As the political climate has become more desperate over the past few years, and social media has become a powerful force in all of our lives, it’s no wonder many people are left feeling confused, empty, disconnected, and lost. To avoid these feelings, we often turn to reckless or careless behavio or just plain old denial. Unfortunately, none of these strategies is effective, and we are left feeling just as bad, or worse, about the whole situation.
Fortunately, however, there are far healthier coping strategies available to us. They may require more work than maintaining our habituated patterns, and more awareness, but when we use them consistently they can help us make profound and life-changing shifts. They can help open us up to a greater level of honesty within ourselves and afford us the freedom to bring more of ourselves to relationship with others in a way that feels safe and comfortable.
Boundaries allow us to move through life with more confidence, skill, purpose, and awareness. Having healthy boundaries, and truly understanding what that means, is a key to cultivating self-love, confidence, and self-respect.
The first part of setting boundaries might come from being faced with an abusive or degrading situation that we cannot allow, for our own safety’s sake, to continue. Or perhaps we might find ourselves feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and confused, with no real focus in life. Neither our culture nor our educational system teaches us how to set boundaries, or even much about what boundaries are, beyond a certain elementary level. For women especially, asserting ourselves by saying “no” can seem harsh, strict, or even cruel. We are taught to please people and put others’ needs before our own, and when we do this, often our own emotions and truths get squeezed into some dank and dusty corner of our psyche where they will never again see the light of day.
Though our world seems ensconced with conflict, when it comes to our personal lives, most people will go to great lengths in order to avoid expressing so-called negative emotions and entering into a potential conflict with another. We think we are “just being nice” and keeping the peace, but when we deny our own needs, we create a situation rife with inner strife, where the part of us that wants to please others is creating opposition to expressing our true needs. Because self-expression is intrinsically tied to self-worth, we darken our own light and suppress gifts we have to share in the world when we refuse to say no to hurtful behavior, or when we say yes to something we actually do not want to do.
The Art of Saying “No”
Saying no, then, is not about the other person. It is about deciding, for ourselves, how we want to be treated and under what type of parameters we will engage. When we draw that line in the sand, we can then determine what the consequences will be if someone chooses not to respect our determination of what is appropriate. Determining consequences is not about punishing someone or “making them pay” for their mistakes. When we operate from a place of punishment, we are, again, making the situation about someone else and failing to focus on our own guidelines of how we want to be treated. Creating healthy boundaries is not about playing judge and determining what the correct be-all-end-all behavior is, but rather deciding for one’s self how one wants to be addressed in relationship. If there are others who will not respect these parameters, we may have to ramp up our communication of “no,” perhaps even going so far as to sever ties completely.
It must be emphasized that saying “no” is not mean, nor is it cruel, and people who truly respect your right to have sovereignty in your interpersonal relations will not deny your need to maintain healthy boundaries. The process of setting boundaries might bring up complex emotions that will need to be dealt with and acknowledged, and this process is not easy. There may be long-held resentments that need to be healed before a healthier relationship can be established. If the relationship is to continue, it is important to be honest about how someone’s behavior has affected you, and also to recognize that none of us is a saint, and often we are intentionally blind to the ways we may have hurt or damaged others. When we invite more honest and forthright relationships by creating healthy boundaries, we also need to be open to hearing criticisms of our own behaviors as well, as long as they are constructive and not coming from a place of fear or abuse.
The urge to refuse or deny conflict makes it difficult for us to engage with others truthfully—and to set boundaries. Sometimes, when we stand up for ourselves and our needs, we face the possibility of conflict. People who are angry or who continually bring up issues are seen as confrontational or high-maintenance, and those who put issues aside are rewarded for this denial, whether at work, at school, or in relationship. We think that fighting and conflict will break us and destroy our relationships, but the reality is that I can love and respect someone even when they disagree with me or even when I am livid with them. In fact, the honesty and true vulnerability that emerges in a relationship when we allow conflict to happen offers us a greater degree of intimacy, if we are able to handle the conflict successfully. It is only when we acknowledge and work through discord that healing can happen; otherwise, we are just wrapping our unpleasantness in a sparkling vestment of idealism, and not doing anyone any good.
Sometimes, people who consider themselves to be “spiritual” or conscious have the most difficult time setting boundaries for themselves, and in turn, respecting the boundaries of others. Most religions and spiritual paths focus on selflessness and service to others, and focus on the self or the needs of the body can be consciously or subconsciously dismissed as egotistical and selfish. Many spiritual paths also focus on the “we are one” mentality, the misinterpretation of which can dilute or diminish boundaries. Furthermore, any type of “negativity” or conflict can be seen as “darkness”—itself a dim aspect of many spiritual paths. So if you consider yourself to be of a spiritual bent, be aware of the resistance that might come up, in yourself, around setting and maintaining boundaries.
The other side of maintaining our own boundaries is respecting other’s boundaries—but truly, the two are deeply interconnected. When we start to define and set our own boundaries, we will also become more aware of when someone else is setting their own interpersonal perimeter, and hopefully, we will respect that. Though we live in a culture where we are told to “not take no for an answer,” especially in the business world, when we do this in personal relationships, we are failing to respect the sovereignty and inner dignity of the person who has already made his or her stance clear.
Attempting to pursue a topic when someone has already announced that they do not wish to discuss it, reinterpreting someone’s emotions or experiences in light of your own views and projections, or “gaslighting” someone and completely denying the truth of their experiences are all boundary violations, as well as subtle forms of emotional manipulation. Though these behaviors may be somewhat common (and they may even be done with the best of intentions), they are all unhealthy ways of engaging with our loved ones and can create a situation of emotional codependency.
When we engage with others unconsciously and without expressing our needs or maintaining our boundaries, we might feel invulnerable and say “yes” to things, but we are also denying ourselves the opportunity to have a genuine connection with both ourselves and the other people in our lives. Setting boundaries can bring up unhealed and unpleasant emotions, but by working through them, we can create relationships that are far more truthful and trusting. By respecting our own boundaries, we can move into a space of greater respect for and awareness of others limitations. When we trust in ourselves and in our own emotional truth, and are able to express this to others in the form of solid boundaries, we can find we are actually creating a space for more freedom, both in ourselves and in others. And so, by maintaining boundaries, we are cultivating boundlessness: boundless joy, boundless love, and boundless trust.