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Many of us struggle to set and enforce healthy boundaries.
This is particularly common for empaths, highly sensitives, and those suffering from codependency, because we have not developed a strong sense of self. Often, we don’t know what our needs are because we are used to putting other people’s needs first.
Having a strong sense of self means that we are clear on what we enjoy, on what we don’t like, on our values and our preferences, and we easily and openly speak our truth, regardless of what others might think. This is the essence of authenticity. If we don’t know who we are, then how can we show others how to treat us? How can we draw a line signalling what is okay and what isn’t?
Another reason for having loose boundaries is because many of us grew up in emotionally or physically abusive family environments. We learned to say “yes” in order to stay safe or please our caregivers in an attempt to get our needs met. This mostly did not happen, and we grew up feeling like our needs and emotions didn’t matter.
This behavioural pattern and the conclusions (which essentially are limiting beliefs) that we formed about ourselves and the world continue in adulthood. This way of relating has become the default state and what feels familiar to us. So for this reason, when we think of setting a boundary or voicing our needs, we get paralyzed by feelings of discomfort and even fear. The root cause of the fear is fear of rejection and abandonment.
As empaths, we also want to keep everyone happy because we tend to derive our self-worth from this. If someone is disappointed, we experience their emotions in our bodies, and again, we want to avoid feeling discomfort at all costs.
Finally, connected to this, is a deep-rooted fear of conflict. Our nervous systems will go into fight-or-flight, and the emotions will be too intense to navigate, so instead we stay small as a way to stay “safe.”
Now it is up to us to reprogram this pattern and realize that setting boundaries is an act of self-love. Realizing that our needs and emotions are valid. Believing that we do indeed deserve to be treated with respect and that letting another person know how to love us, is the most compassionate thing we can do.
Boundaries are also an act of vulnerability, and vulnerability is the foundation for deep and meaningful relationships. People who react to you setting boundaries are those who took advantage of you not having any.
Let’s take a hypothetical scenario: you are in a relationship and your partner is frustrated about certain things, but does not voice them. Instead, the suppressed emotions turn into silent anger and resentment. You can feel this but have no idea why. This makes you second-guess yourself. You start to feel insecure about the relationship and overanalyze your every move so that you can get to the bottom of all this.
Now what would you prefer? That your partner remains silent, or that he/she expresses what is going on? I will assume the latter. When we openly communicate about things and let the other person know what is okay and what isn’t, we create the foundation necessary to cultivate a healthy and meaningful relationship.
If we aren’t aware of issues, frustrations, and underlying needs, then we most definitely can’t do anything to address them. Also, if we set boundaries and the other person reacts or makes it clear that they can’t respect them, then it’s up to us to decide if this is a deal-breaker or not.
Any way you choose to see things, boundaries create transparency and actually deeper intimacy—exactly because they entail being vulnerable.
As Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is having the courage to show up and be seen.” To express our fears, and needs, and frustrations. To lower our masks and show the other who we are, both dark and light. And this can be terrifying, because what if the other rejects us?
Fear of rejection—another core reason why we are afraid of setting boundaries.
Personally, I don’t believe in rejection; I merely think it is redirection toward where we are meant to be. When we show up 100 percent as ourselves and someone does not like it, or does not want us in their lives anymore, great. We have clarity. We don’t have to spend our energy and time futilely. We know that this person is not a good fit for us, and we can instead create space for more aligned connections to come in.
A phrase I came by recently, which I really like, is: “Let the universe take the trash out” (anonymous). And by being yourself, by honoring your values and setting boundaries, you will enable the universe to do exactly that. You’ve got this.
3 Exercises to Start Setting Healthy Boundaries
Here are some of my favorite exercises that I use with my clients to help them develop a stronger sense of self and start learning (and feel deserving) of setting healthy and firm boundaries:
Exercise 1: Identifying and Honoring Personal Needs
Put a daily reminder on your phone saying, “How do I feel?” “What do I need?” When it pops up, take a moment to tune into your body, identify how you are feeling, and honour that need. For example, if you are stressed, do some deep breathing; if you are tired, take a break or a nap.
If we don’t know what we want and need, how can we communicate this to others and let them know how we want to be treated and loved? This exercise will definitely help with this.
The process of identifying and honouring personal needs is also part of what is called “reparenting.” Reparenting is the process of giving ourselves what our parents weren’t able to. In the long-run, this practise helps to heal our wounded inner child, and I personally see it as the foundation of self-love.
Exercise 2: Identifying and Honoring Personal Preferences
Next time someone asks you for your preference, make a choice. Maybe they ask, “Do you feel like Italian or Greek today?” Instead of saying, “Anything, I’m easy!” force yourself to make a choice. Even if your preference is minimal toward a certain option.
This exercise will help you to tune into your preferences and rewire the default mechanism of always saying, “Yes.” It might feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Exercise 3: Getting to Know What You Like
Write down 20 things you enjoy (could be something as simple as relaxing on the couch with your favourite hobby or book). When you know what you like (and what you don’t), then it’s easier to set boundaries. This exercise will also help you to create a stronger sense of self and to become more authentic, since you will have a clearer picture of who you are and what truly makes you happy.
Let me know how you get along with these exercises, and I will personally respond.