detailed description, you can dive into it here. I find Hilary’s work especially compelling because we as a nation, in our infancy in understanding the mental and emotional landscape, reduce every mental illness to depression. In reality, much of our mental and emotional dis-ease is a result of denying our natural complexity. Instead, we try to fit into roles and live by a script and then mask our discomfort from these unnatural contortions with defenses. Defenses are a reactive way of dealing with situations where healthy boundaries should be.
Hendel provides a long list of common defenses many of which I’m sure you’ll recognize in areas where boundaries are needed in your life: Joking, sarcasm, smiling, laughing, worrying, ruminating, vagueness, eye-rolling, mumbling, not talking, spacing out, criticizing, perfectionism, procrastination, irritability, negative thinking, judging others, judging ourselves, misguided aggression, working too much, numbness, helplessness, overeating, obsessing, gossiping, complaining, avoiding, cutting off from others and addictions.
Making the shift from “No!” and the judgment of self and others to “Yes!’ and the kindness and understanding for self and others can make us more willing to engage in the work of creating and setting boundaries to help decrease or alleviate the pain and suffering we are experiencing. If the voice inside your head denies your suffering or is critical and judgmental of it, it becomes that much harder to recognize the need for a boundary and to put the effort into creating one. Self-compassion lets people acknowledge that they have pain and feel more positive emotions like kindness and care towards themselves. Leading to authentic compassion for others that is not driven only by the desire to secure their affection. Ultimately, everyone is set free.
Experiencing the positive emotions generated by having self-compassion can help create an “upward spiral” of positive emotions that can lead to greater resiliency and coping skills, both of which can aid in the setting of healthy boundaries. This strategy of using positive emotion to leap into growth is part of the Broaden and build theory that you can read more about here. Below are some of the benefits of experiencing positive emotions that can directly impact a person’s ability to set healthy boundaries.
Being able to better see the “big picture”
Improve psychological resilience
Increase your coping resources
Put negative emotions in a broader context
Being able to be more optimistic about the future by noticing the change
Increase feelings of well-being
Improve the ability to bounce back from setbacks
Perceiving yourself as wise and operating from a place of wisdom
Greater social integration
Greater tolerance for distress
Better emotion regulation
Very early on in my practice, while I was still a student earning my clinical hours, I came across an assertiveness exercise while researching an intervention for a client with crippling work-place anxiety. In the weeks that followed, I observed such a remarkable transformation in that client that it defined it defined my approach to therapy to this day. Very little had changed at her workplace but she had undergone a radical internal shift and SHE became the change in her workplace. Our state of emotional and mental well-being completely dictates the quality of our lives. A big claim, I know, but my years in therapy sessions with people of all ages and from all walks of life has me convinced that learning to manage your emotional and mental well being is ALL you need to live a fulfilling life.
Whether you take on the challenge to grow emotionally and mentally alone or in sessions with a professional therapist, do take it on, you deserve it!
Broaden-and-build. (2021, June 17). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broaden-and-build
Celestine, N. (2021, March 25). Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. PositivePsychology.Com. https://positivepsychology.com/broaden-build-theory/
Clear, J. (2020, October 15). 3-2-1: On clear boundaries, handling criticism, and the importance of quality. James Clear. https://jamesclear.com/3-2-1/october-15-2020
Hendel, J. H. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. Random House.
The Self Help Alliance. (2010). Building Better Boundaries. Canadian Mental Health Association. https://cmhawwselfhelp.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/WorkbookBuilding-Better-BoundariesFeb2011.pdf