How to Create and Hold Healthy Boundaries
Over the past few years, I’ve had the great pleasure to teach and discuss various topics with trauma survivors—shame, forgiveness, sexuality, etc. After discussing different communication styles, rights, and methods in an assertive communication class, a woman in her fifties shared, “Jessica, I keep hearing this word boundaries, and have all my life, but I have no idea what they are.”
She’s not alone. I’ve heard this statement multiple times, and with reason. Trauma survivors, particularly those of childhood abuse, were rarely, if ever, taught about boundaries; and if they were, the abuse violated those boundaries on every level (emotional, physical, sexual, spiritual, psychological). It’s no wonder boundaries can become a confusing, intimidating, or foreign concept. Because of this, many survivors have difficulty establishing and reinforcing their own boundaries.
When exploring assertive communication with trauma survivors, a lot of questions tend to arise, such as:
• What is a boundary?
• If I’m assertive, doesn’t that make me aggressive? What’s the difference between the two?
• How do I know it’s a reasonable or healthy boundary? Is it okay to set this specific boundary?
• What if I am assertive and the situation or relationship still doesn’t change?
These questions are very common, valid questions for trauma survivors, as well as for those who come from unpredictable or hostile childhood homes. You are not alone in your concerns, your struggles, or your pain.
Below I cover the basics of boundaries, and naturally there will be some questions that will go unanswered. Regardless, please continue your search and individual therapeutic work—especially if you’re wanting personal feedback and problem solving for your individual needs and specific life situations. Remember, you’re not alone and no matter where you find yourself today, there is hope and healing for you.
So… What Is a Boundary?
In its simplest definition, a boundary is a line or a limit that separates what you’re okay with from what you’re not okay with. It’s like a fence. Everything inside the fence is what you like and want to embrace in your life. Everything outside the fence is what you don’t like or don’t want to be part of your life. It could also be what you choose to keep at a distance for now until you invite that something (or someone) in.
Trust can be earned or broken, relationships change, people change, likes and dislikes change, people learn and heal, and so forth. It’s therefore healthy—even needful—to have gates in our fences that allow such changes to happen. With gates, there is still a boundary but also flexibility and change.
Without such gates, we run the risk of walling ourselves off from others, which means isolation and loneliness. Without such gates pain, despair, or terror might get stuck inside, with hope, connection, and happiness stuck on the outside. Hence, fences with gates become ever needful in creating a happy, healthy life.
What Happens When I Create a Boundary and It’s Not Respected?
Boundaries are disrespected or violated for a variety of reasons. Here are some things to consider as you choose how to respond or handle such situations.
Once you’re able to identify your boundary, it’s imperative to communicate it in a clear, calm manner. (A whole lot easier said than done, I know.) This process takes practice, and often involves many failed attempts before it feels comfortable and natural. “Failure is not the opposite of success; it’s a part of success.” While the author of this quote is unknown, I share it because I’ve found this to be true. I’ve also learned every day is just another practice, and each conversation is just another practice.
As you heal and develop healthy boundaries, many people may provide unsolicited feedback; they may even push back on new boundaries, especially if they have unhealthy boundaries themselves or lack boundaries altogether. Your new boundaries create change—they change your relationship dynamics, for example—and change can be scary. Therefore, it may take time (even a long time) for others to adjust to the changes. Your new boundaries may even require others to change their approach or relationship in working with you. It’s okay to be patient while being firm and consistent in maintaining your boundaries. It’s also okay if someone needs to be on the outside of the fence until healthy boundaries are respected and maintained.
Consequences are a natural, needful, and appropriate part of boundaries. As humans, we learn from consequences; without consequences, boundaries cannot be maintained. If we prevent or withhold consequences from happening, we aren’t respecting our own boundaries. How can we expect others to respect what we don’t respect ourselves? Motivational speaker Tony Gaskins said, “We teach others how to treat us by what we allow, what we stop, and what we reinforce.”
If a boundary is crossed, questions to consider may be:
• Have I communicated my boundary in a clear, calm manner?
• Is it necessary to calmly reiterate my boundaries?
• What consequences currently reinforce my boundaries?
• Are these consequences effective?
• Do I reinforce my boundaries with consequences?
• If not, what keeps me from letting consequences happen or reinforcing consequences?
If I’m Assertive, Doesn’t That Make Me Mean or Aggressive?
Being assertive does NOT make you mean or aggressive.
Assertive communication styles are about having the perspectives and rights of both people respected and heard, while aggressive communication styles are about forcing just one person’s views and rights above another’s. When differentiating assertive and aggressive communication styles, we’re often looking at how we communicate.
When our messages are delivered in a calm, clear, and respectful manner, and our non-verbal language is also calm and non-threatening, we are practicing assertiveness, not aggression. An aggressive communicator, on the other hand, typically is not concerned or (for various reasons) is not yet able to listen to the other person’s rights or views and either doesn’t care or isn’t aware how threatening the message delivery may come across.
Additional questions you can ask yourself are: How do I communicate healthy boundaries? Do other healthy communicators agree with my assessment of my communication style?
Things to Keep in Mind as You Work on Boundaries:
• There’s no need to defend your boundary. Sometimes an explanation helps others respect the boundary and/or better support you, especially if this is a new or changed boundary. But it’s your choice whether to provide an explanation for it.
• You may have to remind others of your boundaries by reiterating them in a calm, respectful manner.
• “No” is a boundary and it is a healthy, even vital, boundary.
• “No” is a complete sentence.
• Regardless of how others communicate with you—whether passive or aggressive—you can still choose to be assertive.
It’s a lot to think about. When diving into the basics of boundaries, it’s easy to get lost, overwhelmed, or have more questions surface. If so, you’re not alone; many people struggle when it comes to boundaries and communication.
Remember, there is hope that each day brings new opportunity to try again, no matter how many times I, you, or we might have failed before. There is hope, and change is possible.