Healthy boundaries are the unsung heroes of healthy relationships.
In our culture, we aren’t taught what healthy boundaries are, let alone how to set them. We have no courses in school on this subject. And most of us have never had this modeled for us either.
I’ve heard of boundaries and walls described as separate things, but I actually think of them as being on a continuum.
On one end of the continuum, there are no boundaries whatsoever, which is what I call the “doormat” end of the spectrum. Anyone and everyone can say or do whatever they please to us when we have no boundaries, because they know we will never stand up for ourselves. We feel constantly under attack, which leads to resentment and ultimately angry outbursts.
On the other end, there’s a “towering wall” where nothing is getting in and nothing is getting out. People are kept at arm’s length, so we never really get to know them (and vice versa). We very often create these walls when we have been hurt in the past. We believe this is our only option, but we ultimately end up feeling disconnected and alone, not safe and secure.
In the middle are boundaries. The place of demarcation between what we are okay with and what we aren’t. Between what we want and what we absolutely will not tolerate. Between what feels good to us and what doesn’t.
What makes a boundary healthy is whether we actively, consciously, and directly communicate and uphold that boundary with our partner.
Boundaries, when done right, keep us happy, relaxed, connected, and yes, safe.
We tend to think we’d be putting other people out in some way by creating boundaries with them, but the truth is, it’s actually best for them—other people feel safer with US when we have healthy boundaries. It sets the groundwork for mutual respect and appreciation, and the other person feels as if our clarity about what’s okay and what isn’t makes them feel more comfortable.
There is an old saying about good fences (boundaries) making good neighbors, right? The same idea applies in all interpersonal relationships. When we—for whatever reason—don’t teach others about our boundaries (how we expect to be treated and what we won’t tolerate), we are setting our relationships up for failure.
Each and every session Jove and I did with a client had boundaries as a primary theme. People rarely came to us thinking that their lack of boundaries was what they needed help with, but Jove always taught that lesson so that each person could feel the experience of what setting a healthy boundary was like.
I watched many a session where the client would let Jove walk all over them, nudge at their pockets looking for treats or even, on occasion, lick their arm until it was dripping wet.
And they wouldn’t say a word … because they believed that would be putting up a wall, and they wouldn’t be able to connect with him. Their personal relationship patterns were playing out with Jove in real time.
I’ve always been attracted to women who are assertive and have confidence. They don’t play games. They know what they want, and they’re not afraid to tell you. ~Taye Diggs
One time, Jove actually stepped on a client’s toe after repeatedly coming into their space and repeatedly getting nothing but positive reinforcement (“Oh, he’s so sweet. Look, he wants to be close to me!”). With 1200 pounds of horse weighing down on their foot, they finally set the boundary. Only now, it looked like screaming and shoving him to get him to move, whereas if they had set the boundary at the very beginning of the interaction, it could have been much calmer and quieter and felt much better for them both.
That client shared with me later that she felt as if this was what always happened in her relationships: people used her, took advantage of her kindness, and then ended up hurting her.
This is how the “doormat” end of the boundary continuum plays out.
When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. ~Brené Brown
On the other end is the “towering wall” end of the boundary continuum, where clients would go into the session with Jove and not go near him and not let him come near them. They would take the earliest opportunity to wave him away to keep him from getting too close. Jove recognized immediately that there was no place to connect in a healthy way with that person, so he would usually try to find something more interesting to do (like try to reach for grass on the other side of the round pen or mosey over to see what I was doing).
When people learned how to find that happy medium and set healthy boundaries, that was when they could really connect at a deep level with Jove. Sometimes, they even got to the place where that connection led to a beautiful, energetic dance, and both the client and Jove left the session feeling fulfilled, bonded, and energized.
Honouring your own boundaries is the clearest message to others to honor them, too. ~Gina Greenlee
Isn’t that the ultimate goal with all of our relationships? The cool thing is that it’s never too late to start creating healthy boundaries. It may feel shaky and off-balance at first, but this is a process not an end-point. The more we practice setting clear, solid boundaries, the easier it will feel and the easier relationships will become.
So, where are your boundaries on the spectrum now? And what will you do today to begin moving them to a healthier place?