Also: This discussion may seem to move “backward” as I’m describing boundary violations before I talk about healthy boundaries. The reason for this setup is that I want us all to have a common understanding of what a violation is – and many of us may not even recognize that our boundaries were violated. So we start with a common awareness, and will move to a discussion of healthy boundaries from there.
Working on Your Boundaries
(Caveat for children or minors: Setting boundaries when someone hurts you may be difficult to impossible. This is where telling a trusted adult and gaining help to stop abuse - whether it's one time or ongoing - is necessary. NO ONE has the right to abuse you and telling someone may be hard, but it will help you in the end. Find someone you trust and think will help you - and ask them to help you.)
So, where do we go from here? Well, knowing where you are – and where you end – is the first step in becoming aware of what a healthy boundary is. The most obvious boundary to become aware of, set, and maintain is physical. You – and we all – have a right to keep our bodies safe and separate from anyone else’s. This means that you do have the right to say no to “Uncle Al who hugs too tight and maybe gropes a little” no matter what your family (or other people say). You have the right to be a child in your own bed and to be safe from your stepfather coming in and molesting you. You have a right to go on a date and not be forced to kiss your date at the end, or be raped. You have a right to go in and have a drink if you’re comfortable with that, and NOT be forced to have sex. Lines such as “You asked for it, “ “You’re a tease,” “You know you wanted it, I knew you wanted it,” or “You’ll like it – just wait and see” ARE boundary violations – they are overruling your right to say “NO” and be respected for that. Your body is your own. With the exception of normal, non-sexualized, physical care when needed, you have the absolute right to control your body and who has access to it. And even then - unless your ability to make decisions is severely compromised, you STILL have the right to say 'no.'
One of the first steps in this process is realizing that you have choices. You can keep going on the way you have, or you can work toward change. That is a choice that is in your hands. You also have choices in how you react to other people. You can’t change what they say or do, but you CAN control how you react. Another choice we have is whether or not we are going to take responsibility for ourselves. As adults, that is far easier to do than when you are a child. It’s a lot easier to slip into blame and being the victim – taking responsibility for ourselves is hard work. It also requires that we set and maintain boundaries with ourselves (such as, “If Rick hits me again, I will contact the police and press charges. I am going to take care of myself and respect myself enough to do that. I will set up a plan for how to deal with this now, so that when/if it happens, I’ll have a place to go and a plan in place.”) And, as you might imagine, follow-through is crucial, whether it’s a boundary you’ve set with someone else (“Uncle Al, if you touch me again, I’m going to tell Aunt Beru and my parents”) or with yourself (“I will press charges if he does this again”). The thing about choices is that we *always* have them – we just may not like the options we have. Robert Burma described it this way: "And we always have a choice. If someone sticks a gun in my face and says, "Your money or your life!" I have a choice. I may not like my choice but I have one. In life we often don't like our choices because we don't know what the outcome is going to be and we are terrified of doing it 'wrong.' " (Burman, http://joy2meu.com/Personal_Boundaries.htm). Another of my favorite authors, Susan Jeffers, puts it this way – “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Setting boundaries, making choices and taking responsibility is hard work and can be scary. Feel the fear, and do it anyway.
Robert Burman describes three parts of a boundary: “If you,” “I will,” and “If you continue this behavior…” This is a formalized way of putting together a boundary statement – if you’ve never done this, or have had your boundaries destroyed and/or ignored over time, setting up your boundaries and thinking of them in these terms may be helpful. The idea is that you state the behavior you don’t like:
“Uncle Al, if you keep touching me or pushing me for a hug after I tell you I’m uncomfortable…” Then you state what you will do: “…I will tell Aunt Beru and my parents.” Then you continue with, “If you continue to do this, I’ll contact the police and let them know that you have continued to touch me after I’ve said don’t.” (and then follow through – threats mean nothing if consequences don’t follow.)
Here’s the thing with consequences – they have to be realistic, and you have to be willing to follow through on them. If you tell Uncle Al that you’ll deck him the next time he touches you, and you’re 11 and he’s a 350-lb linebacker, that’s not a realistic consequence and could lead to putting yourself in more danger. The other problem I see a lot is that it really is hard to follow through on the consequences. Often the people abusing us or breaking our boundaries are people we love, value, or need in our lives. Following through may feel dangerous – this is WHY having the support of a good group or professional is important to us.
The other difficult thing is realizing that the other person’s reaction is out of our control. We can set the boundary, we can follow through, and they may react by trying to hurt us more, getting us to stop setting the boundaries, hurting something else we care about, or any number of things. You cannot control what they do – you CAN control what you do, and following through on the consequences you set is one way to get the message through that you will not tolerate having your boundaries violated anymore. This is not a threat – it’s simply behavior leading to consequences. If you engage in behavior A, then B will happen. It’s like telling a young child, if you put your hand on a hot stove, you will get burned. “Rick, if you hit me one more time, or call me stupid one more time, I am leaving. I will not tolerate that behavior anymore.” And then FOLLOW THROUGH.
Dealing with "Pushback":
If you’re setting boundaries for the first time, the people who are used to you “the old way” may have some trouble accepting the “new you.” When you say “no” to Uncle Al, you may get him saying, “I didn’t mean nuthin’. You’re being an uptight bitch” or, "Loosen up. It's just a hug!" or you may experience your family members enabling Uncle Al - "Aw, darlin' - Uncle Al's just being himself. Lighten up and it will be ok." This is where standing strong is both hard and helpful. No matter what Uncle Al or the rest of the family says, if you’re uncomfortable with him touching you, you have the right to be free from that touch. I’ve found that early in the boundary setting process, the people you interact with may have trouble accepting your new boundaries and the “new you.” Working with a good therapist can help you remain strong and focused when these issues arise. Support – whether from a support group, a therapist, another friend working on boundaries, a church group , wherever you can find support – is crucial.
Setting emotional boundaries can be every bit as difficult. If you’ve been compliant, saying “no” will be hard at first. You may feel guilty, you may encounter things like, “But you’ve always done ________” or “You’ve helped me before/done this for me before, why can’t you now?” People will get used to the new you – it will take time, though. If you’re standing up to emotional abuse – from someone who is a controller or nonresponsive – you may face more of the same, at a more intense or frequent rate until they “get” that you’re not backing down. Again, the support of a good therapist, group, neighbor, friend, church – anything/anyone that supports you in this work, is crucial to your success. Support and information are the two pillars that help support the work that you’re doing – creating stability and success in being you. The third pillar is you – do all you can, get the support and help you need, and (even thought it sounds simple) just move! Getting over the inertia of helplessness, depression, history, etc is HARD and necessary. For your sake – for being who you are, and becoming you – move. Personally, I can tell you that, while it IS hard work, it is also very worth it and that you come out on the other side much better equipped to take care of yourself and love your self.
Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Boundaries: When to say YES, how to say NO to take control of your life (Revised 2008). Zondervan Publishers
Anne Katherine, Boundaries: Where you end and I begin. (1993) Fireside Publishers
Robert Burney, http://joy2meu.com/Personal_Boundaries.htm
Please Note: The content on this blog is intended for informational purposes only. This is not therapy, and if you wish to work in therapy, please contact your local mental health agency or your physician for a referral.
If you are in crisis or danger, please call 911 for immediate help. Please, again, realize that seeking out help really IS a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. You don’t have to be alone in facing these things – there are people who care and who will help. Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org