Healthy boundaries are essential for every relationship, both personal and professional. These are limits that you create to protect yourself from emotional and physical harm. They also define how you allow others to treat you and how you treat others. This can include how much you’re willing to do for someone, how much you choose to share about yourself, and the types of behavior with which you’re comfortable.
Sally has always had a difficult relationship with her mother-in-law, Debbie, who was possessive of her son (Sally’s husband Bob), critical, and blaming. Sally still kept trying to appease Debbie because she really wanted this relationship to work for herself and most of all for Bob. At Easter, Sally offered to host Debbie and her husband’s sister Marie. Sally worked hard to make everything perfect. As soon as Debbie walked in the door Sally could tell there was trouble; she was in one of her moods. Debbie looked at the food spread and said, “Look how much trouble you went to, if it were me though I would have made a more substantial dish like a ham and cheddar quiche.” This was one of Debbie’s typical underhanded criticisms and made Sally feel small. Sally tried to remain calm and not show that she was upset. Even though she didn’t agree she told Debbie she was right she should have made a quiche. They went and sat in the living room and Debbie immediately started in complaining about Marie’s new boyfriend, Tim. She talked about how irresponsible he is and how she couldn’t believe he didn’t come to the brunch. Sally commiserated. Sally felt very uncomfortable talking badly about Tim and really wanted Debbie to stop before Marie and Bob overheard them. She was becoming more and more tense fearing another family drama.
Interpersonal Power Up: Healthy Boundaries
In the above scenario, it is clear that Sally hasn’t established healthy boundaries with Debbie. She needs to let Debbie know that her criticism and negative comments about others in front of Sally is not okay. Once Debbie is made aware that Sally’s boundaries have been crossed then it is up to Sally to consistently maintain her boundaries, if she’s not consistent then it may confuse Debbie and change will be less likely.
Barrie Davenport, a life passion coach, explains specific ways to establish personal boundaries. According to Barrie, to begin with one needs to realize that boundaries are acceptable and need to be defined. Next, it is important to ask people in your life who have crossed your boundaries in the past to respect your new boundaries. This conversation will likely be difficult; however, it’s important to resist compromising your boundaries just to keep someone in your life. Then, one needs to repeatedly reinforce the new boundaries while being flexible and patient; be sure to reward others with acknowledgement and gratitude when they respect your new boundaries. In turn one needs to reciprocate and respect others’ boundaries. Lastly, it is essential to believe in oneself and one’s value.  This can be a challenging but rewarding process, and it can result in a more confident and stronger you, with happier relationships. Let’s see how Sally applies this power up:
Powered Up Scenario
Sally could feel herself becoming angry and started to just agree with Debbie as usual, but stopped herself. She thought: I deserve better than this. So, she calmly told Debbie, “I worked hard on the food and that sounded like criticism.” Debbie looked surprised, but quickly said, “Oh no Sally! That’s not what I meant at all, it looks great.” Sally felt happy that she’d finally stood up for herself. She sat down with Debbie in the living room. Before Sally could even get settled Debbie started in complaining about Marie’s new boyfriend Tim– how she couldn’t believe he hadn’t come to the brunch and how irresponsible he is, etc. Sally felt annoyed and very tense as she liked Tim and hated drama. Also, she was on edge fearing that Marie would walk in any minute and hear them talking badly about Tim. She cut off Debbie asserting, “I realize that you’re upset, but I really like Tim and I’m not comfortable with talking badly about him.” Debbie protested a bit and tried to keep going, but Sally reasserted that she wasn’t okay with this and excused herself. Sally felt relieved and proud of herself for finally standing up to Debbie.
As we can see in the Powered Up scenario Sally realized that her emotional reaction was a sign that Debbie was crossing her boundaries. Sally decided to protect herself and addressed the issue in a calm rational manner. Unfortunately, Debbie denied her critical behavior and then continued talking negatively about Tim, so Sally removed herself from Debbie’s presence. If Sally consistently addresses the critical behavior, removing herself from the situation if needed, maintaining her healthy boundaries, then Debbie likely will eventually change her behavior. If she doesn’t, Sally may decide to spend less time with her.
Healthy boundaries take time to build. It is a complex process figuring out what verbal and nonverbal behavior is okay with you in each relationship. It is also a question of how close you want each relationship in your life to be. Then it is a matter of maintaining your boundaries, being flexible when it feels okay to do so, and refining the boundaries as needed. Healthy boundaries are the foundation of healthy relationships.
Davenport, B. (2012, August 8). Want to Boost Your Self-Esteem? 10 Ways to Establish Personal Boundaries [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://liveboldandbloom.com/08/life-coaching/want-to-boost-your-self-esteem-10-ways-to-establish-personal-boundaries