In my first article on boundaries, I introduced the fundamentals of connecting and separating at both a cellular level and as a whole person. In this one we move onto relationships.
Just as poisons can be toxic to our individual cells, we might also describe people that we find difficult and intrusive as toxic. We express a warning to ourselves.
There are many other words that give us clues about our personal relationship with boundaries – invaded, contracted, relaxed, criticised, chilled, tense, tight, trembling, absent, queasy, comfortable, agreement, constricted, open, sinking, encouraged, walls, shock, dependent, pleasing, equitable, insecure, responsive, affronted, yes, destructive, selfish, sulking, controlled, violated, orphaned, should, friendly, resentment, overwhelm, trust, neglected, blaming, stonewalling, aggression, generous, vulnerable, inferior, damaged, compromise, denial, healthy, no, mind-games, clear, mutual, fighting, pressure, flexible, tired, repair, defensive, stubborn, bickering, complaining, grateful, pulled, intimate, victim, contained, receive, never, hopelessness, disagree, always, belittled, angry, courageous, kind, demeaned, spoilt, uncomfortable, allow, emotional, extend, must, compassionate, manipulated, diminish, attack, expand, join, pushed, stress, give, expect, powerless, respect, hurt, regret, fair, gossip, shame, projecting, distant, calm, aloof, silent, contempt, bullied, interrupted, passive, hardened, honest, cheated, reliable, superior, avoid, intimidate, desperate.
On reading these words did you notice how you read them? Which of these words do you feel drawn to most? Were you applying them to you and how you relate, or to others that you have relationships with and how they behave? Are there other words that need to be here for you?
This is one of the biggest difficulties in talking about boundaries. We are designed to protect ourselves first, but there is that other aspect of membranes – they assess what to let in. This means that we must also offer respect to others, by finding out what their boundaries are, if we want to be let in.
And just as there are more possible nerve connections in our bodies than there are stars in the universe, there are multitudes of ways that individuals we meet will experience their boundaries. We can never know the whole of another person’s experiences – they will be entirely different to ours. These experiences go up to make the way that person has built their relationship with boundaries.
So how do you communicate about your own boundaries? How do you set them? How do you let others know the ways you want to be treated? Being clear about our boundaries is a way of showing ourselves respect because it means we are valuing our own opinions and desires. It is a way of showing respect to others because we help them to understand our limits and invite clarifying dialogue.
First, we must define what our needs are to ourselves. This involves spending some time in reflection: what it is about being in relationship with others that makes us feel both uncomfortable and comfortable? This could be related to what is being expected of us or how others are behaving towards us.
It can get confusing when we try to please others by agreeing to what they want, so as not to make them upset. The chances are that if you communicate your need clearly and confidently then the other person has more of an opportunity to respond in a supportive way than if you say nothing at all. Define what options and choices you have in any given situation so that you are prepared to make a clear decision and vocalise it coherently.
This can be difficult in the face of the methods and lengths people can go to in trying to influence us to comply with what they want. We may have limiting beliefs about ourselves through past experiences so that we are vulnerable to pressure and persuasion from those around us.
Manipulation can take the form of the silent treatment, loudly blaming, name calling and labelling, creating competitive circumstances, threatening your sense of safety, lost tempers and shouting, cajoling, saying you are stubborn, that you never listen, that you always get your own way, making you feel small/stupid/insignificant and talking a lot without listening. This last one, while it can seem innocuous, can have a big impact on boundary keeping because it requires us to not give up on repeatedly reinforcing what is important to us. We can feel worn down.
We can feel pressure exerted from outside of us in these ways and we can also feel pressure that comes from inside with different internal views competing, so that we constantly change our minds and feel drained of energy. We might be tempted to give up on boundaries through threat of guilt or the fear of loss or abandonment and the unknown. However, it is important to do this work - of being clear about our boundaries, because the alternative outcome is a sense of overwhelm, overworking, never having time for our own needs, and exhaustion, all of which can lead to compromised mental health.
Within family businesses boundaries around relationships are particularly difficult to negotiate. Considerations around how much we are family and how much we are colleagues come into play. It is especially important to make time for (and put in the effort to) include positive feelings about one another and to view family members as individuals who are wider than their company identity and their role.
In my next article in this series on boundaries I will continue to look at some specific words connected to boundary setting and how we might experience the edges of our boundaries.