Mapping Your Relationship to Boundaries
The term boundary gets tossed around a lot. What is a boundary and what role does it play in our relationships?
Boundary-setting is the art of communicating our needs and limits emotionally, physically, energetically, spiritually and psychologically. Boundaries also include our capacity to receive the needs of others across this spectrum. A boundary is a dynamic conversation about where we are willing and able to extend ourselves into our relationships, and where others are willing to do the same with us.
Boundaries are a form of power. They empower us to express our needs in relationship, whether that’s in our relationship to ourselves or others. Boundaries also offer us a forum to negotiate, using our authentic voice to stand in solidarity with our inner value system.
Boundary-setting is an important self-care practice. Establishing clear boundaries is necessary to maintain evolutionary, authentic, consensual, and respectful relationships in all domains of life.
Self-awareness and belief maps
Many of us carry unconscious beliefs about our right to set boundaries. We may also struggle with attuning to and respectfully honoring the boundaries set by others.
To become more aware of how we operate, we can study our inner maps. Our neuropathways are the physiological maps in the brain that hold our belief systems. They’re well-trodden paths of thoughts, emotions, and actions in response to certain external stimulus. These pre-established responses drive most of our subconscious behavior — about 90% of our daily functioning.
Each one of us has a unique neuropathway map, which informs the way we relate to connection, safety, trust, belonging, and self-worth. This internal blueprint starts to form in the womb and infancy, long before we can speak or consciously reflect on who we are and what we need.
Depending on our early conditioning and relational experiences, as adults, we may find that our need to feel safe and connected can be at odds with our need for autonomy and independence. This inner conflict is also connected to our primal wiring (Learn more by reading We’re wired to connect and protect.)
Boundary-setting is a form of self-care
When we take care of ourselves, we have more to give to others. Engaging in self-care generates a reservoir of energy, resiliency, and patience, which become the medicine we bring into our relationships.
When we set a boundary to stay true to ourselves, while simultaneously holding space to be with someone’s potential disappointment in response to our boundary, we honor the relationship differences while modeling self-love. If we transgress our own boundaries out of obligation, we build resentment, which can ignite a painful cycle of relational conflict and distancing from ourselves.
What’s the difference between a boundary and a wall?
Boundaries are personal guidelines, rules, or limits that we create to establish preferred ways for other people to behave towards us. A boundary is a means to communicate our yes and our no in relationship with one another. Healthy boundaries maintain connection while honoring different needs and preferences between people.
A wall is a boundary that has becomes a protection or defense mechanism to keep people out. We may consciously or unconsciously erect a wall as a means to protect against feeling used, rejected, criticized or manipulated. We get to decide what feels safe to reveal about ourselves, and how much we let others into our inner world.
Words, and our tone of voice, are only one form of boundary setting. We also set them silently with our energy, facial expressions, body posture and other subtle methods. Are you communicating coherently or sending mixed messages? For example, are you saying things are fine but actually still angry and it’s showing through other forms of communication? If so, most sensitive people attune to this and your message will be diluted and perhaps not trustworthy.
A wall can temporarily ‘protect’ us from others, but it also has a tendency to turn us away from vulnerable parts of ourselves. Walls can rise inside of us as children in response to conditions in our environment that didn’t feel safe. When our vulnerability is judged, criticized or shamed by others, we feel threatened. It’s a universal experience to feel an annihilating threat response when we’re being told, or we interpret, that we’re too much or not enough. In these circumstances, as a child, it’s a wise choice to construct a wall because we don’t yet have the communication tools or even the self-awareness to implement any other option.
For example, when I was seven years old, my parents were in the middle of a very painful divorce. When I spent time at their separate homes, they would talk negatively about one another, and it hurt my heart deeply. I didn’t know how to set a boundary for fear of losing connection with each of them, or inflaming the anger or grief even more, so I endured the insults. I felt confused, hurt and trapped, as did they. As an adult, I now understand they were processing their pain and loss.
Eventually, I created an internal wall to protect myself. I learned that in the transition between home visits, if it appeared that I had fun it would create pain for the other parent. I felt guilty that my having fun hurt them so I stopped sharing. I no longer spoke about going to the pond looking for snakes and frogs, swimming in my dad’s pool or how much I loved spending time with the man who would soon become my stepfather. I stopped paying attention to how I was feeling because, on a subconscious level, it felt too complicated to hold so many polarizing experiences. My wall protected me from feeling responsible for causing them additional pain, and from feeling my joyful experience as a threat to the people I loved and wanted to protect. Unfortunately, my omission of pleasure and joy also created a disconnection from feeling safe to know myself and share my internal world freely. It took until late high school for me to finally let my wall down and share more about my life with my stepfather who helped me break some of the ways I was protecting my heart.
A wall protects our vulnerability with some cost to our authentic expression.
Wall & Boundary Inquiry
How do you discern when a boundary is a defense mechanism driven by a need to protect by erecting a wall and pushing away, versus a boundary set to create more connection with yourself and others?
Wall: A wall allows you to temporarily manage your needs without the added pressure or stress of dealing with others’ feelings and reactions, but often results in a loss of vulnerability, connection and authenticity.
Boundary: A boundary is created to stay in connection with yourself, and then with others, exploring different needs and seeking collaborative solutions.
Questions to contemplate:
What does it feel like in your body when you’re setting a boundary to stay in connection with yourself and others?
What does it feel like in your body to erect a wall? How is it is different than a boundary?
Integrating your need for autonomy with your need for connection
Exploring our boundary map gives us access to our inner compass, so we can orient towards what we need in order to feel more embodied and empowered. When we courageously dive within to uncover the subconscious patterns that either serve us or derail us from what we most long for, we grow.
You can use the following map to evaluate your own personal relationship to boundary-setting. The map follows a five step process, with each step containing a multitude of rich layers to explore.
1. BOUNDARY-SETTING BELIEFS
What do you believe (consciously and unconsciously) when it comes to boundary-setting and boundary-crossing?
2. FINDING YOUR AUTHENTIC YES & NO
How do you access your genuine yes and no?
3. COMMUNICATION STYLES & TRAPS
What is your communication style when you set boundaries and express your needs?
4. MANAGING DIFFERENCES
How do you practice staying in connection when boundaries and needs are different?
5. THE RIGHT TO CHANGE YOUR MIND
Do you grant fluidity to yourself and others to change your mind?
1. Boundary-setting beliefs
How do you view boundary-setting and boundary-crossing?
Growing up, I learned that the result of setting a boundary meant either isolation or entrapment, and nothing in between. This disconnection was threatening, and so I learned to submerge my needs and go with other people’s flow. I became fluid with boundaries, often over-giving and eventually becoming resentful and even depressed.
Setting a boundary usually came along with some kind of conflict. It was confusing for me. I had no model of boundaries being set in a loving, respectful, and inspiring way.
Consequently, in my adult relationships, I found that I unconsciously feared that if I set a boundary, the other person would leave and we would lose connection. Yet, when I didn’t set a boundary, I often felt hostage to other people’s needs and agendas.
I’ve had unpleasant experiences, with painful costs, as a result of not setting boundaries properly or having them bluntly crossed.
Learning to identify my authentic yes and no has been a continual process of discovery. When I’m connected to what I need, and I communicate it with the people in my life, I don’t abandon myself. I embody self-love. This has become a primary practice of embracing my sovereignty.
My closest friends know that if we make plans in advance, and the time comes for the event, but one or both of us is not feeling it, we let it go without judgment or blame. One of my dearest sisters and I made a vow to no longer live a life operating out of obligation, which means being true to the shifting nature of our yes and no. We grant one another the right to change our mind, even if that means disappointing each other. We would rather see one another say yes to self-care and our most authentic needs, than be loyal and dutiful for the sake of upholding a self-image of ‘doing the right thing.’
Questions to contemplate:
What did you learn at an early age about setting-boundaries and any consequences of not doing so? How has this influenced your relationships as an adult?
Do you feel clear about your needs when you’re alone but then get confused about your needs when you’re in connection?
Do you defer to the other person to make plans and decisions because it’s hard to know what you want or need?
Do you hesitate to set boundaries to avoid conflict or to avoid losing connection with the other person?
Do you expect others to read your mind and guess your needs? Do you get angry when they don’t, and resentfully go with their agenda?
Are your boundaries more like demands that can’t be fluidly discussed with others?
When others set boundaries, do you find yourself arguing or trying to convince them otherwise? Do you run over them and negotiate with pressure to assert your way?
How do you respond when someone else’s boundaries trigger feelings of rejection, shame, or guilt within you?
Exploring these questions gives us a chance to start to understand how we operate on a daily basis within our relationships. While there is no ‘right’ or perfect way, we can start to make conscious choices when we shine our awareness on our subconscious patterns.
2. Finding your authentic yes and no
How do you access your most genuine yes and no?
Our primal wiring depends upon belonging and connection. Emotional connection is a basic human survival need. Our adaptive strategies will ensure that we get this need met, even at the cost of disconnecting from our own authenticity, or steamrolling across the needs of others to get what we need. This is why finding a clear yes or no can feel like rummaging through a hoarder’s house. There can be a lot to sift through before we find what we seek.
Boundary-setting is an essential practice. To maintain both our sense of sovereignty and a genuine connection with others. We need to dive deep to access our most genuine yes and no, and to communicate with vulnerability and self-ownership.
I don’t know about you, but I learned to say yes before I even knew how to check in with myself about what I actually wanted. Can you relate? Do you sometimes say yes or no before going inward and assessing your real desire?
Authentic boundary-setting begins when we learn to align with our authentic yes and no. In this process, we bravely uncover the ways we habitually override our true yes or no to stay in connection or in control.
NO: What does “NO” feel like in your body? Personally, I notice tightness in my solar plexus or throat. Sometimes, a rush of adrenaline courses through my whole body. Often, my thoughts will suddenly quicken. I notice patterns of justified thinking, such as all the reasons why I should say yes when what I really want to say is no. These enticing thoughts can create a smoky haze from the body responses I’m receiving until I pause to observe what’s really happening.
YES: How does YES ring in your body? I usually notice a soft settling in my system that doesn’t come with a lot of thinking, assessing, analyzing, or pro-con listing. I may even feel an invigorated energy flow through my whole body.
Questions to contemplate:
How do you recognize your authentic yes and no? What do they feel like in your body?
Do you respond to requests on autopilot before going inward and assessing if you are an authentic yes or no?
Do you give yourself permission to change your mind from a no to a yes, or vice versa, as you receive new information?
What is your relationship to disappointing others? This will tell you a lot about how you do or don’t set boundaries.
Finding an authentic yes and no has been more accessible for me as I own my personal values. Getting clear on my core values and my commitment to living authentically has transformed the way I communicate.
When I decide that I can’t betray myself to please another, I must find ways to express my dilemma with love. I share what’s true for me, what I imagine it’s like for the other person, listen to the impact, acknowledge disappointment, and explore a way to repair when needed.
I’ve found that a “maybe” or an “I don’t know” are good markers to pause and give myself space, rather than force a yes and no before I’m clear.
3. Communication styles and traps
How do you communicate your boundaries and receive the boundaries of others?
Do you know your communication habits in the various relational contexts of your life? In partnership, parenting, at work, with clients, with friends, or with strangers who are pushing an agenda on you?
Authenticity with ourselves deepens as we become aware of how we operate and find compassion for the complexity of being a messy human. With this knowledge, we’re empowered to make conscious choices about how we want to be showing up, rather than living life on autopilot.
Our communication style includes conscious and unconscious cues, both verbal and nonverbal. Expressing our boundaries can be charged with emotion for both parties. It can feel like a complex dance between how we deliver the message, and how it’s being received. If there are differences or disagreements, a swirl of emotions, expectations, fears and protection may arise in the relational field.
Anger can be an important indicator that a boundary is needed or has been crossed. When we feel angry at ourselves, it’s often a superhighway pointing towards shame. When we’re angry at others, it’s usually a signal that a boundary has been crossed by ourselves or another.
In my work with business executives, I notice a common pattern. When expectations, a form of boundaries, aren’t clearly communicated and agreed upon by all parties, boundary-crossing will inevitably occur. Unless someone takes leadership to map the dynamics at play, feuding fueled by assumptions can cause stalemates and painful conflict. Unchecked assumptions are often at the root of boundary-crossings.
Do we set boundaries with self-love, authority, and care for the connection? Or do we communicate through a filter of guilt, self-judgment, or blame?
Noticing the emotions we feel while setting boundaries is a powerful and helpful guide, aiding us to track the ways we assert our needs and values in relationship with others.
Comply, Control, and protect
The following are three common protective strategies most often deployed in the heat of disappointment or conflict:
This strategy allows us to self-protect by agreeing to what others want, even when it goes against our personal needs. Often the inner belief is, “I feel guilty, blamed, shamed, or judged when I disappoint another. To avoid the pain of those feelings, I prefer to give them what they want.”
We may hold a belief, affirmed by our life experience, that if we don’t comply with others requests, we risk being rejected or abandoned.
When we comply, we’re saying yes on the outside while we’re a no on the inside. When there are differences between our needs and the needs of others, this strategy gives us the sense that we’re being loyal to the other with our yes, while we may secretly align with our inner no and end up rebelling which a big set-up for disappointment and relational conflict. This internal divide can lead to difficult outcomes for both parties.
If this is our go-to strategy, we can ask ourselves under which circumstances we abdicate our needs for the sake of others, what the cost is for us, and why this strategy has served us.
This strategy allows us to avoid feeling vulnerable when we feel threatened. We can feel strong, in charge, and safe by making sure that we’ll get what we want no matter what.
Being the one in control is a way to regulate our anxiety and fears. We may assert demands that pressure the other to say yes, even if they’re a no. Or we may be highly dramatic, using blame, guilt, and shaming as a means to get what we feel we need. Conversely, our control tactics can be subtle, charming, or covertly manipulative. This isn’t necessarily a malicious behavior. It’s a way we unconsciously protect ourselves from the intense fear and anxiety of being out of control.
If you default to seeking to be in control, you can explore what fear or anxiety you’re protecting by making sure you’re the one in charge.
It’s natural to protect ourselves when we don’t feel safe enough to be our vulnerable, authentic self. We typically self-protect in one of two ways: inward or outward.
Inward protection usually shows up through patterns of collapsing into shame, self-aggression, and negative self-talk.
External protection is directed at others, the world at large, or even life. We may find ourselves criticizing and judging others (openly or internally), withdrawing from relationship to punish others, or self-protecting by being the know-it-all who has all the answers and argues intellectually, bypassing our vulnerable heart and emotions in the process.
If you habitually self-protect when you feel you’re under threat, you can ask yourself what vulnerable feelings you’re avoiding feeling by erecting a wall against others.
Each of these adaptations are intelligent strategies to avoid feeling the rawness of our vulnerability, grief, or disappointment. They’re an innocent attempt to protect ourselves from a deeper feeling we’re afraid to open into.
Courageous authenticity & vulnerability
The alternative to these reactive habits of comply, control, or protect is to lead with courageous authenticity and vulnerability. This means we must survey our inner landscape for our most authentic needs and share them with each other. We need to hunt for sneaky indirect behaviors that create manipulation and control. These behaviors can cause distress, inside and outside.
When we become aware of what our defense mechanism is protecting, we enter the chamber of our heart and vulnerability. After we’ve met ourselves in the truth of our heart, we can approach our relationships with the same loving care and consciousness.
I’m aware that we live in a world where this type of vulnerability may not always feel like a suitable approach, because it might be used against us in professional settings or other relationship dynamics. There is no perfect formula for how to transform habits of protection and reactivity, but I know from my experience that building the muscle with other people who also seek to transform their own reactive patterns provides an accelerated and safe container to learn and grow together.
We need to feel safe to build this muscle of identifying and delivering boundaries in a loving way. A key skill is to own our needs, share them in a direct and open-hearted way (which often means confronting our fears of rejection), and then stay in the conversation to hear about the impact our needs have on others.
We can empathize with people’s disappointment, acknowledge different needs and desires, and remain curious about how to co-create the space to be our authentic selves and manage the reality that we will disappoint each other, remembering that it doesn’t mean connection has to be broken.
Questions to contemplate:
When you review the patterns of comply, control and protect, do you recognize familiar strategies?
What does it feel like in your body when you’re setting a boundary to stay in connection with yourself and others?
What does it feel like in your body when the boundary is actually a wall with the purpose of disconnecting so you can manage your needs and emotions without additional pressure?
How do you communicate your boundaries in a way that creates connection rather than defensiveness? Do you have practices you rely on to support you? (i.e journal your feelings and needs to increase your self awareness before you start the conversation with others)
Do you have a safe place in your life where you can practice, imperfectly, with others how to assert your needs and how to empathize with each other when you feel disappointment or hurt by your differences?
Communication Tips To Maintain Connection
We have the opportunity to lead with courage and vulnerability, even in the midst of being triggered. Here are my suggestions on how to communicate your boundaries lovingly and consciously, no matter the situation.
Self-awareness and shared vision:
Establish shared values and goals in your close relationships about how you want to use boundary-setting to create more connection and trust. This will assist in authentically navigating the differences that will arise between you both.
Know your protective or defensive go-to’s:
Identify your protective defaults, and agree to take ownership or receive feedback when defending is happening. Establish playful ways to name and de-escalate activation. Owning our defensive strategies means owning we are inherently vulnerable as humans and it’s okay to be messy, imperfect and that even in these places we can stay connected to love and kindness towards ourselves and others.
Lead with vulnerability:
Share what you need and want, and the impact you imagine it might have on the other person. Let them feel your struggle with wanting to follow your authentic need while also empathizing with potential impact on them. I want to acknowledge that in some cases, depending on the dynamic, if being vulnerable will be used against you then there are decisions that need to be made. We don’t need to overshare or overextend when we’re not being met half way. That discernment is self-love.
Track and welcome different needs:
Don’t get lost in your positions and opinions about each other. Look for and highlight the legitimacy of both of your needs, even when they are different.
Be mindful of shaming language:
Everyone is entitled to how they feel. The biggest arrow of disconnection and shame is when we tell one another, “you shouldn’t feel that way” or “if it was me, I would have done x…”.
Take pauses, don’t push:
If you feel triggered, take a break. Let yourself digest. Don’t push through conversations when you don’t feel resourced or you know you’re in a reactive state that needs space to settle.
Reflect and acknowledge:
Before you explain your perspective in response to what has been shared, first reflect back what you’ve heard. This may seem formulaic and overly simplistic, but it’s essential. If we don’t feel validated and acknowledged for what we’ve just shared before someone tells us about their experience, a wall will arise between us and we won’t be fully listening.
We are not each other. We are ourselves, and having the patience to care about another person’s world and establish a practice to reflect back to one another what you hear about their needs and desires without judgment is love.
You can be disappointed, but keep that separate until you have let the other person feel received in their needs. Then share your disappointment. Share how willing you are to be with it, and if you’re not, what kind of negotiations are needed.
4. Managing differences
There is a common myth that we should meet all of each other’s needs and never disappoint each other. This causes a lot of strife and unrealistic expectations. This relational myth is exacerbated any time we bump into differences of views, needs, desires and approaches to life.
If we're taught that honoring connection means that we never disappoint anyone, nor do they disappoint us, then what does that teach us about having authentic and different needs from others?
Differences and disappointment happen. Not always because of the behavior itself, but more often because of the needs and expectations that aren’t being communicated.
So how do we work with the reality that disappointment is part of being in relationship?
Accepting, grieving, and discussing differences with an open heart allows for more safety, trust, and freedom in relationship. Interrupting patterns of co-dependency will liberate our full expression, and encourage new ways to be both connected and individuated in relationship.
Questions to contemplate:
What are your practices to stay in connection when boundaries and needs are different?
What is your relationship to disappointing others? Do you avoid it? If so, what are your tactics? Do you acquiesce to the other person? Do you appease and say yes and then behave with a no?
How do you respond when others disappoint you? Do you own your vulnerability and speak from the heart, or do you blame them? Do you steamroll your agenda with guilt or shame?
5. Permission to change your mind
Do you give yourself permission to change your mind in service of being your most authentic self?
It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to be honest about what’s true in the present moment, rather than adhere to what you felt in the past or imagine how you’ll feel in the future.
Finding our authentic yes and no is dynamic. If we’re honest, it can change multiple times in a day.
Our culture and conditioning heavily influence our capacity to be flexible with ourselves and others. If you’ve learned to keep the peace and maintain a self-image of being lovable and accepted at all times, then you may unconsciously take on people-pleasing habits. Changing your mind and being authentic may rock boats and whirl sand storms of who you think you should be for others. Yet, abdicating your truth to please another may cost your authenticity and ability to love another even when you have differences.
The reality is, a yes can turn into a no in 10 minutes, and vice versa.
To be authentic, we must learn to flow with the fact that new information can change how we feel. Authentic boundaries are fluid and move with our ever-evolving states of being. Do you give yourself room to be fluid? Do you give this permission to others too?
Sometimes, after we’ve made a choice, we receive new information that course corrects our original impulse. It’s important to allow ourselves to move with the shifting currents of life. To do so, we must come to terms with the reality that we will disappoint others and they will disappoint us.
Life is constantly changing, and so is our yes and no. It’s okay to change your mind!
Questions to contemplate:
Do you take action and say yes to commitments and obligations when you know you need something different? Or do you stay the course because you "said you would?” And if so, is that kind of loyalty serving you, or is it serving an idea of who you think you should be?
Is your yes or no in alignment with your heart and current moment need, or is it primarily coming from your your sense of self-image?
Whether we’re talking about a business decision, a parenting choice, or what we desire in partnership or sex, we have the right to change our mind and to have different needs arise. It doesn’t mean the other ways are wrong. It means we’re course-correcting and apprenticing to the unknown as its mystery unfolds within us.
It takes courage to listen and trust this level of attunement and self-respect.
Wrapping it all together
Remember, boundaries are a form of power. Boundaries empower us to express our needs in relationship to ourselves and others.
Boundary-setting is a key practice for maintaining self-care. They help us build our resiliency and sovereignty as we navigate the complex balancing of our need for connection, freedom, and clear agreements. This includes and honor others’ freedom and authenticity too.
Studying our beliefs and behaviors related to boundary-setting helps us unearth what we want to be loyal to within ourselves and within our intimate connections.
Building our awareness of how we navigate boundary-setting and boundary-crossing is an invaluable investment. The art of this practice will enhance the love, respect, and integrity of our relationship to ourselves, others, and all of life
Drop me a line and share how you’re triumphantly finding ways to set boundaries while deepening connection to yourself and others. Or where you’re feeling stuck. It’s an ever-evolving process for myself, and I’m always eager to learn and grow together!