If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say that the reason they’re afraid to set boundaries is because they’re afraid of being “mean,” I’d be rich. Our culture, on the one hand, upholds individualism to an extreme, while on the other hand, encourages and normalizes unhealthy codependent relational dynamics. Mixed messages much?
Give Grandpa Benny A Hug
How many times as a kid were you forced to give Grandpa Benny a hug, even though you didn’t want to? How many times were you met with disapproval and withdrawal of affection if you challenged something your parents did, or said? I’d guess, if you are like many of us, a lot!
Most of us were trained as children to fear asserting ourselves and setting appropriate boundaries in our relationships. And many of us, unintentionally, are doing the same thing to our children today. Let’s take a quick look at one of the examples above. When we force our children to give hugs and kisses to anyone (including us) when they don’t want to, that is a boundary violation.
1. That an adult’s feelings are more important than their needs, their sense of safety, and physical autonomy.
2. That it is normal, and even expected, that they ignore their own internal compass about what is safe and feels good in order to meet others needs (which sets them up to be more vulnerable to abuse).
Is there a better way? Yes, I believe there is. And we get there by understanding what healthy boundaries are, and what healthy boundaries are not.
Three Common Misconceptions About Boundaries
1. Saying “no” makes you an asshole.
Are some people assholes when they set boundaries? Sure, but the boundary setting is not the problem, it's the manner in which it is done. It is perfectly possible to set boundaries and say “no” with compassion and consideration for other people.
Setting boundaries is a skill, and as such, it’s something we can do skillfully, unskillfully, or anywhere in between. We can learn to say “no” in a skillful manner, taking into account other people’s perspectives and empathizing with their experience.
Saying “no” is not a mean thing to do, quite the opposite in fact. Having healthy boundaries means having an awareness of what is ours and what is not ours.
When we have healthy boundaries we are able to say “no” in a direct way when needed, instead of engaging in passive aggressive behavior. No one likes to be manipulated, and passive aggression is a form of manipulation--we are trying to get someone to do something in an indirect, non-transparent way. Being direct and owning our wants, needs, and feelings is always more considerate than dropping hints.
When we have healthy boundaries we are aware of what feelings belong to us and what feelings belong to other people. This is a very good thing, because it helps us avoid projecting our experience onto others.
It also helps us accept the fact that, as individuals, we all have a unique experience, and therefore, it's OK to see things differently and feel differently about things. Relationships that have healthy boundaries feel safer because we have permission to be our authentic selves, even if that means disagreeing with one another.
2. Setting boundaries creates conflict, instead of promoting peace.
This is a hangover from being in relationships with people who have punished us for saying “no” or asserting ourselves in other ways. Boundaries don’t create conflict, people who don’t understand boundaries and fear them, create conflict.
Remind yourself that the only person you have control over is yourself. We cannot control how other people respond to our boundaries. Sometimes we can set boundaries in the kindest, most compassionate way and it’s still going to make someone mad. People are entitled to their own feelings. Let them feel that way, they will be OK.
Again, the opposite is true--intimacy is not possible without healthy boundaries and the healthier the boundaries, the greater the capacity for genuine intimacy based in authenticity and respect.
When we have unhealthy boundaries we often believe that everyone has to agree and feel the same way in order for the relationship to remain intact. In relationships where we are expected to always agree with others, we don’t feel free to be authentic. When we don’t feel free to be authentic, we are forced to hide certain parts of our truth. This is not good for closeness or intimacy.
People who think that boundaries create distance have mistaken conflict avoidance for intimacy. Being in an unspoken agreement to avoid upsetting one another by tip-toeing around our truth, is not intimacy. It’s called enmeshment.
Happy boundary setting!
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