I recently read a letter to Dear Abby in the Daily Gleaner written by a woman who at the age of 12 was drugged and sexually abused by her cousin. As a teenager, she writes, she struggled with depression and anxiety. She goes on to say that with the help of a support group and a therapist she was able to, eventually, process the “terrible memories” and embark on a journey of recovery and healing. She makes reference to having learned how to set boundaries in her relationships. Her purpose in writing the letter, she tells Dear Abby, was to encourage other “survivors” to access the help they need so that they can go on to live full lives.
So what are boundaries and how do you establish boundaries in relationships?
Boundaries are not thick walls that we build around ourselves to insulate us from others and the world but rather limits that we set so that we can get close to others without losing ourselves, being smothered, or being violated in some way. Boundaries emerge from what we believe we deserve, from the knowledge that what we want and need is important, and from a deep sense of our personal rights.
Before we can feel worthy and empowered to set limits by identifying what is and what is not acceptable in our relationships, we need to learn to accept that we are worthy enough to stand up and be counted, to be assertive, and to communicate directly and respectfully.
Low self-esteem impacts negatively on our ability to establish boundaries and enjoy healthy relationships. With low self-esteem come insecurity and lack of assertiveness, which can lead people to lose themselves in a relationship especially where the other person is domineering and aggressive. It has been estimated in the self-esteem literature that over 90% of us have low self-esteem to one degree or another. Given this statistic, it is reasonable to expect that most of us are not very adept at developing relationships that are safe, supportive, respectful, and peaceful.
Being empowered means accepting the responsibility of being the co-creator of our selves and our lives and to stop giving away our power through blaming. Until you accept that you have choices you are not likely to make a different choice. When you don’t accept that you have chosen to be who you are and the life you are living, you are likely to feel resentful and trapped. Life events occur in a way that we seemingly do not have a choice over, losing a job or the car breaking down, a flood or the death of a loved one. However, we do have a choice over how we respond to these situations. We can see the disastrous and the tragic as opportunities for growth.
Boundaries in relationships are like the doors in a house. Setting a boundary is like asking a person to knock on the door before entering the house. Once the other person knocks on the door, you have the right to deny entrance, request a way of behaving once inside before opening the door, or request that they return at a later date.
There are three steps to set a boundary: 1. Describe the objectionable behaviour as specifically as possible without assumptions, interpretations, or ascribing intentions and motives. 2. Express how you feel when this behaviour takes place. 3. Ask specifically for the behaviours that you want. The process could sound like this: “When you are talking to me and your face gets red and your voice gets loud and you clench your hands into fists, I feel scared and hurt. I want you to speak to me in a calm voice and in a respectful manner. Otherwise, I will not stay here and listen.”
Part of setting a boundary involves identifying the consequence if the boundary is violated. A consequence is not what you will do to the other person but rather what you are prepared to do to take care of your self. Consequences are not threats but something you are prepared to follow through with if the boundary is not respected. If you are not sure that you are prepared to follow through, do not state the consequence. Threats have the opposite effect of consequences. Threats leave you feeling used when the boundary is violated and you do nothing about it. Threats are like crying wolf, people learn to ignore you. Consequences, on the other hand, lead you to feel empowered and teach others to take you seriously.
It is scary to stand up to a bully. It takes courage to set boundaries with those with whom we have been involved in manipulative or abusive relationships. It takes even more courage to defend the boundary each and every time it’s violated.
Like the woman in the letter to Dear Abby, each of us can heal the past and create peaceful, loving relationships with ourselves and others.
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