How you set boundaries with others will depend on which parts of yourself (which inner selves) are driving your psychological car and have taken on this responsibility. If, for example, you have a soft and accommodating primary self, then your boundaries will look different to if you have a tougher or impersonal primary self. When you recognise and honour your default way of setting boundaries, you can then develop more conscious choice with boundary-setting, choosing which inner resources you would like to help you.
A boundary is at its most basic a limit. There are all kinds of boundaries, including physical, emotional, mental, material and energetic boundaries.
Boundaries allow you to say ‘no’, ‘yes’ and ‘maybe’. They protect you; they keep you safe and feeling safe – whatever that may mean for you.
Good boundaries are like faithful bodyguards if you learn how to use them.
How each of us sets boundaries is largely determined by who our primary selves are and how they have learnt to protect our vulnerability.
How to Set Effective Boundaries
Next time you’re in a situation where you’d like to be able to set a boundary of some kind, stop and consider the underlying rule you have about that situation.
And then feel what the vulnerability around the rule is.
Examples of rules might be:
- “It’s a family occasion so I must go.”
- “It’s expected that I cook dinner in our household.”
- “When my children interrupt me with a question or request I have to deal with it immediately.”
- “Everyone at work goes to Friday night drinks.”
- “That’s just the way it is in this business.”
Now for the vulnerability:
- If I don’t go to the family occasion they’ll think I’m rejecting them and am being a bad daughter. Then they’ll reject me, and I need them to love and accept me.
- If I don’t cook dinner my partner will be angry and then I’ll have caused disharmony in our relationship. I’ll feel like I’ve failed him/her and my role, and they might not approve of me any more.
- If I tell my kids to wait, then I’m not attending to their needs and they might suffer somehow. It would mean I’m not a good mother or father and/or they won’t like me.
- If I don’t go to drinks after work, I won’t be part of the team and will feel like I’m missing out. I might be excluded later.
- If I tell my boss I can’t do another interstate assignment so soon I’ll lose my job, and that will lead to all kinds of problems.
Also consider the rules held by others involved and how their rules influence you.
The examples of vulnerabilities can go deeper. Your situation is unique and the rules and vulnerabilities will depend on all kinds of factors.
How to deal with vulnerability:
- Acknowledge and accept you feel vulnerable or anxious. Don’t try to change your feelings or be brave or push the anxiety away.
- Don’t rationalise the rule. But do listen to your inner dialogue about it as it will reveal more about the rules you’ve internalised and are unconsciously following.
- Consider how you usually act in this situation. That is, how you’ve adapted to protect your vulnerability.
- Now acknowledge and thank the part of you (your primary self) that’s been protecting you, no matter where you’ve been on the spectrum of ‘over-reacting’ to being ‘too accomodating’.
If you happen to feel critical of yourself for your coping strategies, remember that your Inner Critic will compare and judge your behaviour because of its anxiety that you’re not doing it right. If you haven’t done any work with your Inner Critic then chances are you’ll feel its judgement of you. (Remind yourself about how your Inner Critic works.)
Accept that it’s perfectly fine if you continue to react in this situation as you always have. It’s good that you have a defence mechanism operating.
(Some situations involve serious consequences if we change our boundaries too suddenly. Or we may not be ready for change yet ourselves.)
BUT at the same time you can also intend to take care of the situation with more choice from now on.
This is where you enlist help from inner selves you may not have used for some time or that have been lying dormant within you.
Which Inner Selves will Help with Setting Boundaries?
Which selves to call on will depend on how you’ve been protecting yourself so far.
But if your boundaries have been so firm that you’ve been pushing people away, then you could access inner selves that make more intimate contact, such as a nurturing self or a playful self.
It all depends on which selves are primary and disowned in you.
Learn about how your personality is made up of primary and disowned selves and begin this life-changing self-awareness process.
Over time, as your awareness grows, the space between your habitual reactions and new boundary-setting behaviours will grow.
How to Activate Your Energetic Boundaries
A significant part of boundary setting involves your energetic boundaries. The selves that constitute your personality each have a unique energy. There are warm selves and cool selves. Intimate selves and distant selves. And they all feel different.
When you become aware of your inner selves you also develop a sensitivity to the energy of those selves. Read a short intro to energy patterns here and get exercises on modulating how you connect energetically here.
This exercise will help you activate your energetic boundaries:
- Take a moment to centre yourself. Breathe into your abdomen slowly, hold, and breathe all the way out.
- As you continue breathing slowly, move your attention down your body, all the way to the base of your spine.
- Keep your attention there for a minute. Acknowledge the energy there. You can nod to it, or say something like ‘thank you’.
- Then move your attention back up your body, pausing at your belly button, then stomach, to your heart area. Nod to the energy at each area.
- Then move your attention further up, pausing at your throat, then eyes, to the top of your head.
- Acknowledge all the energies that reside in your body and energy system, and affirm you are willing to take charge of how you use the energies to protect your vulnerability.
- Allow yourself to be present with the energies of your energy system.
How to Create an Instant Boundary
If you find yourself in a situation where you suddenly feel you need a stronger boundary, this technique will help:
- Move your attention to the centre of your abdomen and imagine a golden ball of light there.
- Extend the light outward, down and up, as far as you want your boundary to be. All around you if you want.
- Define the properties of your light-boundary.
- For example, it stops other people’s energy getting past, it’s strong, it’s solid like a titanium wall, it gives you thinking space, or whatever you want to make it.
- You can practice drawing the energy back in and out, to wherever it feels comfortable for you.
Your inner child will be grateful to you for consciously setting boundaries and protecting yourself. Good boundaries make your inner child feel safe. And when your inner child feels safe, your anxiety alleviates and your self-confidence grows.
Read more about how to take care of your Vulnerable Inner Child.
Boundaries with Family Members
I wanted to add that boundaries with family members can be the most difficult to feel comfortable with.
The complex emotions, the inner and outer rules about duty and obligation, and the love, make this an anxiety-inducing experience for many of us.
You’ve probably learnt to manage various family members in your own way, and over time this means you’ve probably either compromised yourself or hurt someone’s feelings.
I’ve found that as children and parents age, and your relationship with everyone continues to change, boundary-setting is an ongoing learning experience.
You’re lucky if this is easy and straightforward for you but for many of us it’s challenging.
To end on a lighter note, and maybe bring to your awareness some of the ways we all set boundaries at family occasions, consider the types of boundary setters below:
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