September 19, 2013
(For this week’s audio podcast, click here.)
How healthy are your boundaries? Maybe you think about this directly and often, maybe not. Boundaries weren’t something I personally spent much time thinking about for many years. I’ve often related to the concept of boundaries in a negative way. Of course I’ve known they’re important, especially in the context of parenting, relationships, and work, but the idea of having clear and specific boundaries had sometimes seemed limiting or restrictive to me.
In the past few months, however, my lack of healthy boundaries has caused some real pain, challenge, and difficulty in my life and business in a way that has forced me to stop and pay attention.
A few months back during a session I was having with my counselor Eleanor, she said to me, “Mike, you don’t have healthy boundaries! In fact, you may not even know what healthy boundaries are.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, somewhat defensively.
“Well,” she said, “having healthy boundaries is about you setting up your life, your relationships, your work, and all the things that you do in a way that works for you authentically.” She continued, “When boundaries are healthy, they aren’t fixed, etched in stone, or filled with self righteousness. They are, however, clear and clean.”
I’d been talking to Eleanor during that session about a few specific people who were upsetting me and a couple of situations that were difficult and painful for me.
“What happens to you,” she said, “is that you’re not clear, clean, and straight forward with people about what you want, what works or doesn’t work for you, or when you get upset. Then,” she continued, “at some point you get angry enough to speak up, and when you do, you do so with a great deal of righteousness and judgment, which pushes them away and makes the boundary fixed and rigid, like the state line between California and Nevada.”
As I sat there and listened to Eleanor’s feedback, it hit me like a ton of bricks. “You’re right,” I said, “that’s exactly what I do. It not only doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t work.”
“No, it doesn’t,” she said, “however, you’re not alone – many people do this. Creating healthy boundaries isn’t easy, but it’s so important.” She went on to say, “Mike, you, like lots of people, have a fairly immature and adolescent perspective about boundaries. The cleaner you are with your boundaries, the easier it will be for you to negotiate them and also to operate with power, clarity, and integrity in all aspects of your life.”
Eleanor’s feedback, as it often is, was a bit hard to hear, but so valuable. I’ve been sitting with this for the past few months and looking at how I operate in my life as a husband, father, friend, colleague, client, author, speaker, coach, and more, in regards to boundaries. It’s been both illuminating and humbling to see the impact of my lack of healthy boundaries in various important relationships and areas in my life.
What I’ve noticed is that when I don’t create clear and healthy boundaries with certain people or in particular situations, it’s often because of fear. I get scared to speak up and say what I want or don’t want or what works or doesn’t work for me. I find myself trying to navigate my life and relationships in such a way that I won’t offend or upset people, while at the same time attempting to get what I want and have people like me. Maybe you can relate to this in some way?
Clearly, this doesn’t work very well. Not only does it set us up for difficulty and failure, it sabotages our desire for healthy, strong, and authentic connections with other people.
Here are some things we can do or think about to create healthier boundaries in our lives:
1) Take inventory of your boundaries. Take an honest look at your own boundaries (or, at times, lack thereof) and how you relate to boundaries in general. How healthy or empowering are your boundaries? Maybe you have some resistance to setting boundaries like I did for a long time (and am still working through). You may think of boundaries in a negative or restrictive way like I did. Or, you might be on the opposite end of the spectrum with lots of specific and clear boundaries, however, they may be quite fixed or rigid, without much flexibility or potential movement. Healthy boundaries exist somewhere fixed and unconscious – they are clear, but not nailed in place. The more honest you can be with yourself about the health of your boundaries and your overall relationship to boundaries, the more effective you’ll be in making positive change in your life and relationships.
2) Ask yourself “is this working for me?” It’s important to ask ourselves how things are working for us in the most important relationships and situations in our lives. If something isn’t working for us (we feel upset, offended, disappointed, disconnected, confused, irritated, taken advantage of, or misunderstood), it’s likely that our boundaries aren’t clean or healthy in that specific situation or relationship. We may or may not know exactly what to do or say about it, but identifying what’s not working for us and taking responsibility for it is an essential step in the process of creating positive and sustainable change.
3) Get clear about your boundaries and have the courage to communicate them. It’s also essential that we get clear with ourselves about what our boundaries are (i.e. what works for us and what doesn’t). This can sometimes be easy and sometime difficult, depending on a variety of factors. However, once we are clear, the more challenging aspect of this often has to do with communicating it to others. It takes courage to communicate our boundaries honestly, but can be so liberating and empowering when we do. It’s important for us to communicate with humility and vulnerability, which can be scary, especially for some of us and in specific situations and relationships. One of the most essential things for us to remember is to remove the righteousness from our communication, or even our thought process, around our boundaries. Our boundaries are not right with a capital “R,” they’re just true for us. And, they may change, which is what often happens with authentic and healthy boundaries as we grow and evolve.
The cleaner and healthier we are with our boundaries, the more power and freedom we’ll have in our lives, our relationships, our work, and all the things that are most important to us.