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Boundary Basics: Safeguarding Your Health

Setting healthy bourndaries &mdash a young woman wearning glasses holds up her hand, gesturing "Stop!"

The reality is that knowledge of boundaries is important for all of us whether we are male or female, adult or child. If we aren’t aware of our boundaries we are missing information that can significantly improve our sense of wellbeing and the quality of our relationships with others. It’s kind of like driving in the dark without your headlights. You just wouldn’t do it if you had the option. Headlights help you navigate the terrain and head in the right direction. Similarly, with a clearer understanding of your boundaries you can bring more of who and what you want into your life.

So what exactly is a boundary? We can think of it as that limit or edge that defines us as separate from others. Our physical boundary, the place where our body meets everything and everyone else that we encounter in the world, is perhaps the easiest boundary to define and understand — we know if someone has touched our body. What is often less clear is how we feel about that touch and what we do in response.

But boundaries can be infringed upon without touch. It is like there is this invisible bubble around us, and we use our feelings or gut reactions to help us determine when that invisible boundary is being pushed. Did you ever notice that feeling when someone is standing just a little too close to you? What did you do when you felt that discomfort? Did you step back to get a little more distance or did you just bare the uncomfortable feeling for fear that the person might feel badly if you took some more space for yourself? Knowing that we have a right to step back and protect that invisible bubble, regardless of how we fear the other person may react, is an important part of respecting our own boundaries.

With a clearer understanding of your boundaries you can bring more of who and what you want to into your life.

Having someone stand a little too close is pretty innocuous, but what about when others cross boundaries by treating us disrespectfully. In order to respond in an assertive way we need to be able to tune into our feelings and acknowledge them. For many of us, this is easier said than done. As a rule, we learn about expressing our feelings from our parents. While our parents usually had good intentions, what they taught us about our feelings may have been misguided. Many of us have been taught that to express our feelings is a sign of weakness. As a result, we deny our feelings and they get pushed down, below our level of awareness, where they are not readily accessible to help guide us.

Dr. Gabor Mate, author of the national bestseller ‘When The Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress,’ warns us that this feeling suppression can take a devastating toll on our physical health. He explains that “the inability to process and express feelings effectively, and the tendency to serve the needs of others even before considering one’s own, are common patterns in people who develop chronic illness.” Dr. Mate has observed that the patients he treats for cancer and other life threatening conditions have difficulty saying no and expressing anger.

Saying no can be challenging for many of us. We may be ‘people pleasers,’ hoping to gain the acceptance of others by saying yes all the time. If so, it is likely that this is an old coping pattern, originating with the attempt to please one or both parents. It is important to ask yourself whether there is a cost to your people pleasing behavior. Are you feeling stressed or overwhelmed? Do you feel like you are always doing for others but getting very little support in return?

Drawing a boundary by saying no is a crucial piece of our self-care; in order to continue to be there for others we need to be there for ourselves first. The safety instructions heard on every airplane flight is a constant reminder of this lesson - we need to put on our own oxygen mask before we help others with theirs. When we take care of ourselves and are attuned to our boundaries, we find that we have more to give to those important others in our lives.

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