An essential ingredient to any self care strategy is understanding how to set healthy boundaries. Without an ability to determine what a healthy boundary is for us in specific situations with specific people, we walk around the world not feeling very safe or sure of our assessment of the world around us. If we aren’t confident in knowing what a healthy boundary is, much less be able to set one, we have lost the fundamental faith in our ability to navigate out in the world without getting taken advantage, to get close to people in mutually healthy ways and without faith that we can take care of own needs well.
I’ve worked for so many years watching both myself and my clients struggle with self care in different ways. It can be as simple as feeling overly responsible for other people to noticing late in the game, when we been ignoring our own needs, letting someone dump their problems on us and expect us to clean up for them or not prioritizing our own health and well being as important as other peoples’ around us. This is often a learned behaviour.
If one or both of our primary caregivers didn’t show us how to set healthy boundaries and what true self respect looks like and plays out in relationships, then we are learning this all from scratch. Worse yet, if we were encouraged to ignore our instincts and permit boundary violations of varying degrees, we have much work to do in our adult lives. Essentially, it’s like re-parenting ourselves and teaching part of our underdeveloped selves catch up.
One way you’ll know boundaries are difficult for you is by taking a closer look at how well you are addressing your most fundamental needs:
hygiene, enough movement/exercise, healthy food and good sleep
If we aren’t able to do this for ourselves as adults, we can likely trace our challenges with self care back to how we learned about boundaries as kids. We might have been taught that enmeshment is the only way to stay connected with others, that losing ourselves is required to stay temporarily safe or in relationship with others. Setting boundaries could mean out right rejection or abandonment or, even worse, setting boundaries might open us up to potentially getting emotionally or physically punished.
I like the analogy of property lines.
Our bodies, our beings are our own personal homes on this planet, something only we can inhabit. While we are certainly affected and interconnected with the world and people around us, we also need to maintain a sense of autonomy, knowing our edges, our walls, our guts (the inside of our houses). We allow people in yet remain separate. Dancing the dance of closeness and autonomy. We all have property lines that might change depending on the person we are bumping up against. We can live with some people with no need for fences, just clear lines. Like in this first picture.
With some people who ignore our requests to not have their dogs poop on our lawn or throw their garbage on our lawn (AKA dumping their emotional crap on us over and over again expecting us to clean it up). Or who put their law furniture on ours (AKA their baggage). We might need to put an actual fence up. We want to stay connected but we know those neighbours have shown us time and again they need clearer limits. We can’t share our lawns at all anymore but we will be friendly and still be there for each other in a pinch if needed. We just know those neighbours need a fence to keep things more clear. A good friend of mine pointed out that perhaps we don’t set healthy boundaries with people because maybe we like the option of putting our lawn furniture of their lawn and don’t want to give up the perks of letting them violate boundaries because we want to be able to keep doing the same to them.
Then we might have neighbours who are openly aggressive or hostile towards us. They are toxic but we can avoid contact with them with stronger and higher fences. They might poke their noses into our business, our conversations but with a higher wall up they can’t. Or these neighbours might even play dumb. They throw crap on our lawn and then deny ever having done so. Whenever we see them, we feel at ill ease, and like we need to brace for the next ‘thing’, in whatever form it might come. Or we start to wonder if we are even being reasonable because they don’t even remember what they did. They might even look like their house is falling apart. They didn’t seem like they intended to ignore our property lines. Their house is just a huge mess. But they still continue to ignore our need to have a clear fence and do so regardless of how many times we’ve asked them not to throw stuff over the fence. With these neighbours we know that, even with a fence making what is acceptable to us more clear, they don’t actually care or respect what is ok for us. We have to put up a tall, firmer, more sturdy fence.
Then there are neighbours that are so toxic, their noise, arguments, or the way they are destroying their own homes starts to spill over onto our property. They might threaten us physically or break windows in our house. We can’t even enjoy being in our own homes without being seriously disturbed or on edge. Our house might start to get damaged in the wake of the chaos beside us. We might actually have to move away from those neighbours. A fence might not be enough.
Take a closer look at your childhood history around boundaries. How did your family navigated conflict? Were confident your caregiver(s) could actually take care of themselves or did you feel the need to take care of them from a young age?
We also have to look at the way we idealize love and romance and family in our culture. We might think having boundaries means we aren’t being intimate or loving or ‘close’. In fact, we can be closer to the right people in healthy ways if we know what we are responsible for in our own hearts, minds and lives and what isn’t ours to be responsible for despite other people wanting us to be. We allow other people the right to choose how to handle their property and their lives and we accept greater responsibility for our own. We allow other people to live in whatever mess they create for themselves.
I know I’m always in the process of learning about this. I didn’t grow up with healthy boundaries. It takes a lot of time, practice and most of all, it takes getting grounded in our own bodies, our homes, learning to feel our edges and trusting the guts of our house.