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Healthy Boundaries

Healthy Boundaries

“But, Maggie, I can’t say no. It feels impossible…”

This sentiment shows up quite frequently in therapy sessions, specifically with women. For many of us, the desire to be liked by others is so strong that we derive self-worth & value from pleasing others, and we prioritize this over our own needs & mental health.

Society has indoctrinated women to believe that we should be selfless, and that we should be happy about it. If I am not happy to be constantly providing for others’ needs, what’s wrong with ME? (Cue: unjustified guilt.)

The answer is nothing. Nothing is wrong with you. You are a human being, and guess what? That means you have needs. (I write this quite literally after finishing a conversation with my partner where I asked him if I am justified in feeling guilt because I am relieved to have a day with childcare/some time alone. I’m working on emotionally embracing what I cognitively know to be true. It’s hard. I’m a work in progress.) Honoring our wants and needs, despite guilt or other difficult emotions, is setting a healthy internal boundary.

Whether you are seeking relationship boundaries, or internal boundaries, finding the balance in this process can be life-changing. So how do you know if your boundaries are too loose or too rigid? You can start by asking yourself some important questions.

Boundaries that are too loose (letting people in too much, enmeshed relationships) look like the following. Do you:
- Have difficulty saying “no” in relationships (people-pleasing)?
- Experience intense emotions of guilt when you say no?
- Give too much?
- Struggle to assert your limits?
- Get involved too quickly?
- Trust too easily?
- Intrude on others (ie. violating other people’s boundaries)?
- Stay in relationships too long?
- Stay in unhealthy or toxic relationships?
- Have heightened stress or pressure to appease others?

Boundaries that are too rigid (not letting people in enough, lack of intimacy, detached from others) look like the following. Do you:
- Have difficulty saying “yes” in relationships?
- Isolate?
- Distrust too easily?
- Feel lonely?
- Stay in relationships too briefly?

These are the behaviors you may notice in yourself. Internally, this will likely feel like increased anger/irritability, increased conflict with/avoidance of others, resentment, loneliness, burnout, anxiety & depression. It’s easy to get stuck in a vicious cycle: “Boundary problems are a misdirected attempt to be loved. By giving it all to people, you we are trying to win them over; instead we teach them to exploit us. By isolating from others, we may be trying to protect ourselves, but then we do not have the support we need.” (Najavits, Lisa; Seeking Safety).

Healthy boundaries are safe, flexible, and connected, and can be applied internally (setting boundaries with ourselves) as well as externally (setting boundaries with others). What gets in the way of you saying no? Setting your limits AND sticking to them shows self-respect, builds self-worth, & models what you will accept or not accept in your relationships. Start with minor, insignificant situations by practicing saying “yes” when you need connection, and “no” when you need rest. Like any other skill, it takes time to build, but the more we practice, the more confident we become in our ability to apply this to the hard situations in life.

For more great tips on healthy boundaries, follow NYT Bestselling author & boundaries expert Nedra Glover Tawwab, @nedratawwab
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