How to Set Boundaries for Mental Health and Freedom

Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Terri Cole about the nature of personal boundaries, their importance and how to establish and maintain them.  Terri is the author of the book, Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (finally) Live FreeIn writing the book Terri drew on her own personal experiences, especially as a child, and her work with clients as a psychotherapist.  She found that her own “need to please” created “dysfunctional boundaries” and observed that many of her client’s problems stemmed from the inability to establish “healthy boundaries”.

Our “boundary blueprint”

Terri maintains that we each have a “boundary blueprint”, imprinted by the key influencers in our life, including our parents.  She suggests that over time we model ourselves on the behaviour and responses of our parents and key influencers, so that we can end up with an approach to setting boundaries that is ineffectual and even mentally harmful.  Once we have been able to master the skill of establishing boundaries, we can free ourselves from the hold of habituated responses – which are often designed to avoid conflict, gain approval or maintain the “peace”.  As Terri points out, our habituated responses typically involve not being truthful about our own desires and needs.

Becoming a “boundary boss”

The concept of “boundary boss” is not a harsh or unkind approach as the name might suggest but essentially entails being kind to ourselves and others through telling the truth (while leaving room to negotiate about desires and needs).  Terri maintains that we all have a “boundary bill of rights” but often fail to understand those rights or know how to assert them.  She makes herself incredibly vulnerable by telling stories about her own experience and dysfunctional boundaries, including her failure to assert her wishes with clinicians when  diagnosed with cancer.

Terri maintains that becoming a “boundary boss” rests on five key pillars – (1) self-awareness, (2) self-knowledge, (3) self-acceptance, (4) self-compassion, and (5) self-mastery (incorporating self-love as well as “self-celebration”).  Throughout her book, she offers exercises and powerful reflections to help the reader build these pillars and move progressively towards “speaking their truth”.   Terri cautions, though, that the transformation involves one step at a time, not quantum leaps.   It initially involves a very honest exploration of the boundaries we have in place in our relationships – and an understanding of where are boundaries are “loose or “rigid”.  Her book is very much about self-exploration to determine a better way to respond to our interpersonal challenges.

Speaking truthfully

At the heart of establishing and enforcing boundaries is speaking truthfully from an enlightened self-knowledge.  It means having the courage to present ourselves as we are, not as we think people want us to be.  Terri stresses that it also entails having the courage to acknowledge other people’s rights and their right to decline or say “no”, as well as developing the skill to say “no” ourselves in appropriate circumstances.  She even offers very clear guidelines on how to say “no” and how to modify your response depending on the interpersonal context (e.g., interacting with a stranger versus with an intimate partner).

Terri suggests that many of the occasions where we do not speak our truth result in resentment or anger, e.g., where we feel that some things in our relationship are not equitable, or that we are being taken for granted or where our emotional needs are not being met.  These strong emotions can be indicative of our failure to establish our boundaries.   Terri suggests that if we want to look at improving our relationships, we need first to look at ourselves-in-relationship and how we are presenting ourselves.  As she asserts, “change begins with us’, with understanding our inner landscape and acting on our insights.

Reflection

Terri’s book is penetrating and exposing – it exposes our behaviour patterns and our behaviour drivers.  She does this kindly by first sharing her own transparency and vulnerability.  However, Terri does not leave us exposed but offers ways to develop the skills to understand ourselves and assert our desires and needs in a kind and compassionate way.

She offers practical, conversational starters to help us move beyond our habituated behaviour.  It is difficult to hear her speak or read her book without feeling exposed but, at the same time, feeling highly supported to begin the journey of personal transformation by becoming our own “boundary boss”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection, and self-knowledge exercises, we can progressively develop the necessary self-awareness, self-mastery, self-acceptance, self-compassion and self-forgiveness, to establish our boundaries and have the courage to assert them in a mindful and kind way.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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