W. Nicholas Abraham, Ph.D., LPC
Do you have healthy boundaries? It is a very powerful and necessary question to ask oneself from time to time.
In fact, I have found that the question often leads one to a therapeutic awakening, and a readjustment of personal boundaries.
While we know that love can’t breathe without space and boundaries, many of us have developed an imbalanced sensitivity to the feelings and needs of those around us, and we consider serving others the most basic law of
humanity. Many of us were formed within a Judeo-Christian tradition that commands us to love God, our neighbor and ourselves. Too often, the love of God and the love of self can be swallowed by love of others, if for no other reason than because we see ourselves through others, and we experience the face of God in our human relationships.
However tempting it always is to think of others and to extend empathy and compassion, without boundaries, we can be controlled, criticized, pushed into behaviors we don’t condone, abused, invaded or even smothered.
There is little doubt that creating healthy boundaries is a challenge. We tend to put others’ needs and feelings before our own. We often don’t know what it is we believe, need, prefer or want from life. We can easily fall into the trap of doubting our worth, value and human dignity; therefore, we question our rights. Because we are so connected to others, we can also be fearful of the response we may get from loved ones or those in powerful positions if we do set boundaries.
So let’s be clear. Boundaries are learned, and many of us have very unhealthy boundaries due to our development and the tendencies stated above. It doesn’t mean we can’t grow into new and clearer boundaries as we gain a better perspective on the Law of Love—without love of self, there can really be no love of God or of others.
Some will question this statement as bordering on pride, selfishness or even arrogance. Others will add that service makes for self-love. To that, I would simply say that to give to others, there needs to be something to give.
We are quick to say that it is only I who can change myself and only I who have the power to be happy. It is I who will ultimately face death alone and lie peaceful when laid to rest. Therefore, faith in my decisions, values, judgements and emotions are critical to living a fulfilled life.
None of this is to say that service to the divine creator or to the needs of our neighbor is not important. But it is to say that in our human condition, we may have distorted our calling, resulting in more actions done out of duty than out of love.
Setting personal boundaries does not mean shutting out the needs of others or becoming divorced from those we believe may have affected our attitudes and fear of setting boundaries. It simply means we stand alone and separate from others. We gauge our life on our internal signals and temperature and we focus the majority of our energy in regulating the relationship to self. We could call it self-control, self-discipline or healthy management of our thoughts and emotions. We could call it time sensitivity, an awareness that helps us decide what is worth our time and what is not. We could call it slowing down the sense of urgency that seeks to rush us through life without living in the moment. We could call it assuming responsibility for our own feelings and problems, seeking ways to both resolve and solve, as the situation calls for—rather than obsessing about others, seeking others’ approval and blaming others. We can call it living with our decisions, accepting mistakes and learning from them.
Setting boundaries is critical to a healthy life. Perhaps the most challenging landscape of boundary setting is in the realm of emotion. Healthy emotional boundaries prevent me from blaming, giving advice, putting others down, becoming needy, patronizing, accepting blame for others’ emotions and automatically feeling guilt when there are negative feelings toward me.
And here we are again, in the realm of internal signals.
One of my favorite lines is by Gary Ings, who said, “Just because they’re angry doesn’t mean I have to be.”
(Visions Journal, 2013, 7 (4), pp. 12-13). Few statements say more about what a healthy boundary is.
It may be time for my readers to consider their boundaries and re-develop internal signals that will ironically have the power to influence others and change the world. Let me help you with some of my personal reflections on setting boundaries:
I can say “no” without fear or explanation.
I can allow others to feel their sadness and still be serene.
I can limit my responsibilities to what is fair and just and ask others to do the same.
I can be clear without creating drama, short and to the point without sarcasm or a negative tone.
I can make a choice as to whose feelings need to be put first and live with that decision without feeling like a victim.
I can trust that everyone has the power to create his or her own happiness, and it is not my duty to do so.
I can make healthy decisions as to whom I give my limited time and energy.
I can have my own thoughts, values and opinions and not be easily suggestible depending on whom I am with.
I can allow others to disagree with me as I do not need to live with rigidity or fear of the difference in perspective.
I can speak without arguing, getting defensive or diminishing another’s character.
I can love without being taken advantage of, speak without seeking to convert others and walk with integrity that my behaviors come from core values.
I can live with my sinful nature and confess when I have wronged another person of equal value.
I can change my direction in life for the better, even if it goes against the direction of everyone around me.
I can turn off the television and read material that will give me hope and inspiration.
I can avoid all forms of disrespect and indecency, from words to actions.
I can learn to value character over reputation, self-love over approval of others and the right to privacy over the need for secrecy.
I can be kind without allowing aggression from those whose insecurity overtake them.
I can change my mind and cancel commitments.
I can step back from the world of doing and simply be for a while.
But most of all, I can say “no thank you.”
Boundaries are difficult, not because we are not smart enough to know we need them. They are difficult because
it can be a long road from the mind to the foot—from the knowledge to the behavioral change.
Best of luck to all as we continue to set healthy boundaries.