One of the skills I’m often asked to work on with clients or speak about in groups is setting boundaries. For many of us, we have never had boundaries modelled to us, or explicitly been shown how to set and maintain them, or why we need them.
I think the simplest way to define a boundary is what’s ok for me, and what’s not ok for me. Possibly deceptively simple, as to understand what is ok for me, I have to be able to not only put myself first, I have to be able to recognise and honour the felt sense of my own limitations.
Let me unpack these ideas a little more using a neurobiological and trauma-informed lens. As humans, we are neurobiologically hard-wired for connection. We yearn to be with other people, and more broadly other mammals (which is why we love our pets so much) whose nervous systems we can co-regulate with.
This need for kinship and connection is an evolutionary legacy of our nervous systems and harks back to the mechanism for not only safety in groups, but information, reproduction and community, all of the things that give us meaning and ensure basic survival.
While we are living thoroughly contemporary lives now, we are much more separated from people than ever before. We may have evolved into slick individuated existences, but our nervous system is still running on its old systems, looking for safety. Our drive to connect and form relationship gives us a bias to please.
If we add in any kind of rupture to our childhood attachment, the drive can be much stronger to show we deserve to stay in the safety of human community. This of course is a largely unconscious drive, as our nervous systems are in service to safety and our behaviour reflects that drive.
When a boundary is required, we may feel the competing and conflicting emotions of simultaneously wanting to say no, and the pull to say yes, so as not to potentially damage the relationship and be further isolated. While our nervous systems are a driving force, they are shaped by our collective life experience, especially the traumas we have encountered from pre-birth to now.
Our systems may be working overtime to keep us safe and bypassing the reality of the here and now in favour of the non-linear response to past traumatic memory. This is how we may find ourselves with very porous boundaries, saying yes to everything, desperately wishing we had said no, being angry, resentful, overwhelmed and exhausted – but keeping on with our patterns.
What is the remedy to this silent battle of system and safety vs rest and recovery? In a healthy, well-regulated system we move smoothly from states of happiness and connection to periods of energy and excitement into rest, digest and sleep. In a nervous system that is working hard for safety and survival, this flow is disrupted. One of the features of an over-vigilant nervous system is the propensity to be caught in an over-active sympathetic nervous system, cogs whirring at high gear, adrenals cranked on, and the much needed rest and recovery only happening in a collapse or exhaustion – if at all.
You can’t say a joyful yes without being able to say a clear no. The practice of boundary setting is just that – a practice. We have to learn to be able to override the mechanisms of our autonomic nervous systems when we can perceive that the danger we are facing is from ourselves rather than an external threat.
If we haven’t had good boundaries modelled as we were growing up, and we are surrounded by others who are simultaneously unbounded, and are happy to take everything we can give them if there is commercial/emotional gain to be made, it is often very uncomfortable to begin to put boundaries in place for ourselves. Discomfort, however, is a necessary gateway to growth and discovery.
I’ve witnessed in my clients boundary setting surprisingly turn out to be a place of immense empowerment – for them and others. When you set a boundary, the person you are setting it with automatically gets their own boundary, a line in the sand they may never have known they were missing. When a boundary is clear, no one is working on assumptions anymore. This is what is ok for me, this is what’s not ok for me.
Boundaries, while they sound rigid, are fluid and agile. What is ok for you today may not be ok for you next week. And that’s ok too. Deliver your boundaries with kindness and compassion, to yourself and others. Don’t feel the need to excessively explain or justify your reasons, just a firm, kind, polite ‘no, I can’t, no thank you, no not today’ delivered with a smile is all that is required. You can follow up with a genuine question as to what you can put down in order to be able to pick something else up if that is a better option for clarity.
Finding our autonomy, feeling what it is like to establish safe, clear boundaries can be a revelation. When we are pleasing others to feel safe, we are ironically very unsafe. When we are caring for ourselves, knowing what is right for us, what is ok, what meets our personal values, we are standing in our power and creating an environment that allows our nervous systems to have a chance at repair and re-regulation.
Practice observing your felt sense of what is ok and not ok for you. Practice saying no and yes and meaning both of them. Stay calm and firm in your resolve when you make these statements. Hit some low-stakes goals first and then move to more difficult areas of your life, practice self-compassion and notice when you are racked with remorse and fear after saying no and setting a boundary.
Remind yourself that you are making your life stronger and safer and more expansive for you – and those around you.