One of the most difficult challenges that people face in life is knowing how to create healthy personal boundaries. Personal boundaries are a set of principles that guide one’s interactions with oneself and with others. Boundaries place reasonable limits on the commitments and personal resources an individual makes to himself as well as to others. Healthy personal boundaries are very important because they help us stay safe, protect us from mental or physical harm, and help us prevent overwhelm and stress in our lives. They also allow us to make sure that we have what we need and take time to care for ourselves.
Why are healthy personal boundaries important and necessary for people who want to improve their physical health?
Imagine that you are on vacation with your family, walking on the beach. You are having a wonderful time, frolicking, joking, and laughing. All the sudden, a lion jumps out at you and ROARS at the top of his lungs! How would you respond? How would you feel?
My assumption is that you would freeze, tense up, and look at the threat. Your heart will start racing as adrenaline pumps through your veins! Will you run? Will you hide? Will you attack the lion and try to chase him off?
In our society, we tend to separate the way we think about the health of our physical bodies from our minds and relationships. We talk about health in terms of exercise and nutrition, and sometimes stress reduction. However, I like to view health from a holistic perspective. You see, our bodies are always taking in information through our senses, and body decodes the “data” into instructions on how to respond to the environment that we are in. Much in the same way that eating healthy fruits and vegetables brings positive, healthy energy that rejuvenates our body’s energy and repairs tissues and cells, our relationships also nourish our mind and body by adding and reducing stress and anxiety, creating positive and negative emotional states within us, and causing our body to respond to feelings of safety and threat.
In a previous post, I discussed that there are essentially two driving states in which all organisms operate. These states are described as the fear response, also called the “fight or flight response” and the appetitive state, or a state of creativity and curiosity. When we are in relationships in which we do not feel safe, loved, and free to be ourselves, we will be spending much of our time in the emotionally reactive, “fight or flight” state. This means that your guard will constantly be up, your mind will be on high alert looking for potential threats, like the person facing the lion in the story. Imagine yourself facing a hungry lion. Will you be able to think about your progress towards your health goals, or creating art, or kissing your loved ones and children, or enjoying a delicious meal when there is a lion staring you down? OF COURSE NOT! Well, being in relationships with others who cause you emotional harm has the same effect on your health. When you are in environments where you don’t feel safe emotionally, you will be acting out of a fear response. It is impossible to engage one’s creativity, openness, and curiosity when in an environment that is perceived as unsafe.
Therefore, creating healthy boundaries is important for everyone! We simply cannot move forward towards our health goals to lose weight, feel better, and gain strength if we do not have the ability to create a safe space for ourselves to let down our guard and get into the spirit of creativity.
How can we create healthy personal boundaries?
- Defining and developing your sense of self. For us to create a set of healthy boundaries, we must know what it is we are trying to protect! In addition, it is so important that we learn to love our developing identity, because love is what makes the hard work of developing healthy boundaries feel worth the effort! Self-reflection time is so valuable! In this stage, it is critical to understand the following: ‘I am the person who defines who I am. No one else can tell me who, what, or how to be. No one’s opinion of me defines who I really am.’ We must divorce our true self-identity from what we think others might see. What other people think does not matter! As a wise counselor once said to me, “The only thing that matters is what you create on your side of the street. Don’t worry about your neighbor’s side or how he perceives your side, that’s his own business.” In addition, we must know that as we age, our sense of self and identity will grow and change, just like a tree. Imagine a tiny acorn being planted into fertile soil. For that tiny acorn to sprout and grow into a mighty oak tree, it needs to be protected from the harsh effects of the elements around it. And in the same vein, the seedling also needs to be rooted into the very same environment and exposed to the sunshine, and the rain to grow into a big, strong tree. I am a big fan of journaling as a way to explore and express our identities. No matter how old or what stage of life we are in, there is always more to learn and grow. Here are a few journaling prompt questions to help you more deeply get to know your own sense of identity.
- Who am I today? Who have I been before? Who will I become?
- How is my identity different from how others may imagine me?
- What feelings and thoughts do I have about the way others see me? How will I let this go so that I can create my own identity?
- How would I like to describe myself (e.g. kind, generous, loving, strong, grateful, brave, etc.) in my life right now?
- At the end of my life, what would I want to look back on to see? What will be really important to leave behind as a legacy? What memories will I be proud to have created? How do I want my future generations to remember me?
- How can I learn to love myself more today? Within the next 3 months? Within the next 3 years?
- Know your personal rights. Here is an example list of your rights as a person! You have the right to determine the course of your own life. You have the right to feel safe and free from harm in your life. You have the right to say ‘no’ to anyone for any reason at any time. You have the right to feel loved, safe, and free to make choices for yourself. You have the right to make mistakes! You have the right to feel good about yourself. What other rights would you add to this list? When you know and understand your personal bill of rights, then you will be able to set standards for how you want to be treated in relationships with other people. Also, you will be able to recognize and respect the rights of other people in their own lives.
- Develop a list of Non-negotiables. Develop a list of policies that protect your personal rights and self-identity, your resources, your emotions, your thoughts, and whatever is most important to you. This is your list of non-negotiables. I encourage you to use the following questions as a Journaling prompt:
- How do you want people to treat you in relationships?
- What is acceptable behavior and what is unacceptable behavior?
- Apply the non-negotiables to yourself. Here is a journal prompt activity to help you understand how what goes on in your mind affects you. Please take the time to journal about these very important questions!
- What hurtful names and labels do you hear yourself using towards yourself?
- What are the effects of your harsh and judgmental thoughts on your identity?
- How might these negative thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes affect your progress towards your goals?
- Letting go of old habits. It is crucial that we realize that our old habits of violating our own boundaries by using name-calling and negative thoughts to motivate ourselves through shame will not work to create the safe space that fosters our developing identity. This means that we must let go of what’s no longer serving us! Sometimes creating a ritual for letting go can really work to give us closure in saying goodbye to old habits. You can be as formal or informal as you want to be, it works the same way. One idea is to write down your old thoughts and attitudes on a piece of paper and then tear it up or (safely) burn it while also speaking a eulogy to the old habit. You could also create a ritual of silently noticing your old thought, exhale as you imagine it outside of yourself, nod to it, and inhale as you recall a new, more positive thought which replaces the old one. Please note that replacing old habits is a commitment, and you will need to continually work towards creating new patterns of behavior.
- An example eulogy could be “My dear thought that ‘I am not good enough’ used to serve me by keeping me ashamed and I would do anything to prove to myself that this thought was wrong. However, I have no need for this thought anymore because I have created new, and positive thoughts that help me act more authentically. Goodbye, old friend. Rest in peace.”
- Letting go of old relationships. We must understand that no one has the right to have a place in our lives if we do not allow it. Applying this wisdom is hard to do, especially when it involves family. This takes a lot of earnest contemplation, and I encourage you to take your time when making your decisions about who you want to let go of in your life. The way I see it, YOU are on the throne of your life. YOU decide how you invest your resources, money, time, effort, energy, thoughts, and emotions. These things belong to YOU, alone!
- Here’s a little affirmation meditation for you to contemplate. Say this with me aloud each day: “My time belongs to me. My money belongs to me. My love belongs to me. My energy belongs to me. My food choices belong to me. My resources belong to me. No matter how much I love another person, no one is entitled to my resources. I may give of my own free will and generosity, but ultimately, I am responsible for how I spend my life and resources. “
- Communicate your boundaries assertively. Now that you know more about why boundaries are important, and developing your sense of identity, it’s time to figure out how to implement your boundaries. I mentioned earlier that we need to create standards about acceptable behavior with regards to how people treat us. I want to also acknowledge that we also must respect and support other people’s rights. The best way to ensure that you are respected and that you are respecting others is to use assertive communication. The heart of assertive communication is that we take responsibility for our own thoughts, emotions, words, and actions while we also expect other people to be responsible for their own behaviors as well. Assertive communication protects and promotes everyone’s rights in relationships, because you will speak only for yourself, and you will take responsibility only for your own actions and expectations.
- You can know that you are being assertive when you are conveying messages that focus on your own experience, feelings, thoughts, and needs. A great way to construct your message is to use ‘I-statements.’ For example, “I am disappointed because I missed seeing you and I need to talk to you about our arrangement.”
- Compare this to aggressive communication which often centers around ‘you messages’: “You are frustrating me because you are avoiding me, and you know that we need to talk about our arrangement.”
- Also, compare the previous messages to passive communication, which takes on all the responsibility to minimize disruption in the relationship: “I’m sorry that I messed up the arrangement, it’s all my fault. I am useless! How can I fix this?”
- I encourage you to take some time to journal about your assertive communication, and to practice using I-statements before you actually use them with other people.
Finally, realize that communicating your boundaries assertively is an art form. It will take time and practice. Remember, you have the right to make mistakes! What is truly important is that you continually bring yourself back to the intention to communicate your message with love and respect for both yourself and the other person. You are not responsible for the way another person chooses to respond to what you say. Understanding what is and is not your responsibility is the essence of using healthy boundaries. And setting up healthy boundaries ensures that you will create and protect your space from which you will develop your special, and unique self-identity.
Keep loving yourselves, friends. Keep moving towards your dreams.
Stop by and follow the Intuit Fit Hanna discussion group on Facebook where we are building a community of positivity, motivation, and encouragement for those who are trying to improve their health. We’d love to hear your unique perspective from your health journey! ❤
Hanna is a blogger, yogi, foodie, barista, and a student of life. She has a background in studying psychology and counseling. Right now, she is eagerly working towards becoming a certified health coach. She will take her examination for certification in APRIL 2017!