To have healthy boundaries, think more about what ideas you take on than, and less about what invitations and responsibilities you’ll accept.
Once upon a time, I thought having healthy boundaries 1 meant saying ‘No,’ – ‘No’ to chairing a meeting, ‘No’ to organizing a party, ‘No’ to letting a house guest stay another week. Refusals like this are a good start, but there’s a much deeper and more meaningful application for boundary-setting that has nothing to do with family picnics or PTA meetings. For those of us who default to unhealthy behaviors, unless and until we get better at setting healthy boundaries, every effort we make to get healthier may be at the mercy of other people.
Let’s say you smoke, but you haven’t really enjoyed being a smoker since 2010. 2 After much pain, deliberation, and shoring-up of resolve, you quit smoking on a Monday. That Tuesday, your friend – who’s still smoking – says “Life is short,” as she lights up. If you have weak or unhealthy boundaries, her words hit like an anvil in the gut, ‘Man, she’s right, life is short!’ And you light up quicker than your reasons and resolve can fly out the window.
What if eating ice cream used to feel like a luscious, sensual way to end the day, but lately it feels like a sad compulsion motivated by habit and a lack of knowing what the hell else to do? As your husband walks into the kitchen to load up bowls, you say, “None for me tonight, please.”
“Riiiight,” he says, not actually meaning to be a big, insensitive, unsupportive jerk. “Let’s see how long you last this time.”
If we have weak or unhealthy boundaries, words like that feel like a fast-acting, full-torso vice grip. We sit, boiling over with rage while the Merry Hubmeister eats Rocky Road with near-pornographic gusto. Later, when he’s engrossed in sports, we quietly walk into the kitchen and finish what remains of the ice cream so fast we barely even taste it.
Having strong boundaries 3 means exercising control over what ideas and opinions we take in, and which we disregard. When we’re trying to get grounded in healthier habits, it means filtering out the messages, jokes, and judgments that hurt without helping, or that make us want to quit, or just run and hide. I know all this, and yet sometimes I still fall into thinking that having strong boundaries is all about not agreeing to open the store on my day off. 4
This hula-hoop metaphor helps me remember what it really means to have strong boundaries: 5
We’re constantly bombarded with other people’s opinions. Having healthy boundaries means catching them before they hit us, and deciding if we’ll let them in (because they’ll help us), or if we’ll throw them back (because they won’t). If you practice taking on or disregarding what other people say based on whether or not it will help you get healthier, happier, or both, that’s you developing strong boundaries.
But if we’re ever gonna get grounded in healthier habits, we need to go even deeper. Even if we’re surrounded by judgy knuckleheads, odds are that most of the harshest, meanest judgment we face is coming from inside of us. 6
When we assume we’re being judged by other people, that self-sabotaging idea is coming from inside us.
When we worry about what other people will think, that self-defeating idea is coming from inside us.
When we feel a fist on our guts when we try to do things differently, or better, or with more intention, that feeling of shame and judgement is coming from inside us.
When we feel like a fraud for even bothering to try to do things differently, that feeling is coming from inside us. We who default to self-abuse have an easier time of getting grounded in healthier habits to the extent that we practice recognizing and filtering the thousands of messages we get every day from inside us. With practice, and over time, we come to realize that feelings are not facts, and that just because we think it doesn’t means it’s true.
The more we learn to filter out our own self-harming ideas, and embrace the ones that support our efforts to get healthier, the easier it is to adopt healthier behaviors.
But first, we can practice developing stronger, healthier boundaries with the world around us. If your buddy who still smokes throws “Life is short” at you, try to catch it before it hits. Consider her and her words with compassion, 7 and try tossing her words aside. If your man makes light of your intentions, try to catch what he says before it hits you. Then, while he’s in the kitchen loading a bowl with Rocky Road, consider him and his words with compassion, 8 and try tossing his words aside. Then, maybe you can change the subject. Ask a question. Tell him how grateful you are to have him in your life. 9
Once we’re in the habit of maintaining strong boundaries with other people, it gets easier and easier to recognize when we’re being attacked from inside. And once we can start catching the crap we throw at ourselves, and work on tossing it aside instead of letting it sabotage us, that’s when we start to get happily grounded in healthier habits.
- Let’s call them ‘strong’ boundaries, because people tell me I’m supposed to be branding myself. First person to ask me whether I’m practicing having strong boundaries with the handful of sweethearts giving me business advice out of the kindness of their hearts gets a great big e-raspberry. ↩
- No pun intended. ↩
- Because branding. ↩
- ”I wasn’t even supposed to be here today!!” ↩
- The sync is totally off, like an old Kung Fu movie, because I was too busy to figure out how the heck to fix it. ↩
- ”The call is coming from inside the house!” ↩
- She’s still smoking, and is therefore, understandably, defensive. ↩
- Yes, even when he’s tactless and insensitive, he deserves compassion. ↩
- I know, I know, growth is hard. ↩