Have you ever thought about street signs and the purpose that they serve? Some signs give us information about how we should behave in certain environments, others warn us of impending danger, still others let us know what is strictly forbidden. Signs serve to illustrate rules and regulations of a given society with the purpose of keeping order and maintaining the safety and security of the population.
Now, what does that have to do with us?!
Just as street signs tell us how to behave in public, setting our own personal boundaries lets the people that we are in relationship with know about OUR rules and limits. In explicitly defining what we like and don‘t like or where others need to pay special attention to our needs, we are giving them vital information that will keep them from overstepping and hurting us (or themselves!).
Let‘s take a look at several types of „signs“:
Informational: Just as a picnic table signals us that there‘s a spot up ahead for us to eat lunch, we can also provide people with information about ourselves.
- To your partner: „Hey, sweetheart, I had a really busy day today and just need a little downtime before we talk about that issue.“
- To your boss: „If I seem distracted in the meeting, it‘s simply because I‘m not feeling very well today, but I really don‘t want to miss anything.“
Attention: Just as a yield sign informs us that we need to slow down and wait for oncoming traffic, we can also give people heads up when we need more time.
- To your best friend: „I know you need me to make a decision on the dresses for the wedding, but I have a major deadline at work and need just a bit more time. Is that okay?“
- To your partner: „I know you are ready to buy the house, but I still feel uneasy about the financing. Can we talk to another banker before making the final decision?“
Boundary: Property lines signal that one person‘s property stops and another one‘s begins. We as people also have „property lines,“ and we can show people „where we start and where we stop“ in various ways:
- To an acquaintance: „I know you‘d really like to tell me that story about our neighbor, but I really don‘t like to talk about others when they are not around.“
- To your partner: „Just because you don‘t have a problem with alcohol, doesn‘t mean that I don‘t have a problem with it. It‘s really hard for me to find a stopping point, so I‘d rather not start drinking.“
If/When: These kinds of signs warn us of the consequences of taking certain (forbidden) actions, often illustrating the harm that can be done if we don‘t follow the rules.
- To your parent: „Mom, I‘ve told you countless times that I don‘t want you to give our children tons of sweets when they visit you, but every time I come to pick them up, they are in sugar shock. If you can‘t respect my wishes, they won‘t be able to visit you as often.“
- To your boss: „I‘ve worked overtime for the past month and my health is starting to suffer. I‘ve asked you for some help with the books, and if I can‘t get some kind of assistance, I‘m going to need a leave of absence to avoid having a burnout.“
Respectful community: These signs line out the behaviors that are expected from everyone in a society. They help to keep order and make sure that everyone can enjoy their surroundings.
- To your child: „From now on, I would like for you to take your shoes off EVERY TIME you come in the house. (This could be replaced with just about any chore around the house!)
- To your colleague: „I‘d appreciate it if you would load your dishes into the dishwasher when you finish your break so that I have space on the table for my lunch later.“
While some of these examples seem obvious and simple, you would be surprised how many people are not able to express even these simplest of requests and „put up their signs.“ Why is that? Usually, we are:
Afraid of rejection: We can‘t stand to be excluded from the community, so we allow people to do what they want with us and don‘t show them what we want.
Desperate for harmony / Afraid of other people‘s anger: We can‘t deal with the possibility of an argument, so we „keep the peace.“
Confused about what we want in the first place: We‘ve never really reflected on WHAT we want, oftentimes because we were raised to adapt ourselves to our environment (parents and teachers) in order to get love and attention.
Do you recognize yourself in one or more of these descriptions? Here are a few more questions to ask yourself in reflecting on your (lack of) healthy boundaries:
How often do I worry about what other people think?
Do I feel guilty for wanting to do things by myself?
When did I last say no to someone?
When did I last say yes to something I secretly didn’t want to do?
Do I feel like I deserve respect or I have to earn it by being ‘nice’?
What are the five rules to being my friend? Do I know them quickly and easily?
What are the 10 things I most like to do with my time? Can I quickly come up with them?
What are the 10 things I hate doing? Do I even have strong feelings about things?
When I think about saying no to someone, do I feel afraid? Or calm inside?
As you can probably tell by now, setting healthy boundaries is a major area of personal development, and one that will take a while to truly understand and implement. In the coming weeks, I will be blogging on this topic and invite you to participate in my Facebook sessions and exercises to get some practice in setting up those first, most important „signs.“ I look forward to hearing from you if you would like to explore this topic further!
The Link to my Livesession: Signs of Life