In my work as a therapist, I see so many different kinds of people. People from all different walks of life, with many different stories, and hurts. They all have one thing in common. What they really want is more connection. They want to feel better in their relationships. They want to be seen, understood, taken care of, snuggled, and important in the eyes of someone else.
I’m not above it. It’s what I want too. This goal is one of the primary reasons I have made my life about relationships. Being connected is a biological imperative. Did you know that if given the choice, we would choose companionship over food?
The work of a scientist named Harry Harlow, Mary Ainsworth, John Bowlby and many more has proven this over and over again.When given the choice, we would pick the comforting soft cloth of a wire mother over food or other comforts. It is the reason bonding is so important for newborns. If we are alone, we die sooner and in more discomfort.
One time I was sitting uncomfortably in a tiny couples’ therapist’s office, my relationship completely on the rocks. We has spent years trying to work on our respective sides of things. We had admitted to ourselves and each other that we were stuck. I could feel the legacy of my parents’ relationship and eventual divorce playing out in front of me and I knew there was a piece of the picture I was failing to see.
Something profound happened that day. The therapist talked to us about saying “no” when we needed to say “no”. She said, “if you say ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’, how can your partner trust your ‘yes’” and the magical component of relational connection occurred to me with boundaries. She was referring to that automatic ‘yes’. The one we are conditioned to say in order to avoid conflict, be agreeable, and stay small in the relational space. The opposite of this auto-pilot: boundaries.
Boundaries as an Act of Love
Boundaries are more than just finger waving or getting what we want. They are about speaking our truth, honoring ourselves, and trusting that the people around us are not fragile beings that we need to manage. The people around us are our equals who can handle the truths we bring to the table, even when they are ugly or hard to say.
Having boundaries is about honoring what makes us feel best and safe in the world. They are about taking responsibility for ourselves and our experiences. Boundaries are the way that I give others the opportunity to love me better, to love me in a way I can actually receive. The way I deserve to be loved.
When I am upfront about my limits and preferences, people around me don’t have to guess if they have crossed a line or not. All of those “are you mad at me?”s disappear. Boundaries are a gift to the relationship and the pathway to emotional intimacy and connection.
If you are a recovering people pleaser like me, this may feel extra hard at first. Don’t set your first boundary with a big player in your life. Try it out with a coworker or someone you feel very safe with or don’t have much emotional charge around. Start with honoring small preferences for yourself and work yourself up to the big leagues.
Here’s a guide when you’re ready.
How to Set a Boundary 101
1. Get clear about your preferences.
What is it you actually want or need? Is there any part of that you can commit to giving to yourself?
2. Take responsibility for your preferences and the ways in which you have contributed to your preferences not being honored.
What have you not been clear in your communication about? What have you agreed to that you don’t want to entertain anymore? Is there any way in which you have betrayed or abandoned yourself in this situation?
3. Take time to align your integrity with what you need from the other person.
Make sure you practice coming to them from a place that feels in alignment with who you are.
4. Make the ask, do the scary thing, perform “poop sandwich."
Don’t know what a “poop sandwich is?” I have dissected it for you below.
- The Bread: sweet appreciation and recognition: share what you see and appreciate that the person is already doing. Give them credit and if you can, recognize that their intentions are probably not malicious despite the impact they may be having on you.
- The Poop: asking for what you need: Be clear as a bell about what you need. Give them an opportunity to ask questions and hear you. This is difficult especially when we are asking for something we really want or need. It requires courage and the occupation of space.
- The Ketchup: collaboration opportunity: They may not be able to give you 100% of what you’re asking but see if you can find a way to work together where you’re both happier than you were about the situation. And if not, that is good information to carry forward.
- The Bread: appreciation, recognition and reassurance of the value of relationship: Make sure they know how you feel about them and value them! This makes collaboration so much easier when we are confident that the other person cares for us.
5. Give the other person space to have their reaction.
This is a big one! Many of us experience guilt and anxiety when we ask for or assert what we need. Think of these feelings like emotional sore muscles. You may not be used to taking up this much emotional space so, it will feel difficult at first.
6. Practice not taking on their reaction as your responsibility.
Your job is to honor yourself and to be in alignment with your own integrity.
7. Resist the urge to go back on your boundary and betray yourself.
Those guilty feelings are not an indicator that what you need doesn’t matter ok? Don’t go back on your ask. You deserve to be loved in a way you can receive.
Setting Boundaries in Practice
Here is an example of what that might look like:
1. Let’s say I notice that I am angrily putting the dishes away and the thought occurs to me, “this is the 5th day in a row I have been the one in this house to put the dishes away” (relatable right?). This feeling sends up a flag for me. This flag lets me know that a boundary is in order. That my preferences are not being honored. I declare my preference to myself ‘I wish I only had to be responsible for the dishes every other day, or at least not every day’.
2. I then examine the ways in which I have been contributing to this problem. Have I made my preferences clear? Have I communicated about all of my responsibilities in life and feeling overwhelmed to my partner? Have I shared the story that I attach to having to be the one who seemingly always does the dishes? What is my part in taking on too much of the household workload?
3. I take myself on a soothing walk or bath or some other activity that will regulate my nervous system so I can make sure I approach my partner with kindness and integrity.
4. I share with my partner how much I appreciate how they show up in our house. How I see them working so hard to keep up with the laundry and making sure our taxes are in order. I state that I know they want me to feel cared for and not overwhelmed. I tell them I am feeling resentful about the dishes and I ask them if they would be willing to collaborate with me on a solution.
5. I give them some time to digest and get back to me.
6. Even though I feel nervous and anxious that I might have upset them with my boundary and stating my preference, I lean on my self-soothing techniques (meditation, walks, baths, yoga) to give them time to digest my preference and process their own reaction.
7. Hopefully, we enter into collaboration mode and the problem becomes and “us” vs. the problem scenario (in an ideal situation).
See, boundaries are actually a way that we teach people how to love us better. If my partner doesn’t know I am feeling overwhelmed and resentful, how can they love me the way I want to be loved? Your preferences are sacred and they deserve to be honored in your relationships.
Bad news, you will probably suck at this at first. We all do. I promise it’s worth it. The “new us” is one in which you get to feel loved, seen, safe, and held. Every time we stand up for our preferences, we create a better world for us and our loved ones. We communicate to them that we think they are strong and can handle what we need. We communicate to ourselves that we are worthy of having the love we want. I’ll be messing it up right alongside you.
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