Understanding the meaning of healthy boundaries (and learning to maintain them in your life) is simple. But not so easy.
For one, setting healthy boundaries involves thinking more about your needs and less about what invitations and responsibilities you'll accept.
Once upon a time, I thought having healthy boundaries with others exclusively meant saying "no." No, I don't want to chair that meeting. No I don't want to organize the party. No, I don't want my house guest to stay another week.
Let's be clear: direct, honest assertions of your needs — even in the form of refusals like these — 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 whose default is taking on everyone else's "stuff" (and/or who have otherwise unhealthy behaviors around boundaries), the quest to get healthier and happier often involves the mercy of others. What do I mean by that? Well, if you are predisposed to feeling things for others, there is also a good chance that you are letting your "stuff" out into the ether in a way that is perpetuating the unhealthy dynamics.
Let's say eating ice cream used to feel like a luscious way to end the day, but lately seems like a sad compulsion. You tell your husband, "None for me tonight, please" and he replies, "Let's see how long you last this time" (not actually meaning to be insensitive or unsupportive). If you have weak boundaries, his words may feel like a fast-acting, full-torso vice grip. And perhaps later, when he's engrossed in sports, you quietly walk into the kitchen and finish what remains of the ice cream so fast you barely even taste it.
Having strong boundaries means exercising control over what ideas and opinions we take in, and which we disregard. When we're trying to implement and ground ourselves in healthier (and more sustainable!) habits, it means filtering out the messages, jokes, and judgments that hurt without helping, or that make us want to quit, or that make us want to run and hide.
There are few unarguable facts, but one of them is that we're constantly bombarded with other people's opinions. Because of this, 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 going to 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. When we assume we're being judged by other people, that is nothing more than a self-sabotaging thought. 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 judgment 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, partner or family member says something that offends you or just ruffles your feathers a bit, try to catch it before it hits. These words aren't you or even part of you. So consider the other person and his/her words with compassion, and yet practice tossing their words aside regardless.
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 taking it on and letting it sabotage us, that's when we start to get happily grounded in healthier habits.