Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist, Director of Clinical Training at Bay Path University, and an associate professor in Graduate Psychology. She has a private practice in Suffield, Connecticut, and over 25 years of experience providing psychotherapy, consultation, and supervision to medical and mental health professionals in addressing relationship and major life issues with a specialty in complex trauma and dissociative disorders.
In the past two months, I have learned more about the importance of boundaries than I have in my entire adult life. I used to keep adjusting my boundaries to fit each relationship. Now I understand that boundaries are about your relationship with yourself and your own values and that they shouldn't be so fluid.
I have gained so much understanding about this from the book Boundaries by clinical psychologists Henry Cloud, Ph.D., and John Townsend, Ph.D., as well as from counseling, prayer, meditation, and honoring who I am. Here's what I've learned, broken down for you into six incredibly simple steps:
1. Know this sad truth: no boundaries = little self-esteem.
This used to describe me. I shudder to think of that time, and it wasn't so long ago. The first step of change is admitting this. After all, what's the point of saying we want to grow if we're not going to be honest with ourselves about where we are now? I say this because many of people don't know what their boundaries are, when in fact they should roll off your tongue like the alphabet. Your boundaries are your values. Boundaries are representative of how much or little you respect yourself. Boundaries are your friend.
2. Decide what your core values are.
Who are you? What do you value? Figure out what, exactly, you're comfortable with and what you aren't. For example, I don't like to talk on the phone during work hours, so when I'm at work, I don't accept personal calls until after 5 p.m. In my relationship, I value and expect monogamy, quality time each week (so at least one date night a week), and 100% honesty at all times. Once you get clear on what matters most to you, then you can take the bigger step of communicating this to others.
This is key: Instead of creating your boundaries around a difficult relationship in your life, you must make your boundaries about you. For example, my boundaries with my limited phone time is about honoring the fact that I tend to get overstimulated due to a busy writing schedule. This boundary is to decrease my stress level and not about avoiding others' phone calls or distancing myself from loved ones.
3. You can't change others, so change yourself.
Gosh, we all want others to change, right? I mean, that's part of the human experience. We get into arguments with our spouses, hoping, wishing, demanding even that they stop being difficult. We get mad when our moms call us five times in a day. You want your co-worker—that one who is so negative—to treat you with more respect. The list is long.
We cannot change others. We are not responsible for what comes out of their mouth, the daily choices they make, or their reactions. The bottom line? Since you can't change other people, change how you deal with them. As Cloud says in Boundaries, "they may be motivated to change if their old ways no longer work."
4. Decide the consequences ahead of time.
So what do we do if anyone pushes our boundaries (because they will)? Decide what the consequences are. For example, if my boyfriend cheats on me after knowing monogamy is a boundary of mine, I leave the relationship. If a friend of mine calls me repeatedly during a time frame I had shared I would not to be able to talk, I simply do not answer the phone. The best way to figure out your own boundaries and consequences when people cross them is sitting quietly down with yourself and making this all about you. (Remember: Boundaries are about honoring your needs, not about judging other people's choices.)
Write it down.
5. Let your behavior, not your words, speak for you.
A new boundary of mine is that during work hours, I don't take personal calls. I am a person who thrives with structure. People have and will continue to test this boundary. What I don't do is present them with an ultimatum. ("If you call me again during the workday, I absolutely will not be speaking to you.")
You present your boundaries clearly to people and then let your behavior do the talking. So, if anyone calls me continuously during the day, and they know my boundary, I simply do not pick up the phone until after 5 p.m. People will test, push, and disrespect your limits. You'll know you're getting healthier when this doesn't get an emotional reaction out of you. When your boundaries are your core beliefs, you will not get riled up if you are tested.
6. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
The biggest part of boundaries is how clearly you communicate them. You can have the most healthy set of boundaries on the planet, but if you do not communicate them clearly, you are going to create some really confusing relationships, both for you and everyone else involved.
One way to quickly get someone to question your character or authenticity? Say one thing and do another. Sometimes we're afraid to confront others with truth in love or relationships. We're afraid to tell people what we really want, to admit that we hate going to certain restaurants or have trouble spending time with a friend's toxic cousin or hate when a boss dumps deadlines on us at 6 p.m. on a Friday. We conceal our true feelings because we're scared of people's reactions. The more you ground yourself with your boundaries and values, the more you'll be able to be very clear in your communication.
Get ready for your life to change—because it will.
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