Connected and Protected: Understanding Boundaries

Establishing healthy boundaries in relationships is key to loving well. The problem, however, is that many of us might not have learned how to do this. We often fall into 3 categories in our relationships when it comes to boundaries. Which one of these sounds like you?

Overinvolved Olivia:

  • I often feel like I give in and acquiesce in order to please others. 
  • I tend to say “yes” when I really want to say “no.” 
  • I feel like I’m giving too much in my relationships — like I’m the one doing most of the work.
  • I often feel taken advantage of.
  • I sometimes feel voiceless, like I can’t express my own needs or desires.
  • I feel manipulated in my relationships at times.
  • I tend to feel responsible for other people’s wellbeing.

Distant David:

  • I find it difficult to express what I want and need in a relationship.
  • People sometimes experience me as guarded or intimidating.
  • I am often afraid to let people in for fear of being hurt.
  • Physical and/or emotional closeness makes me uncomfortable.
  • I tend to hold people at a distance in order to protect myself; it is just difficult for me to trust others.
  • If I’m honest with myself, I have a lot of “rules” in my relationships.
  • I don’t like to receive feedback from others.

Balanced Bailey:

  • Although I don’t like disappointing others, I feel okay doing so in order to honestly communicate my needs.
  • My motto is “clear is kind.”
  • I prioritize honesty, understanding, and respect in disagreements.
  • I am willing to negotiate and renegotiate needs in a relationship.
  • I want to feel heard and valued, but it is also important to me that the other person feels heard and valued.
  • I feel free to be vulnerable and express my emotions in my closest relationships.
  • I often walk away from difficult conversations feeling empowered and with clarity on the situation.

If you most closely related to Overinvolved Olivia, you may experience ENMESHED boundaries. This means that you feel connected to others, but become dependent on them — your feelings of self-worth get wrapped up in their responses, opinions, and actions, so you lose a bit of yourself. In other words, in your relationships, you feel “connected but not protected.” In your search for relational security, you take on responsibility that is not yours and strive to earn the other’s approval. For example, you say “I’m sorry” frequently even though there is nothing you did wrong. This tendency may be experienced as “absorbing” or “intruding” by others, but you really just believe you’re trying to help!

If Distant David resonated with you, you may experience your boundaries as DISENGAGED. You keep others at a distance, nervous to let them in. You are worried and fearful of being hurt or feeling the sting of having your vulnerability used against you; this might be based on painful past experiences. So you withhold emotionally and remain closed-off from others. You may even feel edgy and defensive, often on-guard against a potential attack — and this can make you feel resentful. You tend to push people away, but really you are just looking out for your own safety. So at the end of the day, you feel “protected but not connected” in your relationships. 

If Balanced Bailey was your person, nice work; you have HEALTHY boundaries! This is amazing and I’m proud of you, friend! You understand the property line between “me” and “you” and have struck a delicate balance between safe self-disclosure and standing firm in your “no.” In your relationships, you feel “connected and protected” (we call this “differentiation” in my field!). You can express your emotions, opinions, and needs with others and strive to accept, respect, and understand theirs. Your closest relationships are likely defined by reciprocity — each person gives and receives in roughly equal amounts. You know when you are over-extending yourself and when you need to step up a bit more (you care about others’ feedback!), and take action to show up boldly and bravely for those you love. None of us do this perfectly, but we can all strive to be more like Balanced Bailey!

Regardless of where you are in your boundaries journey, I’d like to leave you with an encouragement and a challenge: 

Overinvolved Olivia: Remind yourself that “clear is kind” and self-care is important! In other words, saying “no” is healthy, so take the time to practice (maybe even rehearse with a safe person!) saying “no.” I encourage my clients struggling with enmeshed boundaries to have a few “back pocket” phrases they can pull out when they need to set boundaries in their relationships. Here’s a few:

“Oh, that actually doesn’t work for me.”

“Unfortunately I will not be able to make it.”

“I don’t feel comfortable with that.”

Distant David: Take a risk and say “yes!” to someone who is safe. Be vulnerable with a trusted friend, family member, or your significant other. Put words to how you’re feeling and what you need from your relationship. For someone with disengaged boundaries, this can be scary, but it’s worth the increased emotional intimacy it creates. Here’s some sentence starters:

“I feel most comfortable when…”

“It makes me feel vulnerable when…”

“In order to experience trust, I need…”

Balanced Bailey: Keep up the good work! Reflect on what boundaries you have previously set and be willing to renegotiate them. Your boundaries should have a healthy amount of flexibility in order to adapt to ever-evolving and growing relationships. Here are a couple check in questions to ask yourself: 

Have things changed since I communicated this boundary?

Are both people’s needs still being met? 

Does this boundary make me feel both connected and protected?

Here’s to creating healthy boundaries and feeling both connected and protected in all of your relationships — even when the going gets tough. May you continue to love boldly and bravely!

P.S. Download and share this helpful chart to remind yourself to strive for HEALTHY boundaries, knowing that healthy boundaries = healthy relationships = healthy YOU!

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