Ultimately, maintaining healthy boundaries is a task that we have to persist with throughout our lives. As we discover new and better ways to communicate, develop new values and priorities, or enter relationships with different sets of people, the way we enforce our boundaries must adapt. Though maintaining healthy boundaries can sometimes come with conflict and unpleasantness, the many benefits outweigh these minor cons.
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Remember, there is no rule book. If someone states a boundary, accept it. You don’t have to approve it, understand it, endorse it, or share it as your own. It’s theirs. Become curious what their boundary means to them, rather than trying to verify it or decide whether it’s “right” or whether they’re allowed to have it.
Respect uniqueness. Try to honor that every person you meet has different ideas, thoughts, longings, fears, beliefs, and values, and that all of these are not threats to you.
Learn to listen. Forget about yourself for a moment and simply become curious about what it’s like to be the other person—don’t see their world through your eyes, see their world through their eyes. What are their needs? What do they value and why?
Don’t assume. Other people’s perceptions, preferences, and interpretations may be very different from yours. They’re not wrong, just different. Can you understand this difference rather than trying to control it?
Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. Err on the side of caution and wait to be invited in closer, or else ask permission before taking a step. Subtle body language, as well as changes in voice and eye contact, can let you know if your advances are welcome or not.
Be aware that some people may come from very different cultural backgrounds or have profoundly different experiences (think about those with autism, language barriers, learning and developmental disorders, speech impediments, or mental health issues). Practice extra tact since you cannot assume what will be welcome and what won’t be. When in doubt, you can always respectfully ask.
If you find yourself stepping over barriers a little too often, try to understand what is compelling you to do so. Do you have a misplaced need to “help” others? Think about whether this is really a control issue, which is, in itself, nothing more than fear.
People who invade the boundaries of others may have faulty beliefs about intimacy and how they can win love, respect, or attention from others. You may have grown up in a household where you were frequently blamed for other people’s problems—but you also enjoyed the dubious honor of being able to blame them the next day for yours! This may have convinced you that a loving relationship is a trade, or two people mutually keeping one another hostage—“I allow you to use me if I get to use you.” If this sounds familiar, you may need to work on how to find intimacy with people while still respecting their individuality.
As you learn to say “no,” you may become more and more comfortable with other people doing the same. This doesn’t threaten the closeness between you—in fact, it strengthens it.
The ultimate marker of a close relationship is when both of you are comfortable expressing any issues you might have with each other and both can expect a peaceful resolution to them. It’s OK to compromise a little to find that healthy balance between your needs and someone else’s—all relationships are give-and-take. But make sure it’s truly balanced, i.e. you can give help when it’s wanted, and you can accept help when you need it. You can demand respect, but also know how to give it. You are entitled to people honoring your boundaries, and you are also happy to honor other people’s.
Healthy boundaries are not something we merely tack onto a finished and completed life, like building a fence around a forest. Rather, boundaries emerge naturally and organically from the way we are and the beliefs we hold about ourselves. They are an expression of everything we are. Our boundaries can be thought of as the tools we use to negotiate meaningful and respectful connections with others—when our external relationships aren’t healthy, it’s because our internal ones aren’t, either.
When we heal our boundaries, we are really healing our own sense of self-worth and our identity. We are digging deep to understand what we can give to this world and what we’d like to receive from it. If this balance is healthy, we can set ourselves up to live in a state of happy, dynamic equilibrium. Within ourselves and with our dealings with others, we can take steps to make the lines between us and the world clearer, more conscious, and better able to serve us and our unique needs.
The perfect boundary is a paradox: in knowing ourselves deeply, we allow ourselves to more deeply know others; in strengthening and defending our vulnerability, we practice trusting others; by putting ourselves first, we understand what it means to be selfless. In drawing a bright, clear line between two things, we magically make it so much easier for them to be together.
Living a life with healthy boundaries takes a lifetime of work because we are constantly learning things about ourselves and others. We also change as people, prioritize different things over time, and grasp new and better ways to communicate in our social interactions. It can be daunting to have this responsibility thrust upon you.
Recognizing that you are in control of most, if not all, outcomes that you experience on a day-to-day basis is a monumental task for someone who hasn’t done so already. Yet, once we learn the right way to go about setting and enforcing boundaries, it makes us truly free to determine our fate and happiness for ourselves.