Everyone’s talking about boundaries these days and how important they are for our Selves and our relationships. But then why do they feel so hard to do, and does setting boundaries mean we have to push people away? We discuss all this and more in this episode on navigating boundaries.
In this episode, Janice shares her personal experiences navigating boundaries – the good, the confusing, and the uncomfortable. First, she offers some personal examples to define what boundaries are and why they’re so important. Then, she shares three big lessons from her not-always-easy journey of navigating boundaries, including:
CONTENT WARNING: This episode includes some mention of childhood trauma. Please see the show notes for where in the episode a more detailed description of how trauma can develop in early childhood is shared.
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Hey y’all, welcome back to The Soul’s Work Podcast. I’m your host, Janice Ho. And today we are talking about boundaries. Oof. This is a big ass topic. And I know that just the word boundaries alone can bring up certain reactions for people. It’s not the greatest word, I have to say. But what it means to actually practice boundaries, both with ourselves and in our relationships, is really meant to be a healthy, even loving thing.
And so, I think if we can get a little bit more curious about what boundaries really mean, perhaps learn ways to reframe it if that’s helpful to getting over the mental block of the word itself, that can be really helpful.
And I’m really doing this episode to share about some of my own challenges navigating boundaries – because it hasn’t always been easy for me. But with all things, it really does get so much easier, so I also hope this episode gives y’all some hope if the idea of practicing boundaries feels a bit daunting right now.
Okay, I’m going to get into defining what boundaries actually are in just a moment. But before I jump into all of that, some quick updates. As some of y’all know, I got back from my 3-week trip to Italy a few days ago. I was in the town of Polignano a Mare, which I really fell in love with.
I won’t dive into it too much. You can actually go to my Instagram page @janicehoimages, and check out my Italy Highlights where I captured a lot of my trip. I’ll just say that it was such a beautiful experience. Just the slowing down of life that I needed. Not to mention eating some great food, enjoying the beautiful views of the sea, which I really miss, and getting to experience another culture for a little snapshot in time. So I’m super grateful for all of it.
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What are boundaries + resources
Okay, so let’s go a little bit deeper into defining boundaries and why they’re so important. Because it might seem obvious what boundaries are, but I think there actually are a lot of misconceptions about what it means.
So there’s lots of different definitions out there, but one from therapist Nedra Tawaab, in her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, is that “Boundaries are expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships.”
So in that way, it’s not necessarily about pushing people away from you, which I think a lot of people associate the word boundaries with. I say not necessarily, because maybe sometimes we don’t want someone in our life anymore, and the boundary we want to assert is to remove them from our life or create some distance. But in a relationship where we really want to maintain a close connection, practicing boundaries does not mean having to close yourself off to that person or take away your love or care from them.
There’s also different types of boundaries that the “experts” typically name. And I’ll just briefly share the six that Nedra lays out in her book and give some examples from my own life so that it’s hopefully a bit more clear:
So, one, there’s physical boundaries, like your personal space and physical touch. So, as an example, here’s where I did not set a boundary where I needed to. I was volunteering for a service a few years back, so I was there as someone to help, being really friendly, and one of the service users – this big, tall, older man – who was chatting with me suddenly reached out and just lay his big hand on my shoulder. And that felt like a violation of my boundary – my boundary being to not be touched by essentially a stranger who I hadn’t invited to touch me like that.
And if I hadn’t completely froze in that moment, which I did, for so many reasons, I would have perhaps asserted my boundary by physically moving away from him, which is an example of where, in that situation anyways, expressing my boundary might not even have had to be a verbal communication of it. Of course, if he did again, I’d want to say something.
But there’s that as an example of a physical boundary, and how sometimes it can be really hard to assert our boundaries in the moment, even when we really don’t like something that’s happening. And I just want to acknowledge how much of a practice it is, and that it’s okay if it doesn’t feel easy sometimes or a lot of the time. But we can get to a place where it does become easier.
Second, there’s sexual boundaries, of course. Here’s an example that just happened from online dating, a space where I find that boundaries can be easily crossed. People are behind their screens, oftentimes not really humanizing the person on the other end of their interaction. So I matched with a guy on Hinge the other day. And we got off to a great start chatting about things. It was getting late for me, I typically don’t like texting or being on a screen late in the evening or nighttime. That’s one of the boundaries I set for myself and really try to stick to for the most part.
So I asked him, hey, do you want to jump on a short call, just getting off screens right now, or we can resume texting the next day? And he replied by saying, Is it bad that he’s getting some sexy thoughts about how that call could go. Which didn’t really faze me too much, but that’s probably partly because this is what I’ve become used to from guys, but I replied: Slow down, can we just get to know each other a bit better first? And I added some emojis that showed that I wasn’t pissed off or anything, I didn’t want to totally kill the vibe here, but I think what I wrote was pretty clear in terms of what my boundaries were for how I didn’t want that phone call to go – i.e., I did not want it to go into the realm of anything sexual until I got to know him better first. If y’all think I could have said it better, let me know. We’re all learning here.
So then he said, of course! But very shortly thereafter, he said that he was basically gonna go get himself off before our call, because he was just all pent up with this sexual energy and didn’t want to bring that into our conversation, but then he asked if I wanted to watch over a video chat. And I just felt my body freeze, my fucking brain froze. It was like, what?
And I honestly do feel like if this happened a while back, when I hadn’t been really practicing my boundaries actively, I might not have been very assertive back in response to match the way that I felt, which wasn’t great. I did not feel respected. So I wrote: Ahh, didn’t I just ask if we could get to know each other better first? And this time, I used the emoji with the flat mouth to show I was serious. And then I wrote: If you want to chat with someone who is ready to jump into sexual stuff in your first convo, that’s cool. But I’m not your person.
And so, he apologized. I didn’t end up going through with that phone call, because I was noticing some activation in my body, and really didn’t feel like I could talk with him in a grounded state. Nor did I feel any obligation to. So that was that.
Okay, let’s keep going. So, three, there’s intellectual boundaries, which are about your thoughts and ideas and being free to have an opinion without being dismissed or ridiculed. So one example of this is where maybe people I know have been really strict about social distancing during the pandemic, and it might not line up with how I’ve been choosing to social distance or not social distance. But that’s their boundary that they’ve communicated, for their own personal reasons, and I do respect that rather than trying to convince them otherwise, or tell them that they’re overreacting, which would then be not honouring their boundaries.
Then, four, there’s emotional boundaries, which have to do with being supported when we share our feelings. I did an episode at the beginning of this season (Episode 2) called “Sitting with Hard Feelings,” where I talked about how difficult it can be for people to just hold other people’s emotional experiences without going into fixing mode or even trying to reassure them, usually from a really good place, but where they might say things like, “Just think positively, be grateful for what you do have,” but that might be crossing an emotional boundary for the person who is just trying to share about how they feel.
And it has been really important for me to get more into the habit of asserting my boundary before I share, to say, hey, I’m just looking for an ear right now, I don’t want to get into solution mode just yet. Do you have the capacity to hold that space for me? You know, if that is what I need. And some people in my life have been great at honouring that. And they’ve also learned to ask me, if I haven’t been that direct about what I need from the get-go, how can they best support me in that moment. And I love that.
So five, there’s material boundaries, which are about our possessions and things around sharing our stuff, how people should treat our things. I won’t give an example there, but hopefully it’s pretty straightforward.
And, six, time boundaries, which is about how you manage your time and how others ask for or take up your time. I want to just give one last example where we could be setting boundaries with ourselves, and it’s not so much about how we relate to other people. So another time boundary for me has been around limiting the time I’m on social media. Being on too much social media I know can drain me, not make me feel great emotionally.
And so, a really big thing that I did on my way home from Italy was to write my last post on FB, both on my personal account and on my Janice Ho Creative Facebook Page. I didn’t disable those accounts, just so I could leave up where people could find me. But after that, I uninstalled the app from my phone. And it felt like a relief. No regrets.
I’m still on Instagram, obviously. So I do check in with my body to see how I’m feeling when I’m sensing that the amount of time I’m taking on Instagram is doing more harm than good.
So, I hope those examples are helpful. Other folks might have a different way of categorizing boundaries, they might have additional things to add to Nedra’s list. But these are some pretty common ones that come up. And you can learn a lot more about each type of boundary in her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace. It’s a really great resource, I highly recommend it. Even if you’re pretty familiar with boundaries already, it’s a good refresher and opportunity to assess or reassess what your current needs are, and are you using your time, energy in ways that truly make you happy? And apparently Nedra’s coming out with a Boundaries Workbook I believe next month.
Why are setting boundaries so important?
So I just want to share more specifically why practicing boundaries is so important. For me, it’s definitely led to greater peace of mind and self-care. It can feel like a huge weight off your shoulders when you’re just really honest and direct about what you need, what you don’t like. And in that way then, practicing boundaries (both on my end, and the other person’s end) has led to cultivating some more genuine, honest relationships.
Like, if someone is willing to be direct and open with me about something they’re not okay with in our dynamic – of course ideally coming to me with that issue in a constructive, kind way – I appreciate that. Because then at least I know that when we’re good, we’re really good. There’s not some hidden thing lurking underneath the surface that they’re building resentment about – which, by the way, y’all, people will always feel one way or another – and that’s going to come up and become a big conflict later on down the road.
And on the flip side, when I haven’t practiced my boundaries – which I was not very good at doing for much of my life, quite frankly, both with myself and with others – I’ve definitely experienced burnout, resentment. I’ve engaged in things that I really didn’t want to do, which would be an expenditure of my precious time, energy, sometimes money, etc. And I’ve kept people around in my life who were more toxic than uplifting.
So, I am biased, but I do think there are so many good reasons to take this exploration into identifying what our boundaries are, a.k.a, our needs, our expectations, and another great way to reframe the word boundaries is our preferences – also said by Nedra Tewab on a great boundaries episode she did on Red Table Talk, which is on Facebook. I will miss watching that show.
But yes, identifying what our preferences are. Learning how to communicate those preferences, which is a fucking skill, an art. And learning how to ensure that those requests we make of other people, or boundaries we set with ourselves, are actually honoured on an ongoing basis.
My personal story: Working on my boundaries
All right, so I wanted to do this episode to share with y’all my personal experiences with practicing boundaries. And how challenging, and also really empowering, it has been.
So, I always say that 2020 was the muthafuckin' year of boundaries for me. Before that, I knew in general that saying no to things that drained my energy, that I didn’t really have my heart in, was something really important for my self-care. But for much of my life, it was very difficult for me to not over-give when I didn’t actually have the time, energy, or capacity. It was hard for me to say no a lot of the time, because I didn’t want to disappoint people. I had what Nedra defines in her book as porous boundaries, which are boundaries that are “weak or poorly expressed and are unintentionally harmful.”
And when you have porous boundaries, you do often feel depleted, depressed, anxious, you might get into codependent or enmeshed relationships where there isn’t a healthy both separation and interdependence between you and the other person – interdependence is not the same thing as codependence, right? And, by the way, the flip side to this is having rigid boundaries. You can learn more about that in Nedra’s book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace – definitely promo-ing her book in this episode, but I think it’s a good one.
So, as part of me not having a strong handle on my own boundaries, it was also hard to honour other people’s boundaries at times. And I really came to this realization in a recent-ish relationship; I feel like I was lovingly called in about it. So this has been something that I’ve really looked into, and lovingly confronted about myself.
It was definitely hard at first to face these things about myself. It felt shameful. But through my trauma-healing work, I came to understand that healthy boundaries hadn’t really been modeled for me when I was growing up. You know, sometimes I briefly touch on some of the challenges I went through as a young person. I just want to reiterate that this is not to blame my parents at all. I feel zero blame toward them, I also love them very much. And also, knowing their family history, I know that they weren’t modeled healthy boundaries either. And so, these things can and do get passed down intergenerationally.
And the point, for me anyways, is not to dwell in blame or anything like that, but to figure out how can I now learn this new way of relating to people that wasn’t really a part of my experience as a young person, and that did continually got reinforced in my later relationships?
So, fast forward to the end of 2019. I was going through a situation where I knew I had to put better boundaries in place. In a nutshell, I was basically in the process of letting go of someone in my life. I knew I had to reduce my communication with them, because as much as I still wanted so badly to stay in contact with them, I knew we had to go our separate ways eventually. And so, continuing to talk with them was like prolonging the grief. On one hand, I was obviously getting something out of it – I got to still have them in my life in some way. But on the other hand, it was like this slow rip of the bandaid, and it was very painful in that respect.
And I’m sure that many of y’all can relate in knowing or sensing on one hand that some kind of change needs to be had, oftentimes some sort of ongoing dynamic ongoing pattern in a relationship – whether family, romantic, friendship, work relationship, etc. But the idea of putting into practice the boundary that will facilitate that change might feel – at least in the moment – even more excruciating than the ongoing stressful dynamic that’s happening.
And so, the easier thing to do oftentimes in that situation is to just default to more of the same, right? Because at least then you don’t have to talk about it, you don’t have to potentially get into conflict, you don’t have to potentially hurt someone with your boundaries – including the hurt you might experience as a result of the potential or anticipated loss or reaction from the other person – or you don’t have to be in that uncomfortable space of asking for what you need.
So, I was in that place of being very, very torn. But I knew in a deep way what I had to do – i.e., drastically reduce communication with this person. And knowing that it was going to be super hard for me, and that I still didn’t really know how to go about asserting and maintaining my boundaries in a consistent way, I took an online course on boundaries to get some help, to get more educated, and just feel supported in some way.
So the course is called The Boundaries Program; it’s by Silvy Khoucasian, who does a lot of great teachings around boundaries, and her partner Bryan Reeves. I’ll link to it in the show notes. It really was such a great tool for me both at that time, to help me make that challenging transition in that relationship. And even now I still carry those lessons with me two years later.
So, since then, I have really been actively practicing my boundaries on an ongoing basis, definitely feeling less uncomfortable doing it. Still failing miserably sometimes; you know, sometimes not asserting a boundary earlier on when I should have, and then having that resentment or overwhelm build up. And sometimes trying to assert a boundary but not doing the best job of communicating it.
But sometimes it’s gone really, really well. And I’d say for the most part, when you’re practicing boundaries with people who are willing to be in an honest, open relationship with you; people who have the capacity to be in those uncomfortable conversations; people who are willing to grow with you, as you evolve and change, and vice versa – and these are really, for me, the kinds of relationships I do want to have – I have found that when I practice my boundaries with these types of people, it usually goes well. People appreciate that I’m direct and they don’t have to guess with me, and it also gives them permission to be real with me too and voice their boundaries when they need to do that.
So, I want to spend the rest of the episode sharing three big lessons I’ve learned from this journey in case it resonates with y’all, in case it helps you to feel reassured when you take your own exploration with boundaries and sometimes it fucking feels hard and it doesn’t bring you peace right away. I’m here to let you know that those challenging feelings can be part of the process, and often are. But that there is absolutely hope, it 100% gets easier, and it is fucking worth it.
Lesson 1: Identifying my boundaries
Okay, so one lesson I have learned – and this will of course be an ongoing process – is around just identifying what my boundaries are in the first place. And part of the lesson has been learning actual practical ways on how to do that. But the other part of the lesson has been acknowledging that figuring out what our boundaries are can be a hard thing.
I’ve seen this challenge happen, where that whole question of “What do I need?” might be confusing for some people. Because maybe growing up, we didn’t really learn how to tap into our needs. Maybe we got really used to acting in accordance with other people’s needs over our own. And so wrapped up in that, I think that when we’re trying to do this exercise of identifying our boundaries, it can sometimes then bring up feelings that we aren’t deserving. Or we might not even think of something as a boundary or a need that we have, because the automatic assumption is: oh, but that’s asking for too much; or am I really deserving to have that request met?
And oftentimes that undeserving-ness can come up as more of a sense or feeling in our body versus like an explicit thought. But when that happens, we can sometimes miss or dismiss things that are actually totally valid and an important part of what we require to feel safe and secure and comfortable with our people.
So, I say all of this to just point out that identifying what our boundaries are can potentially, for some people, feel more like a tender, sometimes hazy process versus this like very overtly empowering activity that is going to bring us so much clarity on how we can become better versions of ourselves. It might not feel so obviously enlightening and uplifting. And for some, maybe it will.
But whatever that process looks like for you, it’s all good. Know that it can take time to uncover and really understand what our needs and preferences are. It is a practice and a process to unlearn all the things we’ve been conditioned to value, to tolerate, to think that we do need. And it is a practice and a process to learn what’s actually authentic to us.
And, of course, what we identify as our boundaries now may change over time, and that is also okay, because we are always evolving as human beings, right? I think as we change, and our boundaries change with us, clear communication with those who may be affected is what’s key.
All right, but for some practical ways that have helped me anyways to identify my boundaries, I always find it helpful to recall patterns where I typically find myself feeling resentful, perhaps in reaction to some kind of behaviour, or to recall situations where I felt anger about something – because anger is often an indicator of a boundary being violated.
Recalling where I might be feeling burnt out or drained on an ongoing basis – is it that I’m expending way too much time and energy on a particular person or activity or job, and maybe there’s something there about how I need to adjust the way I’m going about that? So, noticing patterns where those kinds of feelings come up over and over again might be a great place to start.
I also think that being in touch with our core values can be helpful – which is something I talked about all the way back in Season 1. Because values signal what is truly important to us and how we want to approach life, relationships, work, etc. And so in a way, perhaps it’s also about identifying our needs, but I feel like our values are a bit broader and they can kinda serve as guideposts that perhaps shine a light on what might be specific boundaries for us. And by the way, I do think writing all of these things down can be really helpful too, versus just imagining a list of boundaries in our minds.
Last thing I’ll mention on identifying boundaries: It’s been really helpful for me to learn the difference between a boundary and a wall, which was talked about in that Boundaries Program I took. Because I think people can get mixed up with the two, and it can make things even more confusing. So in the course, boundaries were talked about as something that protects ourselves, while still allowing us to create and maintain connections with others. But walls, on the other hand, are more like defenses that prevent us from being able to relate intimately with others.
And sometimes we might identify something as a boundary, when actually it’s a wall. Or we might hear from someone else who tells us, “Hey, this is my boundary. I need you to respect this.” But just because they name it as a boundary, it doesn’t necessarily mean that what they’re asking for is allowing for that connection to be maintained, right?
An example that’s given in the course, a boundary might be where someone asks for a specific amount of alone time when they get home from work before they engage with you, because they have identified their need for that kind of self-care, that time to decompress. Which is totally valid. But if that person says they need their space, that’s their boundary, but they don’t then come back to you as they said they would to connect, they just stay physically or even emotionally distant, then there might be something there to explore a little bit more.
Like, whether some underlying fears or a defense mechanism is in play, and that maybe asserting the “boundary” might be that person’s way of trying to protect themselves but at the cost of maintaining connection in the relationship. And of course, we might be that person in question doing that, right? So, I think this is where a lot of people can get turned off by the word boundaries, when they’re equating it with what is actually a wall.
Another great definition of boundaries is by Prentice Hemphill, which is that “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”
And, for me, this is a really beautiful reminder that we can navigate this sometimes tricky thing of asking for something we need, or communicating that we don’t like this thing that’s happening in our relationship, so that we’re honouring ourselves, while at the same time showing love and compassion, learning how to communicate these things in a caring way, and as much as possible, without sacrificing those boundaries, maybe making it as collaborative a process as we can.
Because it really is a process. Asserting a boundary to someone you’re going to continue being in relationship with doesn’t just stop with the communication of that boundary, and now it’s totally up to them to do the rest and honour our boundaries. That change that you’re asking for from them might be really hard for that person to adapt to. So how do we create an environment where continuing to have that boundary in place doesn’t shut down that person? How can we leave some space for them to feel heard when maybe it’s hard for them to honour your boundary and they’re struggling with that?
And Silvy Khoucasian often talks on her Instagram page @SilvyKhoucasian – I’ll link to it in the show notes – about this nuanced approach to ensuring that when we set boundaries, we’re also keeping in mind that we are still relating with another human being and their feelings. And again, so much complexity here. There might be situations where a fuck off and assertive tone might actually be what is called for. Every situation is so individual.
And so, to finish what I was saying, if we can distinguish between boundaries and walls, I think it makes this exploration into identifying and practicing healthy boundaries a bit easier. And Nedra Tawwab in her book also talks about other ways that boundaries might be asserted or disguised in not so healthy ways, like when someone is being passive-aggressive or manipulative, etc. in an attempt to get their needs met. And so I think it can be helpful to understand these distinctions between what is actually a boundary, and when is it something else that’s not actually helpful to the relationship.
Lesson 2: Boundaries can feel really hard to set and also to hear
Okay, so the second big lesson for me in practicing boundaries, and I’ve already touched on this, is that boundaries can feel really hard to set with ourselves and others.
And I do want to sit with this a bit more here, because this has been a big learning for me in general throughout my healing and “personal growth” journey. That sometimes that journey toward something “better” can feel so fucking uncomfortable, so much so that we might even question if we’re really doing the right thing.
Now, of course, I’m not saying that if we are pursuing something in our self-development, our life path, and it feels uncomfortable, that that is how it should feel to grow. I’m not saying that the two go hand in hand. But I am saying that sometimes the change that that growth requires can feel uncomfortable, challenging, anxiety-provoking. And it’s not necessarily because the change on the other side is not actually what we want or should be working toward, but it’s just that change itself can be really uncomfortable, period. In any situation.
And I also want to emphasize this because I do see a lot of people giving up on asserting and reinforcing their boundaries when they start to experience that discomfort – because maybe the person they’re communicating their boundary to is uncomfortable with the change, and it’s hard to navigate that other person’s feelings and behaviour around it.
Or maybe voicing what we need can automatically activate a sense of guilt that comes from a very deeply embedded place of, again, as I said before, feeling that our needs are not valid, that putting forth our needs is going to harm the relationship or attachment. Or maybe sometimes setting a boundary actually does mean loss, and we know that it means, so yeah it might feel hard as fuck to follow through with communicating that boundary, very understandably.
So that is what I experienced when I was trying to practice this boundary I had of cutting down communication with the person I mentioned earlier on, who I was letting go of. And I came across this journal entry from that time that said:
“Wow, it’s been a very activating day. I don’t know if I’ve really experienced this before, where I’m just being triggered seemingly out of nowhere, where my heart is racing and my stomach feels sick, and I just want to cry.”
And I ended up texting my therapist and told her how immensely sad I felt not talking to that person, and I had this thought that maybe these anxious feelings I just described were coming up because I wasn’t used to setting this kind of boundary – of not communicating, not allowing for us to be in closer relationship, of not allowing the other person to reach out to me if they wanted to.
And that while it felt like I wasn’t doing the right thing because I felt so terrible, even on a physical level, maybe it was just that it wasn’t familiar to me and was going against everything I had subconsciously learned on how to be – in this case, being unconditionally loyal to someone I loved. And my idea of being loyal was being unconditionally available, emotionally but also with my time and my energy, and not saying no to someone who might also not be okay on their end and wanting to connect with me.
And through my brief chat with my therapist, I came to see that this made a lot of sense. And also that even if I felt sad and guilty about setting my boundaries with this person, it didn’t mean I had to keep talking to them in order to make those feelings go away. That it was okay to be in those sad feelings I was experiencing, and in that grief of losing that person, even though it was super uncomfortable. And that’s just one of so many examples of where developing my capacity to sit in uncomfortable feelings has helped me to get through these hard times when I know I’m trying to get to that light at the end of the tunnel.
Because if every time we feel discomfort, we default back to the status quo, to what is familiar, even if that pattern doesn’t serve us, then it will be really hard to make the kind of changes we want to in our life.
Lesson 3: Sometimes we might need to heal or unblock some of the underlying things that keep us from setting boundaries
So on that note, the last – and maybe biggest – lesson I want to share here today about my journey practicing boundaries is that, similar to my stance on a lot of things “self-development,” I feel that sometimes, oftentimes, it’s not enough just to intellectually know what we “should” do, but that it’s also at the very least just as important to understand why we might have very deep subconscious blocks to actually putting those things into practice in our everyday life – and then, of course, it’s important to work through those blocks at that level.
Because ultimately, the way I see it, setting and reinforcing a boundary are actions that we take. Whether that's by having a conversation with someone to tell them, hey, this is my boundary. Or it's something we might put into practice for ourselves, such as minimizing our time on social media. But there is a difference between doing something that you intellectually perceive to be the "right thing to do" and actually feeling at a subconscious level that it is the right thing to do. Those two things do not always match up.
And oftentimes that dissonance is there because we might have these very deeply ingrained beliefs that we don’t really deserve to have those needs; that people are not gonna pull through for us and meet our needs, so what’s the point; that we are not going to be okay at our core if we ask for this thing and it doesn’t go the way that we want it to. And ultimately, if those things are in play for us, it won’t matter how many books we read, how many checklists we have in our head about the x number of steps to setting a boundary, we will struggle in this practice and in being consistent on an everyday basis with upholding our boundaries.
So, getting those two things more in sync with each other – what I know on an intellectual level, and what I feel at a very subconscious level – so that when it comes time to set the damn boundary, it doesn’t feel like I’m fighting with myself, is really, for me, what has been the most empowering, sustainable thing for setting my boundaries and feeling good, or at least grounded, about doing it.
So, let me finish off by giving you just a couple of concrete examples of what some of those deeply ingrained obstacles have been for me when it comes to practicing boundaries and how I’ve been working through them.
So, one big example is that because I had largely repressed my anger over the course of my life, it was difficult for me to stay in that feeling of, “hey, this person crossed the line; I’m not okay with that,” long enough that I could actually move into then communicating a boundary with that person. Instead, I might feel the anger come up. But I would oftentimes shut it down right away, because it was such an uncomfortable emotion for me to feel, and subsequently not address the thing that had made me angry.
And so, I’ve really had to work on basically reconnecting with my anger. And I wrote an entire blog post about this called “Letting Anger Come Out of the Corner” – I’ll link to that in the show notes, but it’s on my website thesoulsworkpodcast.com. And I share about how growing up, I came to associate anger with something dangerous and threatening, and I therefore very early on learned to repress that anger as a protective mechanism to keep the peace, not rock the boat, etc.
But anger as an emotion is an essential part of us being human. What some people might do in expressing their anger at times is another story. But in and of itself, anger is not a bad thing. And as I mentioned before, anger has often been said to be an indicator of our boundaries.
And I do want to share a bit of the research on developmental trauma that talks about how this shutdown of anger can happen when we are really, really young. So this could be a tender topic for some of y’all, and if you feel like things are coming up for you that are kinda hard to sit with as you listen to this next bit, please do take care of yourself first, pause the episode, skip ahead, or just leave it all together if that’s what feels supportive for you.
So from the trauma psychoeducation, I’ve learned that when we as babies express a need that we have, like we’re cold, we’re hungry (and of course, early on we can’t verbalize our needs in words, but we are always still communicating in the ways that we can – through sounds, reaching out, etc.), and if we do not, in turn, receive the kind of attunement and adequate response that we are expecting from our primary attachment figure to meet our needs, we will then protest this lack of attunement.
And if that protest still doesn’t work in getting our needs met, then it will escalate into anger, which is “a life-supportive response intended to impact an unsupportive environment” – and that’s from Healing Developmental Trauma, by Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre, one of my favourite trauma books.
And basically when there is a chronic, ongoing lack of attunement or this lack of an adequate response by the caregiver to the baby and what the baby is expressing it needs, then the baby starts to shut down their anger response. Because for one, feeling anger toward one’s primary attachment figure – this person who your life depends on at that early age – instinctively feels like a threat to that attachment relationship. Babies do not have the cognitive capacity at that point in development to work out intellectually that maybe their parent is unable to meet their needs because of x, y, z, and it’s really nothing personal, and everything’s going to be fine. No, internally, it feels like the baby’s survival is at stake.
So, my understanding is that, anger will get shut down in this situation where there’s a chronic misattunement in the baby getting their needs met, but depending on the individual, they might adapt by shutting down their angry protest as well as the need itself – like, it might look more like resignation or numbing; or it might be that the child goes into these states of high arousal, anxiety, they might tend to have temper outbursts, etc. And I’m sure that one individual could experience both things. But in either case, that healthy expression of anger is not cultivated and attended to.
And so this could be where a shutdown of our anger starts, if that’s something we’ve experienced. And then as with many of these things that begin in early life, they get reinforced in our later relationships, right? So that it just becomes this almost default way of living and relating to others. Where maybe we develop this very deep sense of, there’s no point in asking for what I need, because it’s not going to be met. Because that is what we internalized.
So, creating an opportunity where we can maybe experience those missing pieces of our development, if you will, to get back in touch with our anger, to learn that we can be with our anger in healthy and safe ways, can be really, really healing, and also empower us from a really deep place to be able to assert our boundaries when we’d like our people and our environment to be more supportive of our needs.
So, the blog post I mentioned really goes so much more deeper into how I’ve worked through that, and of course it’s still a work in progress. But in case you don’t read it, in a nutshell, doing somatic internal family systems therapy has been so transformative for me and a safe way for me to access my anger, to get in touch with it, and heal the parts of me that were perhaps historically invalidated.
So, for those of y’all who haven’t heard about internal family systems before, it's a therapeutic model that sees an individual as having various "parts" – so, there’s our vulnerable parts, which are the parts of us that have been rejected, shamed, and therefore exiled; and then we have our protector parts, which attempt to defend our vulnerable parts from being any more hurt than they already have, but by having this rigidity and defensiveness, our protector parts can inadvertently block our vulnerable parts from the care they need in order to heal.
Then there is our "Embodied Self," which is the term used in Somatic IFS therapy. And our Embodied Self is "our true nature" – what I often refer to as our higher self, our intuition, etc. – that enables us to be in the present, and grounded, and in connection with our internal experience. So, in this state of being really in tune with our Embodied Self, we are separate from our vulnerable and protector parts instead of being blended with or overwhelmed by them, which is the state we get into when we are triggered by something that brings up those old wounds and traumas and such. And in being this separate, grounded Embodied Self, we can then tend to those vulnerable and protector parts as the unconditionally loving presence we may not have had guiding us in our earlier years.
And so, as I wrote in the blog post, I actually had to start this journey of reconnecting with my anger part with my therapist. Because I could not be in my Embodied Self, in that grounded state, when I first tried to visualize or recall moments of being in anger, like in my childhood. I would get very overwhelmed, and a lot of grief and sadness and all of that stuff would come up. And so my therapist acted as that grounded presence, and helped me to not get lost in my overwhelming feelings, helped me to even come up with things to say to my anger part.
Which by the way, anger for me was so, so exiled and repressed – which is why I refer to it as being sent into the dark corner, where it had been kinda pushed into for so long – that I couldn’t even get in touch with that part at first. Anger had actually turned into Hopelessness, because of all the times it had tried to express itself and let its needs be known, but over and over again it had been shut down. And so I had to tend to Hopelessness first so that Anger could start feeling a sense of safety and gradually, slowly come out of hiding.
So, if you want to learn more about what that therapeutic process actually looked like for me, what the conversation sounded like between me and my Hopelessness part, and eventually between me and my Anger part. How did that healing unfold? You can go and read that blog post. I won’t get into the whole thing here, because I don’t want to make this episode any longer than it’s going to be.
But I’ll just say in closing, that in terms of how this has translated into practicing my boundaries, when framed through the lens that communicating certain boundaries meant expressing that I was perhaps angry or upset about something, then that would feel really uncomfortable for me, and even potentially threatening to the particular relationship in question, because I had learned at such a deep level that anger meant something dangerous to the attachment.
And so, it was safer to stay quiet, to not express those angry emotions, in order to keep that attachment intact. That is what I had learned – and it was not an intellectual learning per se – it was something my body had internalized and encoded almost within me from a very young age. And so to unlearn all of that has been a slow and steady and tender process.
But since I’ve communed with my Hopelessness and then finally my Anger part, when it was willing to emerge, I have found it so much more doable to sit with my anger when it comes up, to not immediately push it away as something to be feared, but rather to get curious about what Anger does have to say. What is it asking for? And if that translates into asking another person for something to support me in getting my needs met, I have found that I’m more easily able to do that. Without feeling as much shame about needing something from someone, or fearing that bringing up a need or a preference is going to cause a rupture in the relationship.
So, last example – I’ll make this one a bit shorter. It’s kind of related to what I just talked about, in that one of my long-standing subconscious obstacles to asserting my boundaries has been this deep sense of unworthiness to have my needs met. Now, in a way, I already touched on that. But there’s another way I’ve come to understand this sense of low self-worth that I’ve carried with me throughout much of my life. And that understanding comes from learning about attachment theory.
And by the way, if you don’t know much about attachment theory and attachment styles, I am going to dive into it more in an upcoming episode. But in the meantime, there is so much information out there on this stuff, you can google it. Or Silvy Khoucasian’s Instagram page is a great resource for that. But in short, people tend to talk about 4 different types of attachment styles: 1) secure attachment being the “healthy” type of attachment we all want, 2) anxious attachment, 3) avoidant (or sometimes it’s called avoidant-dismissive), and 4) avoidant-fearful or disorganized.
So, one thing that comes up in the attachment literature, and that has also come up in conversations in therapy for me, is that folks who tend to be more anxiously attached, like myself, can have a harder time receiving care. Or we may feel like we have to always be doing something and giving of ourselves in order to feel loved. Like it’s not just enough for me to show up as myself, without any conditions attached of how I must behave, or what I must do in order for the other person to value me.
So this, for me, also has its roots in early adverse experiences that are a bit broader than just what I mentioned regarding anger. But without getting too much into that, how it shows up when I’m trying to practice my boundaries is, for example, when I’m doing my reflective exercise of identifying what my needs even are, this very deeply ingrained belief might get stirred up inside me that isn’t even usually a conscious thought, but a sense that I’m not worthy of, say, being cared for in a certain way. So then I might go into that dismissive mode of, “Oh, that might be asking for too much.” Or, “Oh, that sounds kind of demanding.”
And so, related to having those porous boundaries I mentioned earlier on, it was like, not only did I not know how to express my boundaries, I didn’t even really know that I should have boundaries. And part of the reason for that was that I had internalized the belief that if I loved someone, I should be willing to give them all of me – to the point where we weren’t our own two individual people but instead we’re enmeshed, which can feel romantic in some ways but is not a healthy dynamic.
So, definitely in terms of working on this, doing that internal family systems parts work for my anxiously attached part has been super helpful. And both with the anger piece and this, there have been other things I’ve needed to unlearn in terms of cultural norms and gender role expectations, things like that.
And here’s the last thing I want to emphasize, which is that we can do all the inner work we want to on ourselves, but I also think it really matters who we are in relationship with. And there may be no such thing as the “right” person, and also yes what we bring into a relationship will have a big influence on what we receive back.
And also, there are certain types of relational dynamics that are just going to more easily, more frequently touch into those triggers than other types of relationships will. And I personally am not of the mindframe that I need to be this completely healed, non-triggerable person, and be able to go into any kind of relationship and make it work because I’m that enlightened. No. I believe that if I’ve had attachment and relational traumas that have contributed to these challenges that I’m talking about, then part of my healing is going to have to happen in a type of relationship that allows for a corrective experience.
And so, part of me working on my boundaries has been to more carefully choose the kind of relationships I’ve been entering into with the question in mind of, is this someone with whom I feel enough of a consistent sense of safety to be able to voice my needs in the first place? Is this someone who generally does not put up walls with me and communicates their own boundaries in a way where they don’t also shut me out? Is this someone with whom I can say no to, or express my limits with, and know that they're not gonna drop me, or make me feel bad about not wanting or being able to give them more in that moment? And I mean, we could potentially practice some of these things in any relationship, but in which kind of relationship is this not going to feel like such a struggle to do?
So, I’m gonna wrap it up here. There’s so much more I could say on boundaries, but hopefully this much was helpful, interesting, maybe reassuring for y’all. I hope.
And I do really want to emphasize and remind all of us that this inner work we are doing is always happening within the context of our relationships with other people, but also with our communities, whether that’s our workplaces, or the city we live in, or our global community. And so, where we can’t choose our relationships as easily, how do we navigate and communicate our boundaries where we have to still engage with certain people and even systems, but where there might be a lot more factors in play that are out of our control, and not always that collaborative partnership?
And how do we keep pushing for larger change to create an environment in which people truly feel that they have more choice and agency and safety to express their boundaries and have them met. So that we’re also thinking about being in healthy relationships, healthy ways of relating to each other, in a broader context?
So, I’ll leave y’all with that. Thank you so much for tuning in. You can find all the links to the resources I mentioned in this episode on thesoulsworkpodcast.com. Just go to the Episodes page and find this episode on Boundaries – it’s Episode 14, Season 2. You can also connect with me on Instagram @janicehoimages, and you can email me at email@example.com to share any feedback, questions, or some of your own story.
All right, y’all. Until next time, take good care of yourselves. Lots of love and self-love. Peace.