By Linda Williams, MA
What are boundaries in relationships? How do we establish and maintain them? How do we communicate them in a caring and consistent way? These are all important questions, and I spent many years and endured many painful situations to find my own answers. Now, I want to share them with you in the hope that they can serve as inspiration on your own personal journey to find balance in life.
As I reflect on my childhood, I can see why I had a difficult time developing healthy boundaries. My primary adult role models presented confusing messages.
One was a “hovering” role model who showed me that boundaries were set by someone else (her) for me. They also were enforced by someone else (her). As a result, I had no personal power or responsibility in developing or maintaining boundaries. I was told what, where, when, and how to feel and act. I had no chance to experience or explore my own personal development.
My other adult role model was the “detached” boundary setter. I was presented with (his) unclear boundaries and inconsistent enforcement of them, which gave me the message that what was acceptable one day wasn’t okay the next day. I kept guessing at what the boundaries were. The inconsistency showed me that the boundaries, vague as they were, really weren’t all that important.
So I moved through my teenage and adult relationships as a “people pleaser.” I did not develop my internal voice, which identifies and creates guidelines or limits for myself as to what are reasonable, safe, and acceptable ways for other people to behave toward me.
My old internal voice messages:
- “If I don’t agree, they won’t like me…”
- “It’s too hard to say ‘No’ to them…”
- “I am not sure what I want…”
- “I wish I had said….”
I had buried my internal red warning light, the one that flashed when something was not acceptable to me. I acted and reacted in fear of rejection and abandonment. Later in life I realized I had to overcome my barriers to make the critical breakthroughs necessary to realize and appreciate the benefits of setting healthy boundaries.
“We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. Consequences give us the pain that motivates us to change.” —Henry Cloud
Life is a series of interactions with people in different situations. My breakthrough moment happened when a friend, Sally, asked me the night before a kayaking trip to give her a ride to the event in the morning. The old people-pleasing me would have said “Yes” right away. The good thing was I paused before I agreed and thought about my own needs. A new behavior!
Somehow my internal warning light finally shined its light and said: “Just pause before you answer.” My newly emerging internal voice, helping me to honor my own needs, reviewed the following: The event started early, so I knew if I said yes I had to get up at dawn…take care of the dog, get the supplies together for the trip, and make sure I went out of my way to pick her up…
I heard myself respond to Sally in a helpful voice and say, “I won’t be able to do that in the morning, but Mary and Connie live near you. Perhaps you can call one of them for a ride.” I was so proud of myself! I honored my needs and was still helpful in offering an idea to her. Another new behavior!
The next morning, as I was getting ready for an action-packed series of tasks, my phone rang. I didn’t have my glasses on, and I was unable to see who it was on caller ID. It was Sally. She asked me again to give her a ride because she did not connect with the other women. I heard myself saying, “Yes.” The minute I hung up I went into a major resentment! I realized how I had let myself down and, as an added bonus, I began to project how my entire day of kayaking would be ruined. I stressfully completed all of the tasks that needed to be done before I went to pick her up. Old behavior loud and clear!
I was so angry at her and at myself—mostly myself. I realized I had let myself down and disrespected myself by not honoring my own needs.
I asked my Higher Self how I could move through this situation in a positive way. The answer came a few blocks from picking her up. The message was that when I saw her I would thank her for the lesson I learned and describe my part of the interaction. Another new behavior!
And that’s exactly what I did. I said:
“Sally, I want to thank you for an important lesson I just learned.”
I described to her how I had made the conscious decision to honor what I needed on the morning of the trip. When she called me again and I heard myself saying yes, I realized that I had let myself down. So I thanked her again for teaching me that I was responsible for honoring my needs both the first and second time I was asked. I will never forget that moment, and it continues to serve as one of my guideposts. I either honor my boundary the second time or I am responsible for again letting myself down. Since I spoke with her from a gratitude perspective, my tone was positive and not blaming. A personal best!
And then, much to my amazement, she thanked me. She said she realized that she did not honor other people’s boundaries and that she needed to be more responsible about that going forward. An amazing win-win!
“Evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of any relationship is your responsibility. You do not have to passively accept what is brought to you. You can choose.”—Deborah Day
My new internal voice messages:
- “I can pause before I respond.”
- “Let me think it over, and I will get back to you.”
- “Thank you for being my teacher…”
- “Thank you for the lesson I learned…”
I feel emotionally healthy when I honor my boundaries. Now, when I agree to do something it is because I am willing. I am more self-confident because I see that if I say no—in a kind and caring way—I maintain my self-respect, and I believe others whose relationships matter to me will respect me in kind.
I know that it is not always smooth sailing as I continue to maintain my new boundaries and behaviors. I have learned when it is difficult to say no to explain to the other person that I am making some changes in my life that are in my best interest. There are times I need to honor my needs! However, I have noticed that sometimes when I change my behavior the other person’s response is to not accept my boundaries and become negative. In these cases, I focus on remaining calm and consistent in how I communicate. I focus on finding and maintaining my boundary balance. And I am always grateful for maintaining healthier boundaries!
My continuing internal voice messages:
- “I am responsible for how I feel and what I say…
- “I care about you and honor how you feel…
- “It is in my best interest to…
- “Self-care is self love…
Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.—Brene Brown
Linda Williams is Founder of RelationShape™ and President of Williams Consulting. Her vision is to transform people’s interactions by using communication strategies and tools that cultivate the respectful speaking of truths and compassionate listening. She imparts her knowledge, enthusiasm, and commitment to utilize practical approaches that make a difference in the quality of personal and work relationships. She is a facilitator, mentor, and consultant to organizations and individuals nationwide. In her seminars, Linda develops an interactive, supportive, safe, and fun learning environment. She is also the Communications Director for the Sarasota, Fla., Living in Community Network. Contact Linda at 941-400-1270 and firstname.lastname@example.org.