Why are boundaries so important? They distinguish self from other. Boundaries are about me deciding what is important in my life, and what I want to spend my time, my energy, my attention, my whatever. Boundaries are not just about saying no, but also about what you decide to say yes to.
One of the reasons why boundaries are particularly important within recovery, is that abusers don’t do boundaries. Typically they see their targets as an extension of themselves. Setting boundaries becomes really complicated for targets because
A) we’re not used to it and
B) when we do implement boundaries within a toxic relationship either they’re not respected or it gets us into trouble, it triggers an attack. So, we become really insecure about being allowed to set boundaries.
What Are Boundaries All About?
Boundaries are about setting guidelines that are very firm in some areas and have some wiggle room in others for us to have the highest quality life and experience. Flexibility without a foundation is just chaos. The same goes for boundaries. There’s a little wiggle room sometimes. Still, there has to be a direction of what you want in your life or not, in order to be able to guide where you want to go.
It’s about respect for yourself and respect for others, and it’s what will we accept from others. You are sure to have heard the old adage about people treating you the way you allow them to. Boundaries help set parameters and guidelines on how you wish to be treated in all categories.
Boundaries are financial and physical and sexual and emotional. Between friends, between lovers, between our kids, between our co-workers.
People get really mad with boundaries being broken by strangers, and sometimes it’s the smallest things. Yet, they’ll put up with far more with a loved one.
Victoria Lorient-Faibish talks about our bill of rights, as we help heal our cycle of self denial and start to set up our boundaries to build our self esteem and self confidence and self culture. Here’s some things to consider:
You have the right to be your authentic self.
You have the right to have and experience feelings.
You have the right to feel angry and express it in responsible and constructive ways.
You have the right to say no without explaining or feeling guilty, when you feel something is not right or feels unsafe to you.
Good boundary communications is really important. You don’t have to have a million come backs. Just be polite, be clear, be consistent and keep repeating yourself. It’s quite freeing to not care what other people think of you if you’ve treated them with respect and dignity.
Boundaries in the Community
Boundaries, they happen in all categories. We teach our little kids somewhere between 18 months and seven years of age that there’s appropriate touch from strangers and inappropriate touch from strangers. That there’s appropriate touch from a doctor when mommy and daddy are there, and still inappropriate touch.
“I went to a conference years ago with Peter Alsop out of California and he’s got a song for kids: my body’s no body’s body but mine, you mind your own body and I’ll mind mine. I thought, “Wow. What a great way to talk to three year olds about boundaries.” I listened to him and I saw him at a conference a few years after that. He said, “You know one of the saddest things was, I was working with judges that work with only kids. Everybody they see is a pre-teen or younger.” He said, “So, I tried to get them to sing this song. Oh, they’re judges. They can’t do that.” He said, “Well, that’s the warm up song. Wait ‘til you hear the song about body parts.” He said about 40% of them were just mortified. He said, “They’re dealing with three year olds and seven year olds who have been seriously inflicted on by adults in positions of trust. If you can’t think and feel like a seven year old, how are you supposed to relate to them?”
Part of boundaries is how we were raised. It is how the adults in our lives relate to us. How they act around us, and how they distinguish between themselves and us.
“I was in a supermarket recently and there was a little two year old girl who was sitting in the middle of the queue that I wanted to join which wasn’t the queue that her mother was in. It was the one next to it. She was having some sort of emotionally overwhelming episode. I’ve no idea what happened before I got there, but she was not in a happy space. Her mother says, “Please, can you get out of the way because the lady needs to go into the queue.” The girl refuses which honestly I didn’t mind. I mean obviously the kid was having some sort of anxiety episode or something like that. Her mother turns to the kid and says, “If you stay seated there that lady’s going to take you away.” I turned around to the mother and said, “Could you please leave me out of this?” That was completely inappropriate towards myself and towards the kid. I mean I understand that the child can’t perform that boundary act, but I was like no that’s not okay. I wasn’t responding annoyed to the kid at all. I was just patiently waiting for the mother to sort it. I just thought no that’s not okay. She obviously didn’t pick up on the hint because she kept saying really inappropriate things.”
As a parent in the middle of a supermarket with your kid in the middle of some sort of hissy fit… it’s understandable that you’re really flustered. Still there are certain things you shouldn’t say. Even when your child is two years old, there should be boundaries between you and the child and how you approach them. That’s something that kids from toxic parents have never experienced. But even kids with good parents and good parenting, sometimes don’t get all the messages they need.
“I live in a place with three towers and 380 units so the swimming pool is shared. It’s a nice big one. Me being the big kid that I am, I have three year olds and nine year olds and 79 year olds that come and hang out because I can make them laugh and I help them get over their fear of water. I have had more than a couple of kids say to their parents, “Can Michael come for a sleepover?” That’s one of my badges of honor that these three year olds and seven year olds feel 100% accepted with me and I’ve helped them with something to do with water. Usually it’s water safety. One little girl told her mommy she wanted to marry me when she was a little bit older, maybe seven. Just a kid, she was only four. She was willing to wait. I said, “You know it’s really great that we’re so friendly and I’m really honored that you call me a friend, but until you’re somewhere between 13 and 21, I am friendly but I am not your friend yet, unless mommy and daddy are with you all the time. Because it’s important at your age to have safe boundaries.” She just looked at me like huh? The mother’s like, “Thank you, Michael. She trusts everybody as soon as they say hello.” That’s the beauty of a child, but that’s when they need to learn. As my wife said, “If she was 19 you wouldn’t be allowed to hang around with her because she’s 100% smitten.” I said, “By 19 she’d have much more discerning taste. She might wave and say hello only.”
As a community we help each other with our boundaries. It is especially helpful when you can help parents teach their kids understand. But we can also help our seniors understand. Because we’re going to be seniors and vulnerable one day and technology changes. As our health changes it can make us feel more vulnerable and boundaries are all around us.
“One of my neighbors got robbed and she stumbled to my door not physically hurt, but they’d stolen everything. All her ID and her purse and everything and a couple family mementos. She’s like, “I don’t know what to do.” I said, “How long ago?” “12 minutes.” “Did you report it to mall security?” “Yes.” “What’d they say?” “Police won’t come for something this small.” “Okay. Let’s go to the bank.” We had her to the bank in under 20 minutes. The bank manager’s like, “Nobody shows up the first day after they’ve been robbed.” I said, “We need her financially safe so that nobody does anything with her cards, duplicate her cards, steal from her.” All her cards were turned off and new ones issued with new passwords the same day.”
We need boundaries for ourselves and within our relationships, but also for our neighborhood. People don’t always seem to understand that vulnerable people are attacked in a neighborhood, the thieves then target the neighborhood. “Oh out of these 400 groups we’ve managed to phish seven. Let’s see how many more we can get.” When one neighbors gets tricked online, through fraud or with a phone call. They then doubled down and you’ll start getting seven phone calls a month from these fraudsters.
Boundaries and Toxic People
Growing up in a toxic family, a lot of times you’re just the extension of the toxic person or the abuser. It’s almost like as if you switch on, as if you’re a light bulb and you switch on when they start talking to you and before that you don’t actually exist. Right? It’s like, “I’m talking to you so you should now be able to give everything to me”.
“I remember really well when my partner and I first got together and he had obviously grown up in a normal family. My mother would ask him, because he’s rather tall, to help replace a light bulb. He would answer, “Yeah. I’ve got time this afternoon.” She would get really upset and she would come to me and complain, “He never wants to help.” I would think to myself, “I think his answer was I’ve got time this afternoon.” To me that’s not no. He’s willing to help. He’s just not willing to drop everything he’s doing to change your light bulb right now in the middle of the day when you don’t need the light anyway. So what’s the rush? But she wasn’t used to having boundaries put to her.”
As a survivor it is difficult to internalize that most people don’t actually mind when you tell them what your boundary is. In fact they mind it more when you don’t and then blow up once they are about five miles over your boundary. Boundaries are hard to guess.
We all have experienced someone telling us what their boundary is. We say, “Oh, yeah.That’s reasonable. That’s fine.” But somehow we can’t turn that around and think that they will respond the same way to us setting a boundary.
For some reason there’s a lot of guilt and a lot of “maybe they won’t like me”.
People do tend to feel guilty if they grew up with a house with limited boundaries, or if only others in the house were allowed to have boundaries. You have got to understand that boundaries are normal. We’re setting expectations of how we wish to be treated and how we expect to be treated.
“I remember when we went for summer holidays, my dad would say, “It’s like this. Your mother does a lot of things for this family all the time when I’m at work. It’s the holidays, not yours, not mine, ours. That means more than ever your mother should do the least amount of work here possible because it’s her summer holidays as well. So I need volunteers for dishes. I need volunteers for cooking. That includes me, not your mother.” He was very clearly laying out expectations on the holidays for work. It was really nice because it was just said as opposed to my friends who would go, “My dad’s really grumpy on holidays.” “Why?” “I don’t know. He doesn’t talk.” So you’re supposed to just guess why he’s mad at people. It’s pretty tough to guess when you’re a six year old on holidays or you’re 14 or you’re 23 and you’re visiting on a holiday.”
Boundaries are healthy, boundaries are normal.
Because if we don’t set boundaries, we will burn out and may end up doing things that we don’t want to do.
“I worked in a place where one of our managers was asking us things to do things that I found questionable. Let’s stick with questionable. I said to him, “I’m not going to do that for you, because that doesn’t feel ethical to me.” So he went to another girl and she said yes and she did it. I says, “Why are you doing this for him? Because I know you feel the same way about it.” She goes, “But he’s my manager.” I said, “That doesn’t mean he can make you do things that you don’t think are ethical. If he wants that done then he can do it himself.”
Manager does not make you God. It does not automatically make you right. Especially when you get into tasks you don’t feel comfortable with. You’re absolutely allowed to say no.
Sometimes you have to interact with these people. Well, maybe we have to or we just feel we have to. Sometimes you just come across people who only want to take, take, take, take, take. It’s up to us to stop giving, because most of us – especially if we’ve been the target of an abuser before – are very much programmed to give, give, give, give, give, give.
In an attempt to get back to that approving stage, to that positive reinforcement which comes increasingly rare, we give more and more and more in order to get that fix.
Also, we need to understand sometimes the inability to set and maintain boundaries is several generations old. It may not necessarily have been a toxic or narcissistic person trying to run us hard. It is like someone who become addicted to alcohol and drugs. They may be the first one in generations, but when we look closer we may notice that four generations ago we had the same problem we just managed to keep it together up until now. Usually toxic behaviors or a lack of coping skills become increasingly worse with each passing generation.
A lot of times problems occur just because people haven’t been taught boundaries themselves. So, how are they going to teach their kids then?
“I have no idea what went on in my mother’s family of origins but I know. Especially now that I’ve got the knowledge that I have from my own healing journey. I can see a lot of the warning signs in that family as well. I’ve no idea what went on, but I know that she will have had a traumatic upbringing. Then it became my choice whether or not I wanted to suffer for her trauma because she’s evidently not wanted to heal the trauma and to learn these skills that we need in life.”
Boundaries Do Not Make You Unlovable
“At some point I lived in a flat in the same town as my parents. My mother would show up unannounced because it was only a couple of minutes down the road. I said to her one night when she arrived and I was already in my pajamas, “Well this isn’t, it’s not convenient just now and I would really appreciate it if you can just pick up the phone before you come over.” I was in my late 20s. I thought that was a reasonable request. What she started doing was to call me from the parking space in front of the building, rather than before she would leave her house. And now I couldn’t say that she was not respecting my boundary, but at the same time she wasn’t respecting my boundary.”
When we do decide to put down a boundary or even when we do decide to say, “Hey. You’ve just overstepped,” if we get a really nasty response, we stop doing it.
“I was working for a toxic boss and that situation got really out of hand. We were talking through solicitors, so this was definitely not a good situation for me to be in. My parents knew my boss as well because they had volunteered for the organization I worked for. At some point I’m driving with my mother somewhere and she tells me, “Oh, by the way I went by your office this week. I had to ask your boss if I could borrow a US flag. One of the pupils in my school has to do a presentation about the US and I thought that would be handy.” I was just shell-shocked because all I could think was how can you go to my boss – who I’m in legal proceeding against – to ask him for a favor? I told her that I thought that was very disrespectful and inappropriate. Her response was, “Well, at least my pupil’s happy.” Which told me everything I needed to know about her priorities I guess. Then on top of that when we got home about 20 minutes after that, my father came up to me and said, “Don’t you create a feud between us and your boss.” I don’t even think I responded. I think I just kind of stared at him in disbelief. This is a boss who would physically assault me in the workplace. This wasn’t a small, little issue I had with this guy.”
When you say to a toxic person that they have overstepped a boundary and you feel they have disrespected you, they will make it sound as if it is completely unreasonable for you to feel that way, or to think that way. Which is really sad in itself, but then on top of that they push all those buttons. The once they’ve been pushing your whole life. It starts with you are disrespectful and pushes on all those levels and basically comes down to: you are completely unlovable. There are a couple of steps in between that, but that’s what it comes down to. The feeling thar if they can’t even love you, then who would?
You’re so complicated, because you’re not allowing us to do what we want to do. Therefore you are unlovable.
How to Begin Building Boundaries
We have talked before about how you have allowed yourself to be defined by your family, your circumstances in life to date, and how would you like to rewrite that part of the book.
If there was a picture of you in a dictionary and only you could see that picture what are the thoughts, words, and phrases in that dictionary that’s private that build you up and give you boundaries and what are the thoughts, words, and phrases that give you no boundaries? Checking in on your inner-monologue is important, because it gives you excellent insight as to why boundaries are so hard. What feelings and memories are triggered?
“I was hired to coach a woman. The man that hired me said: “it’s like this she’s very, very smart. Smarter than me, that’s why we hired her. I’m just the symphony conductor. I’m not the first violinist in this orchestra that I run. But this woman won’t say ‘no’ to anything. We’re going to burn her out. If the garbage janitor came in and said could you take the garbage out for me this week I’m taking Tuesday off, she would do it. He had me come in to help her learn how to say no and it was the role playing that you alluded to earlier that made me remember. In the beginning I suggested role play. I wouldn’t normally touch her, but I said so I’m a new worker here. I come by and I start to massage your neck. What are you going to do? The responses could be A) you’re not my spouse, B) doesn’t that seem to be a little over friendly as you really don’t even know my first name, C) I think that’s a fire-able offense if you do it three times.” She couldn’t say the last one. She couldn’t say the first one. She couldn’t say the second one. We would just have her practice body language where she would shrug as if don’t touch me. Then it took a while, took a long time because somewhere along the line she didn’t feel she deserved to have any boundaries.”
That’s what it all comes down to. You don’t feel like you deserve to have any boundaries, don’t think you deserve to say no, and can’t see that’s maintaining boundaries is the ultimate act of self care.
When we’re recovering from toxic relationships we’re not used to setting boundaries. We’re not used to being allowed to set and maintain those boundaries. What can really help is to practice. Practice with people you really trust and that you can actually say too, “I’m not really good at this, but I really want to learn how to do this so I’m going to practice with you. I’m going to practice saying no.” This works at home, our family, our loved ones, our workplace…
Practice makes perfect, even with boundaries. Roleplay is one way to practice, as is working with your nearest and dearest. Another method that may work, is to practice by looking after dogs. It may sounds strange, but dogs are pretty black and white when it comes to boundaries. If I can do this today, then I can do it tomorrow and the day after. So, you practice consistent boundaries with a dog (and the bonus is that the dog will love you more for the boundaries, so that whole “not being liked feeling” is getting some healing too). Now, begin translating how you have to interact with the dog to how you interact with people. Maybe not to the level of telling your siblings not to eat stuff from the street, but it’s the principle of the matter. You will feel that you have every right to have boundaries with the dog, and now you begin to feel that you should also be able and allowed to have boundaries with people.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
When it comes to toxic people and abusers, you know the takers, takers, takers, they are not going to set boundaries. They’re not going to accept boundaries. The only thing that you have to decide is where your boundary is and how far you are willing to go with something and how much behavior you are willing to accept from someone.
Then it becomes how can I step back from that? How can I protect myself from that? Sometimes that’s really difficult and sometimes you can just find tricks as well.
“One of my sisters is very talkative on the phone. This sounds like a really weird complaint, but sometimes it was really annoying and you couldn’t get out of the call. She really claimed your time. One of the things that I started doing was figuring out when she had appointments and then if I needed to ask her something I would just call her like five or 10 minutes before she had to get out of the house.”
When we’re in a situation where we have to deal with these toxic people in our lives we have to find the tricks that help us maintain boundaries.
Stay safe and get the help and the support you need. Whether that’s law enforcement or going to an abuse support group. They can point you in the direction of shelters and everything that you may need to get out, especially if there’s a physically aggressive situation that you’re concerned about
At some point you may decide to go no contact. Now obviously no contact is just one big boundary because the toxic person can’t deal with small ones. Some people don’t respect the small boundaries and so you have to put one big boundary that clearly says I am no longer allowing you in my life. That’s a really, really big wall, but it’s sometimes necessary, and that’s not a selfish thing. It’s self care.
*This article is based on the podcast Mags and Michael recorded on How to Set and Maintain Healthy Boundaries.