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  • Writer's pictureAveril

Establishing, Utilising, and Maintaining Healthy Boundaries - Fundamentals of Relationships

Updated: 17 hours ago


In the previous post, we looked at a definition of boundaries, the difference between internal and external boundaries, types of boundaries including the physical, mental, emotional, and how boundaries differ from expectations. This post will guide you through the process of discerning and setting your boundaries, using the concept of internal and external boundaries effectively, and strategies for maintaining them.


Self awareness

Developing healthy boundaries begins with self awareness. Know your own needs, values, and limits, and recognise when those might change over time. Understand what makes you feel comfortable or uncomfortable in different situations and relationships. Be honest with yourself about what is truly a need, and what is a preference – what are your absolute dealbreakers, and where can you allow more flexibility without resentment? Reflect on any tendencies in your relationships towards extremes of co-dependence or independence, and work towards balanced, interdependent connections.


Clear communication

Communicate your boundaries and what you consider acceptable or unacceptable in a given situation or relationship clearly, assertively, and without guilt. Use "I" statements to express your needs and limits, and avoid blaming, accusing, or language of extremes (“You always..” or “You never…”). Let the other person know why the boundary is important to you – if they care about you, this information might help them to see your perspective and respect your need for the boundary. Remember that you cannot control the other person’s choices, but you are able to decide what limits you have for your own behaviour, space, and energy. If a boundary needs to change, communicate that to the people it will impact.


Consistency

Once you have set boundaries, it is crucial to be consistent in upholding them. Consistency sends a message that your boundaries are non-negotiable and helps build safety, trust and respect in your relationships.


Unclear or inconsistently enforced boundaries are unfair and confusing for others as they will be uncertain as to your true limits and responses. “Intermittent reinforcement” (for this topic, occasionally caving and failing to hold a stated boundary), is highly likely to mean that the other person will continue to try to cross the line. For example, if you have set a boundary with a sibling that you will not loan them any more money, but every fifth time they ask you give in and loan them more, then you have taught them to ask five times.


This doesn’t mean strictly holding a “one-strike and you’re out” policy, but be clear with yourself and the other person that the boundary has been crossed and what the consequence is. If a person tries to repeatedly ignore or cross your boundaries, there needs to be a clear consequence, otherwise the boundary is meaningless.


Utilising internal and external boundaries in everyday life


In the previous post, we looked at internal and external boundaries as fences with gates, that keep us both protected and connected in our relationships. With deliberate practice, we can learn to open and close these gates in a considered and effective way that fosters a balance of humility and backing yourself, openness and discernment, vulnerability and strength.


Try this exercise to solidify your understanding of the internal and external boundary:


Extend one arm straight out and put your hand up as in a “Stop” gesture. This is your external boundary that protects you from the world.


If the gate of your external boundary is always down, everything the world throws at you and other people say to you affects you. You feel everything and respond as if it is always true.


If your external boundary is always up, you let nothing in. Other people’s opinions and experiences don’t matter. You’re walled off.


When you have a healthy, functioning external boundary, you look at and consider what is said and shown to you. The boundary includes a gate that smoothly opens and closes. With your arm still extended, put your hand down flat and imagine the feedback sitting in it. Look at it from that safe bit of distance and decide whether it is true, and/or would be useful to you to take in. If there’s nothing true or useful in it, the gate goes back up, it hits your boundary and stays out.


You might not always agree 100% with everything that you take in, but you also recognise that it is important to consider how someone you care about is experiencing you. It’s often easier to take in feedback when we do it out of choice. We feel less defensive if we choose to take it in.


Now, put your other hand in front of your torso, a few centimetres away from your body. This is the boundary that protects the world from you. It is a containing boundary, it means that we don’t let out all of our thoughts, feelings, sexuality, and physicality out onto others. Other people have the right to be protected from us too.


If your internal boundary is always up, you let nothing out. You are walled in. It’s hard for others to reach you, to know how you think and feel, to understand you. You might tend more towards a desire for excessive independence, even in your closest relationships.


If your internal boundary is always down, you leak out too much – you over-share, get loud, forceful, excessively emotional or sexual or physical. Some people with low internal boundaries might relate more to the codependent end of the relational spectrum.


A healthy, functioning internal boundary also includes a gate. It opens and lets out what is helpful and relational, information that connects you, lets people get to know you on an appropriate time frame, helps them to understand you. It also closes to contain what could be damaging to the relationship, unnecessarily hurtful, or infringes on other people’s boundaries.


Maintaining healthy boundaries


Self care

Self care is an essential aspect of maintaining healthy boundaries. Regularly assess your emotional and physical wellbeing, and acknowledge when there are periods that your self-care might need extra attention. Practice self-compassion and set aside guilt when enforcing boundaries that support your wellbeing. Boundaries might need to flex in times of competing demands – you might need firmer boundaries around your working hours or availability for socialising, for example, if you need to take care of a loved one that is aging or sick. Show respect not only for your own time constraints, but for the extra mental and emotional energy that certain seasons of life require.


Practice assertiveness

Assertiveness is key in maintaining healthy boundaries. Be clear, yet respectful, when expressing your needs and limits. Remember that you have the right to say no without feeling guilty – which will also help you to accept others’ right to say no, if that is sometimes a challenge. If assertiveness is particularly difficult to practice, you might wish to do some personal development work on strengthening your relationship with yourself and your sense of self-worth.


Surround yourself with supportive messages

Cultivate relationships with others who respect and understand the importance of truly healthy boundaries. Be mindful of messages out in the world of social media and popular culture that take the idea of boundaries to the extreme, with an unhealthy level of self-focus that excludes the nuances of flexibility, kindness, and the boundaries of others.


The process of change


For many of us, our closest relationships are the places in which we feel the most challenged, and making adjustments to what are generally lifelong patterns takes considerable deliberate effort. Reading these posts will help you to develop a theoretical understanding of healthy boundaries, but seeing observable differences in your relationship dynamics will require you to take the time to self reflect, develop and test out your boundaries, and build your skills in using them effectively with repeated practice.


Have patience and compassion with yourself and others – in establishing or changing boundaries, you are effectively “changing the rules” in a relationship, which can be challenging for all parties.


If we believe that the goal of asserting boundaries is to change how another person behaves towards us, and that the relationship will improve as a result, we may be disappointed or believe that boundaries “don’t work.”


While boundaries are often held up as the be-all and end-all of better relationships, some of the reality is that others may not like your new boundaries, especially if they have benefited from weaker boundaries to begin with. Instead of achieving a new, respectful, harmonious relationship, in reality it may result in further conflict.


A more helpful aim to hold is that of relational health. A relationship without appropriate, fair boundaries fails to truly support the health of the individuals and their dynamic. At the same time, healthy boundaries may not mean that everyone is happy about them. There are no perfect solutions, only trade-offs, as stated by economist Thomas Sewell.


I share this not to dissuade you or suggest that boundaries aren’t worth the trouble, but to provide a realistic perspective on what they can achieve, particularly in more problematic relationships. For well-balanced individuals, however, healthy boundaries are a cornerstone of personal wellbeing and strong, authentic relationships. Reflecting on and revising your boundaries can be a challenging and ongoing process for many of us, but it is a mature act of self-care and an essential part of nurturing relationships. Embrace the power of healthy boundaries and watch your wellbeing and relationships flourish.


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