When discussing communication in relationships, mental health professionals often use the word “boundaries”. Good boundaries, both emotionally and physically can improve intimate relationships, relationships with friends, coworkers and most importantly, with the self; but what exactly does it mean? We need to understand how far we will go and how far we will allow others to go with us.
Boundaries in the context of relationship are defined as: the awareness of internal thoughts and emotions and then the reaction to this internal state. Pat Ogden, a prominent psychologist and author writes:
“Healthy boundaries enable us to separate our thoughts, feelings and behaviors from those of other people, so we do not blame others for our feelings, thoughts or behavior, and we do not take responsibility for the feelings, thoughts or behaviors of others.”
It is important to develop a clear “sense of self”, an understanding of where personal emotions, needs, and wants end and another’s begin. Equally important, is to develop the skill to say “no” when we mean “no” or say “yes” when we mean “yes” AND to allow others to take care of themselves in the same way. Below is a list of red flags in relationships with poor boundaries:
- Avoidance of verbalizing feelings and needs because of fear of causing disappointment or conflict.
- Difficulty differentiating personal feelings from the emotions of others.
- Difficulty saying “no” to others and feeling overwhelmed by own emotions and/or the emotions of others.
- An overly developed, rigid and inflexible sense of independence and/or over-protectiveness of personal space.
- A preference for distance in relationship and difficulty with trust and intimacy.
- Explosive, defensive and non-productive expressions of feelings, needs, and wants with no resolution after the conflict.
Tips on developing healthy boundaries:
1. Use mindfulness. Spend some time observing, as if watching a movie, the physical sensation of emotions. What sensations appear when there is anger, fear, sadness or anxiety? Is there hotness in the face, increased heart rate, sinking stomach or heaviness in the chest? What about when there is happiness, excitement or contentedness?
2. Once there is a sense of what emotions feel like, there is a stronger sense of confidence to communicate about them and there is less emotional overwhelm. It becomes easier to say, “When I heard you yell, I felt my heart jump which means I was scared”.
3. Breathe. If closeness both physically and emotionally feels overwhelming and vulnerable, take a breath and then decide, “Is this reaction an overly protective and defensive one or is it reasonable”? If it is defensive, breathe into the physical sensation of vulnerability and anxieties then, with compassion, tell it that it’s ok to trust.
A daily meditation practice can help foster a stronger understanding of the inner world. Find a class on meditation or give yourself the gift of talking to a qualified professional. Talking through experiences with another person can help bring understanding of unhealthy patterns and the cause of disconnection from the self and others.