Whether you’re in a relationship with an addict or someone with mental health concerns, you are recovering from an addiction or mental health concern, or you’re average Joe from the gym, you need boundaries. We all do! It’s been said that boundaries help define where someone else ends and where we begin. Boundaries are one of the ways we take care of ourselves and get our needs met in ALL of our relationships.
In Part 1 of our series on Healthy Boundaries and How to Have Them, we learned about internal and external boundaries. This post, Part 2, will explore the foundational principles, or the BASICs, of healthy boundaries. Adhering to these principles will help us decide what our boundaries are and clarify our motivations for our boundaries. In our next post, 5 Steps to Discovering and Communicating Boundaries, we'll explore how to know your boundaries and when to communicate them to others.
Here are the BASICs:
Let’s take a deeper dive into each one of the BASICs:
We establish boundaries to take care of ourselves. While it’s tempting to use boundaries to “teach someone a lesson” or get someone else to take us seriously, ultimately, these motives make boundaries ineffective.
Boundaries are the actions you will or won’t take in order to care for yourself and your responsibilities.
Your boundaries are FOR YOU and ABOUT YOU. On your behalf. In your best interest. Throughout this article, we will use Jill and her family as an example of these principles in action. Jill will help us see how boundaries work in a family setting.
Jill had decided. She was done. This was the last time she was going to cook dinner for her husband, Mike, and 3 teenage children, only to have them rush off after dinner and leave her with all the clean up as well! She was exhausted. She worked all day, then rushed home to prepare dinner for her family. The last thing she wanted to do was clean up the kitchen after they all scattered.
Jill was learning in therapy that she didn’t have to keep giving and giving, expecting nothing in return. In fact, she was learning that this kind of care-taking wasn’t helping anyone: not her children, not Mike, and, for sure, it was NOT helping her get her needs met. These care-taking behaviors were actually contributing to a decline in her physical health! She needed to establish some boundaries so that she could take care of herself.
Let’s face it: if we had the power to make other people change, life would look a lot different! As it turns out, we can’t control others. So, using boundaries to threaten or lay down ultimatums doesn’t work. Even if yyou get your way in the moment, the other person will eventually prove to you that you can’t control them (through defiance, passive aggressiveness, secret-keeping, etc.). While your boundaries may have an influence on someone else, keeping your focus centered on our own self-care gives you the best chance at sustainable boundaries. This means don’t use boundaries to:
Remember, your boundaries are the actions you will or won’t take to care for yourself and your responsibilities. They are for and about you. The other party may experience a consequence (and likely WILL) or learn a lesson as a result of your boundaries, but that’s not the purpose. Let’s revisit Jill’s situation:
In the past, Jill made empty threats like, “If you guys don’t help with the dinner dishes, I’m taking away your electronic devices for a month!” She never followed through with this. The kids always wore her down. Besides, it was really Mike who was setting the example here! She couldn’t take away his devices.
Jill talked with her supportive friends and her therapist about what was happening at dinner time with her family. While she was angry at her family for this behavior, she also realized that she helped create her family’s dynamics because she had allowed it to continue for so many years. She got help to think through her boundaries to ensure she wasn’t using them to seek retribution or try to teach her family a lesson. Instead, she decided what she needed so that she could feel good about the situation and take care of herself.
Following through after you’ve established boundaries ensures they are sustainable. Once you decide what your boundaries are, and share them with others, you have to take action. This is how you build trust with yourself and others. People (including ourselves) begin to learn that we mean what we say if we don't follow through with our boundaries. To make following through easier, select boundaries that are realistic, doable, and moderate. Ask yourself:
a. Is my boundary realistic? Can I actually follow through with it?
b. Am I willing/able to do what I say I will do?
c. Is my boundary moderate and proportionate to the situation?
Get help to think about boundary options that fit your circumstance. While some situations (i.e., abuse) call for drastic action, most boundaries don’t require extremes. Jill might handle her situation like this:
With the help and support of her friends and her therapist, Jill decided to have a conversation with Mike first, then her kids. She expressed her feelings to her husband (she had done this before, but usually while she was in a fit of rage).This time, she talked calmly, but honestly about her frustration. She then stated her boundary like this:
“Mike,if you and the kids can’t or won’t clean up after dinner, I will not be doing the family laundry. This is not meant as a punishment or threat. I’m exhausted at the end of the day and if I clean the kitchen, I need to cut out some other tasks so I can get the rest I need. Having a clean kitchen is important to me so that we don’t attract bugs and pests. Freeing myself from the laundry will give me the extra time so that I can clean the kitchen and still have some downtime.”
Jill also expressed this boundary to her 3 children in a separate conversation. Though they listened politely, it was clear they didn’t really believe Jill because of other times she didn't follow through with boundaries. Nevertheless, she communicated her boundary clearly, one time, and moved on about her day.
Over the next week, Jill prepared dinner as usual, and as usual she had no help with the clean-up. She followed through and did not do the family's laundry. She noticed that she did feel better. Not having to fold clothes every night or stare guiltily at the growing mound of clean clothes in the laundry basket was a relief. She gave herself permission to detach from her family’s laundry situation and enjoy some reading before she went to bed at night.
Notice the calmness and clarity when Jill communicated her boundary. She didn’t rage or speak angrily. She didn’t nag or remind (“Remember, if you don’t help with the dishes I’m not doing your laundry”). And she didn’t try to punish or threaten. In fact, notice that almost all of her words were about HER. She used very few “you”s. She was ready to live with either choice her family made (they help with dishes and she continues doing laundry or she does the dishes and her family does their own laundry). She wasn’t willing to continue doing all the cooking, all the dishes, and all the laundry by herself. She followed through with her boundary by taking action.
Have you heard the phrase, “We teach people how to treat us”? Boundaries are a big part of how we do that.
When people see us treat ourselves as if our wants and needs matter, they will adjust their behavior as well.
Jill’s boundary will certainly have an influence on her family and how they perceive her.
Another powerful way you can influence other people’s behavior is making requests. I know… simple, right? Remember, requests are just that … requests – meaning the other person’s answer might be “Yes”, “No”, “I’ll think about it”, or “Yes, but with a caveat.” When you make requests you must be prepared for any of these answers. The great thing about requests is that they can lead to negotiation and compromise. If a person’s answer is no, consider making an alternative proposal or ask them what they need to be able to say yes.
Keep in mind, there may be some situations in which a compromise is not an option. For example, if someone is living with an abusive partner, there’s no compromise when asking the abusive person to get help for his behavior. If he’s not willing, the one being abused must adhere to her boundaries and keep herself safe.
Let’s see how Jill might have used requests in dealing with her family's situation, assuming an ideal outcome:
Jill: “Mike, I’m exhausted at the end of the day, yet I still come home and cook dinner for the family. I want us to have healthy meals together, but I feel frustrated that you and the kids never help with the clean-up. I’m requesting that when I cook dinner, you and the kids take care of the dishes and cleaning the kitchen and dining area after we eat.”
Mike: “Well, it makes sense that you’re tired at the end of the day and wouldn’t want to have to face all that work alone. In the past, you’ve asked for this and I’ve said I would help, but haven’t done that consistently. I’ve realized that part of the problem is I’m not willing to clean up right after dinner. I enjoy some quiet time after dinner. However, I am willing to make sure the kitchen is clean before I go to bed. And I’ll get the kids to take some responsibility in this also. Will that work?”
Jill: “Yes, that'll work for me. I prefer the dishes not be left overnight so we don’t get bugs, but as long as it happens before bed, I’m great with that!”
Jill may choose to voice her boundary in the moment by saying something like, “If you and the kids don’t do this, I want to let you know that I will not be doing the family’s laundry. I will need to make that choice so I can still get the kitchen clean and also get the rest I’m missing out on by doing the laundry and taking care of the kitchen.”
Alternatively, Jill may decide to wait and see if her husband and children follow through with the agreement Mike made. If they don’t, she can let her husband and children know about her new boundary at that time.
Remember how we can't control other people? And remember that our boundaries will influence other people? Well, here’s the rub: there’s no guarantee how that influence will go. Your boundaries only guarantee positive change for one person: YOU. Others may react or respond to your boundaries in a variety of ways and you can’t control how that happens.
When Jill established her boundary and took action on it, she felt better! She had more time at night and felt more rested. Plus, she finally had time to read that book that’s been sitting on her nightstand for 3 months!
Her family reacted in interesting ways. Her husband and oldest daughter treated her somewhat coldly for several days. Her daughter even made fun of Jill for her new boundary. Jill confronted this immediately and asked for an apology, which was given.
Her middle son seemed to enjoy doing his laundry and appeared to find some confidence in taking care of this task himself.
Her youngest daughter seemed to grow in respect for Jill. She did her own laundry, but also helped Jill with the dishes several nights.
After a couple of weeks, her oldest daughter asked for a family meeting to discuss this new change and the family negotiated a rotation for the cooking, clean up,and laundry that worked for everyone, including Jill.
What made Jill willing to hang in there and not back down when things got uncomfortable? Her motives. Jill knew she had to take care of herself or she was going to get sicker, emotionally and physically. She chose to believe her needs and wants were just as important as anyone else’s in her family. So, she stuck to her guns, even when her loved ones were angry. In the process, she felt empowered, confident, and more assured that she could take care of herself.
There you have it: the BASICs of healthy boundaries. When considering your boundaries, remember Boundaries are FOR YOU, Avoid Making Ultimatums and Threats, Sustain Boundaries by Following Through, Influence Others by Making Requests, and Change Yourself Through Your Boundaries. These guidelines will ensure your boundaries have the greatest chance at getting your needs and wants met.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of Healthy Boundaries and How to Have Them!
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