Relational Boundaries & Skills

Personal hygiene, good sleeping habits, nutrition and exercise, these are all the basic and essential practices we all learn from a young age.  The key word is learn.  These are things that have to be taught to us and if we don't, we suffer the natural consequences.  We'll cover some of these fundamental practices that everyone should learn in life.  To learn more or to take some proactive steps to get some help learning these skills, feel free to reach out so we can help.

Relational Hygienic Practices

Healthy boundaries are a fundamental aspect of good relationships.  But there are many facets and dimensions to what constitutes a good boundary.  Here are a few that cover some of the broader strokes of what these boundaries look like.

Spacing: creating emotional space for difficult emotions

We call it “differentiating” but essentially it’s just knowing how to space well with other people.  On one end of the extreme is being enmeshed or being overly involved in what others feel.  On the other extreme is detached or being emotionally apathetic and numb to others.  Somewhere between is the sweet spot with just the right kind of “spacing”.  Not too close.  Not too far.  Just right.  

This is most difficult when negative emotions are involved, when someone close to you is feel hard and painful emotions, possibly even emotions that are directed toward you.  Feeling overly concerned about how others deal with their emotions, trying to deflect or fix it, taking on those feelings yourself, these are all examples of getting too close or enmeshed.  Shutting down, distancing, minimizing, these are all ways we get too far and detached.  

Somewhere in between is just the right space.  This means remaining present and connected without trying to manage the thoughts and feelings of another person.

Resilience: expanding tolerance to uncomfortable emotions

Some plants can survive in the desert because of their resilience to scorching heat and scarce water.  Resilience is the strength to withstand uncomfortable or unfavorable conditions for long period of time.  And as it is with any muscle, strength is something that can grow with time and practice.  In terms of relationships, there are some things we’re all exposed to at some point when the connections go deep enough and become personal enough.  It’s inevitable to experience feelings of shame, guilt, blame, injustice, mischaracterizations, etc.  No relationship can survive a diet of only these experiences, but relationships become far easier to manage if you can learn to tolerate an exposure to these things for a prolonged period of time.  

The reasoning is simple.  Most of what people communicate in conflict is laced with these uncomfortable or even hurtful emotions.  Having the ability to withstand the experience buys more time for the communicator to fully express themselves.  Fuller expression leads to a better and clearer understanding of what’s truly being communicated.  So the more resilient and tolerant a person is, the more likely it is to gain understanding.  

The temptation is to engage in poor spacing.  Either to move in too closely to defend or fix, or to move too far away by shutting down or avoiding. So the more resilient you can be, the more understanding you can gain with others, and the more you can improve your spacing to remain connected but not enmeshed.


Consolidating: focusing control on self rather than on others

This one’s all about where you focus your power and control.  If you try to control or manage how people think, feel or behave around you, then your focus is externalized.  Conversely, if you focus on managing how you think, feel, and behave then your focus is internalized.  

Consolidating is really about focusing your control and power internally as opposed to spreading your power out externally, and in order to do that it helps to make a distinction between internal and external boundaries.  Having strong internal boundaries means having a strong sense of self and not allowing the thoughts, feeling and actions of others to define how you think and feel about yourself.  When these internal boundaries are weak and your self-esteem is affected by others, the human tendency is to spend energy and time on trying to adjust people’s thoughts, feelings and actions (external boundaries) instead of solidifying your sense of self (internal boundaries).  It requires great strength and discipline to focus on your internal boundaries, but when you do, having strong external boundaries is no longer as necessary.

One tell tale sign of someone who struggles with this is if you ask them how they feel or to focus on themselves, their answer will often focus back on others or their feelings are determined by how and what others are doing.  A good practice to develop this skillset is to take notice of the times you find yourself thinking about what others are thinking, feeling, or doing.  When you do, ask yourself why it matters to you and why you feel the way you do about it.  


Adulting: remaining composed when boundaries are crossed

Power dynamics are a part of every relationship.  Transactional Analysis theory tells us that we are constantly operating in one of three roles (Parent, Adult, or Child) with everyone around us operating in one of the same three roles.  

Ever talk to someone that comes across as controlling or “shame-y”?  Like everything they’re saying is really communicating “what’s wrong with you?”  This person is interacting in a “parental” role toward you in a “child” role.  Ever feel the urge to push back and put them in their place?  Like all you want to do is say, “what’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you?”  That’s you repositioning yourself in the “parental” role with them in the “child” role.  That’s how conflicts get out of hand.  It goes back and forth, each person vying for power until someone gets tired of the game play.  

Adulting stops the cycle by reseting the power dynamics.  Instead of trying to set a boundary by using a parental voice and focusing on what the other person is doing or needs to do different, an adult sets boundaries by communicating their own thoughts, feelings and needs with clarity and composure.  

Ask yourself if you use any of these parental plays:

  • Shaming or Guilting

  • Accusing or Blaming

  • Controlling or Managing

Or any of these child plays:

  • Passive Agression

  • Manipulation 

  • Anger Episodes


Surrendering: relinquishing rights to fairness and justice

Typically when we think of the concept of boundaries, we think of standing up for ourselves and fighting for what’s right and just.  But again, if our internal boundaries are strong, we don’t have to rely as much on the external ones.  That means we’re strong enough to relinquish or surrender certain rights when faced with offenses and injustices.  

A lot of brokenness in relationships can be healed.  Trust can be restored and with some work things can be made right again.  But there are times that nothing will ever truly make things right and okay.  In these situations the ability to surrender your rights, as legitimate and reasonable as they might be, is what’s needed to be made whole again.  What we’re talking about is the ability to forgive debts that can’t be paid back.  When you surrender your claim on someone’s debt against you, you effectively forgive them.  

The person who hurt you may never acknowledge it, let alone ask for forgiveness.  But surrendering this right doesn’t mean everything is made right in the relationship.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things.  Surrendering your right to an apology and acknowledgment of a wrong at the very least frees you from the burden of resentment.  You might not ever have a relationship with that person again, but forgiving allows you to release the debt and be made whole on your own terms.  

This practice probably doesn’t have to be used with many of your relationships, as there are probably only a few relationships this would apply to. But for these relationships you’ll have to use this practice and use it often if they are still in your life somehow.  

Holding: delaying or suspending instinctual reactions

Holding is both incredibly valuable and yet difficult to exercise because it addresses one of our most fundamental needs in any relationship, the need to feel understood.  Much of what drives problematic relationships is misunderstands or mischaracterizations.  When we feel improperly judged, characterized, or accused of something wrong, there’s a natural compulsion to defend and correct the other person’s perception.  To hold in these situations means to suspend the need to be understood fairly and to instead focus on understanding what the other person is truly trying to say. 

So really it’s placing the understanding of others as a higher priority than being understood yourself.  What makes this practice incredibly difficult is that it requires you to expose yourself to offense and insult, while at the same time caring enough about the person hurling insults at you to help them clarify and dig down deep to what they’re trying to convey.  Most of the time people communicate their own pain and anxiety by projecting out blame, anger and contempt.  (i.e. people utilize external boundaries instead of strong internal ones).  Holding allows you enough time to dig past the anger and to gain that understanding.

This doesn’t mean your need to be understood is unimportant or forgotten.  You’re simply putting it on hold for a moment in an effort to gain understanding.  Think of it as a courtesy, like holding the door open for a person to walk through first before you enter yourself.  Except in these situations, it’s likely that person is punching you in the face while you’re holding that door open.  

You can probably tell by now that none of these practices are developed in a vacuum.  In order to hold well, it helps to be highly resilient, have good spacing, and have good adult posture.  These skills and practices feed off of one another so it’s important to learn how to gradually improve on all of these areas.