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Imagine for a moment that you have built a fence around yourself to protect your feelings and sense of sanity. This fence is sturdy and represents strong boundaries. This fence is meant to keep people from hurting you, but unfortunately, many people seem to believe that implementing strong boundaries—personal outward-facing stop signs—means that they’re being rude. This could not be further from the truth.
What are Boundaries?
Boundaries, especially strong ones, represent the line that cannot be crossed by other people without consequences. Depending on circumstances, these consequences might include leaving the immediate vicinity, standing up for yourself without backing down, putting someone on an “information diet,” or informing the boundary-crosser that they have overstepped and you are going to take some time to yourself because of it.
This list is by no means exhaustive.
I felt hurt and irritated by family members doing things that anyone else would say is normal, but what’s normal about feeling trepidation about visiting home?
It took a few therapy appointments to realize that it’s not normal to feel that way.
The reason? I didn’t have boundaries in place. I learned quite a bit from this book by Henry Cloud: Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life.
Why are Strong Boundaries Important?
There are a bunch of reasons why having boundaries, but especially strong ones, is super important. Not the least of which is your mental health… And your sanity. I got angry and frustrated very easily with the people stomping all over my life.
Sometimes it felt like I was the one doing something wrong.
Strong Boundaries Protect YOU
No one knows what’s best for you except you. This is the basis of developing and implementing strong boundaries. When you were a kid, your parents were supposed to make decisions that benefited your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Some parents live vicariously through their children, some control their child’s life to the extreme, and there are some parents whose “I know best” is actually damaging.
The reason these things create fear, guilt, frustration, anger, annoyance, etc., is because your unconscious boundaries have been crossed.
When you have strong boundaries in place, YOU are protected. YOU know what’s best for you, and have the ability to inform others what will happen if your boundaries are crossed.
First Steps to Implementing Kick-Ass Boundaries
Before all else, figure out which unconscious boundaries are causing you issues. Write them down. Ruminate upon them. Then, when you’re ready, find someplace to be alone and just say it out loud. Talk to the empty room as if the boundary-stomper is in there with you, and there are no consequences for yelling at him or her. Get angry if you need to.
Once you know what your unconscious boundaries are, write down the consequences that you will enforce if the stomper crosses them.
My big one: if any verbal abuse takes place, at any time, at any place, I am leaving, and it’s up to the stomper to explain why to anyone else who was present. Since implementing this, it hasn’t been crossed.
Before you can present your boundaries to the stompers, you need to practice setting them with someone safe. A close trusted friend or family member who won’t judge you in your quest for a peaceful life is the perfect person to practice with.
Once you have some practice, gather a support system. These are people like your practice buddy who will support you when you implement your boundaries with the stomper in question. My support comes from my husband, my closest friends, and when I saw him regularly, my therapist. This system is to encourage you and keep you steady when you set your boundaries with the stompers.
You’re ready to implement your strong boundaries! The suggested method is face-to-face, but emailing is just as good. As long as you can confirm that the stomper has received your boundaries, you’re all set.
You should keep in mind that after implementing your boundaries, it’s almost guaranteed that the stomper will push back. They will test your boundaries to determine if you’re bluffing. When this happens, you need to stick to the consequences you’ve outlined and follow through with them.
You can find a more in-depth guide to setting and sticking to boundaries in the Boundaries book.
Poor (or Nonexistent) Boundaries
The antithesis of strong boundaries is having none at all, or very weak ones that don’t stand up to much testing. A good example of this is if you find yourself unable to say “no” to people.
Consider for a moment your job. You’re swamped with tasks, all of them important, and your boss walks in fifteen minutes before you’re supposed to clock out. Your stomach drops. He asks you to do this one, tiny thing, right now… Surely it won’t take very long… And before you know it, you agree and wave goodbye to dinner at a decent time.
When you do finally get home, you’re frustrated and angry, maybe a little sad that you couldn’t say “no” when you really needed to. Feeling like this is normal when you don’t have strong boundaries in place—and even more so if you’re an Obliger.
The problem that most people have at this point is thinking that putting up the necessary boundaries is somehow being “mean” or “rude” to the person crossing those boundaries.
Those people have boundary problems too: they don’t or won’t recognize them.
This is a Strong Boundary
You’re planning a trip to visit home, which you haven’t done in several months. Usually, this would fill you with anxiety and tension, but after implementing strong boundaries with your passive-aggressive, narcissistic parents and your siblings, who are rough and aggressive and sometimes abusive, you are confident that you’ll be able to handle any boundary-stomping with relative ease.
This is the foundation of minimal stress.
You’re able to calmly remind your siblings what will happen if they cross the boundaries you’ve set up. Telling your mom that no, you can’t spend two hours helping her with something you’ve helped with in the past, is easy.
If you can find the support system, the strength, and the determination to stand up for yourself when people try to cross your boundaries, you’ll find your stress levels dramatically lower.