What are healthy boundaries and how to set them

healthy boundaries
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I first learned about healthy boundaries in my recovery program. Having been raised in a home where such things were never discussed, my first foray into boundary setting came well into my 30s.

Depending on your experience, this may shock you. If you grew up in a home like mine, however, you may feel glad you’re not alone.

My parents kept me in line by registering their disapproval at every turn. This led me to believe my very existence required an apology. So, I did my best to shrink, not ruffle any feathers, and always always put other people’s needs ahead of my own.

I had heard of boundaries, but did not believe they applied to me. At the time, my self-awareness hovered around zero, which prevented me from articulating this fact. But my life showed all the evidence.

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Now that I’ve learned to set healthy boundaries, it’s hard to imagine a time when I couldn’t say ‘no’. Now ‘no’ is my default answer. You have to give me a good reason to say ‘yes’.

Now that I've learned to set healthy boundaries, it's hard to imagine a time when I couldn't say 'no'. Now 'no' is my default answer. Click To Tweet

Let’s talk about what healthy boundaries are not.

1. Healthy boundaries are not walls.

Some people who grow up with abuse and neglect wind up with nonexistent boundaries (like me). They realize from being told over and over (with or without words) that their needs are inconsequential. Their job is to discern other peoples’ needs and take care of those instead.

They self-sacrifice and people-please. They lack a concrete sense of self because they never learned their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. That’s because they were too busy studying other people to know themselves.

healthy boundaries
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But there’s another outcome from childhood abuse and neglect that often gets overlooked. That’s the child who decides they’re going to make damn sure their needs are met.

This leads to extreme self-sufficiency and a decision that everyone else is to blame for anything that goes wrong. They cannot afford to believe they are at fault because their sense of self is too fragile to handle that.

They have a fixed mindset and believe people don’t change. That means they have to be perfect and the best way to do that is avoid emotions at all cost. This equates to an extreme fear of intimacy and stonewalling anyone who tries to discuss emotions.

These are not boundaries, but walls, and they are just as dangerous as having no boundaries at all. Because they ensure the person will never enjoy true connection with another human being.

2. Boundaries are not rigid.

Rigid boundaries are another hallmark of an emotionally avoidant attachment style. This means you give no second chances when someone crosses your boundaries.

You have a rule that you only wait 5 minutes for someone at a restaurant. If they’re a minute late, you start ordering for yourself.

You cut people off easily when they slight you. You’re not interested in apologies or extending forgiveness. They should have known better.

You work so hard to be perfect and other people should, too. If they don’t, isn’t it fair they pay the price?

You may have many friendships but they’re all superficial. Your fear of intimacy and lack of trust prevent you from allowing anyone to get too close.

You can’t tolerate criticism, and lash out at anyone who dares challenge you. Your fragile ego can’t handle the idea you might be wrong.

What are healthy boundaries?

On the other hand, healthy boundaries are born out of love for self and others. Not a mistrustful need to protect oneself from constant perceived attack.

Healthy boundaries tell the world what you want and don’t want. They tell people what you will and won’t tolerate. They improve communication and make relationships go more smoothly.

Healthy boundaries tell the world what you want and don't want. They tell people what you will and won't tolerate. Click To Tweet

You speak up for yourself when mistreated. Though you give second chances, you won’t stick around for abuse.

You know you can forgive people without continuing a relationship with them. That’s different than cutting someone off at the first slight.

Comfort with saying no is the best way to set healthy boundaries. You are tuned into yourself enough to know your bandwidth.

You won’t overextend yourself to please someone else. This prevents the burnout and overwhelm that afflicts so many of us.

You won’t overshare by telling your whole trauma story to someone you’ve just met. You’ll let them get to know you over time. And only if they reciprocate with their own sharing.

If you’re busy or tired and someone needs your time, you’ll be honest. You’ll either say ‘no’ or put a limit on the amount of time you have available. This prevents resentment and misunderstanding.

If you're busy or tired and someone needs your time, you'll be honest. You'll either say 'no' or put a limit on the amount of time. Click To Tweet

If you’re dating someone and only want to see them once a week, that’s okay! Our culture loves to promote the idea of being joined at the hip. But healthy boundaries include limits on time spent with your love interest.

What other examples of healthy boundaries come to mind for you?

Why you need personal standards and how to set them

personal standards
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Personal standards are like boundaries that keep you safe. They let the good people in and keep the bad people out. Or at least the people who may not be best for you.

Personal standards tell people what you will and won’t tolerate. They establish who you are in the world and the types of people you want to connect with.

They come in very handy when you’re dating. That’s because they help you see red flags and avoid the future pain of getting mixed up with an unsavory character.

Personal standards come in very handy when you're dating. They help you see red flags and avoid future pain. Click To Tweet

You go into the date asking yourself if this person has the qualities you seek in a partner. You do not waste time trying to fit yourself into someone else’s idea of a relationship.

For example, you might have standards around how much notice you want before a date. You have deal breakers like he must not smoke or do drugs. He must be divorced and not merely separated.

It’s important to know your standards ahead of time so you’re not making them up on the fly. This makes it too easy to fall into patterns of agreeability, and start overlooking those warning signs that point you to safety.

The role of childhood trauma

If you grew up with childhood trauma, personal standards may not come naturally to you. You’re used to being agreeable and denying your needs in order to win love.

If you grew up with childhood trauma, personal standards may not come naturally to you. You're used to denying your needs in order to win love. Click To Tweet

Now you’re being asked to do the opposite and that can feel uncomfortable and even mean. And you never want to be mean.

You may be so used to abandoning yourself and favoring the needs of others, that it feels like home to you.

But it’s an abusive home that dismisses and sabotages you. It’s the home your parents gave you where their needs came first and yours got left in the dust.

It’s time to make a new home where you’re valued and worthy of love simply for who you are. Not what you can do for others or how accommodating you are.

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Personal standards filter people out

When you set and apply your standards, some people will respect them and treat you accordingly. Others will argue and try to persuade you to betray yourself. This is a simple way to weed people out of your life who don’t belong there.

For existing relationships, standards ensure friends and family treat you the way you deserve. Or at least prevent you from tolerating terrible treatment.

When you have standards for the way people speak to you, you won’t sit there and let anyone berate you, for example. You’ll leave the room or hang up the phone. You’ll rest in the knowledge that you know who you are and what you’ll accept.

This is how personal standards improve your confidence and increase your esteem in other peoples’ eyes. There’s a stability to standards that feel like solid ground beneath your feet. Not like the shifting sands of weak boundaries.

Setting standards for yourself is part of the reparenting process. You’re giving yourself the love, kindness, and respect you missed earlier in life. It’s never too late to remember you deserve to have your needs met and decide how you want to be treated.

Chances are, if you have trouble setting boundaries, standards sound harsh to you. But it’s self-protection. And, it helps the other person as well.

Sometimes people fail to realize they’re behaving badly because no one has ever challenged them. You’re the one with enough courage to tell them the truth.

Signs you underestimate yourself and how to see clearly

underestimate yourself
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When you underestimate yourself, it can lead to a lack of fulfillment in life. You fall short of your purpose and potential because you hold yourself back.

You avoid challenges when you underestimate yourself. That can lead to feelings of emptiness and even depression because you’re operating below your true capabilities.

But how do you know whether you’re viewing yourself accurately or minimizing your good qualities? Here are six signs you underestimate yourself.

1. You have unfulfilling friendships.

If you underestimate yourself, that will likely affect the quality of your relationships. If your self-worth is low, you’ll have trouble showcasing your value. As a result, others won’t see it.

That means you’ll suffer in relationships where you don’t feel fully seen or known. If you doubt your value, you’ll struggle to show up in relationships which makes them feel empty and unfulfilling.

2. You suffer from enmeshed relationships.

When you underestimate yourself, you’re more likely to let other people make decisions for you. You’ll rely on the “good sense” of others, like overreaching family members, to guide your life in the direction they think is best for you.

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3. You accept jobs below your qualifications.

In spite of your experience and skills, you work at jobs that fail to challenge you. You lack the confidence to get outside your comfort zone and ask for more.

Whether that means going for a promotion or taking on new projects, you fear you don’t have what it takes and can’t achieve what others do, in spite of matching their qualifications.

4. You ignore red flags.

When you underestimate yourself, you settle for less in relationships. You may have standards going into a relationship, but loosen them in order to keep someone.

When you underestimate yourself, you settle for less in relationships. Click To Tweet

Self-doubt tells you anyone of high caliber would never really like you. So, you ignore that they live with their mom, drink too much, or refuse to commit.

You make excuses why it’s okay to stay with someone who’s not relationship ready, or who treats you less than you deserve. That’s the way you treat yourself, and other people sense that and follow your lead.

5. You suffer from envy.

Rather than feeling happy for others who succeed, you feel pangs of jealousy. That’s because you know deep down you should be accomplishing similar goals. But the fact you underestimate yourself holds you back.

It’s natural to experience envy from time to time. But when you consistently wonder why them and not you? That’s a result of not stretching outside your comfort zone in spite of your abilities.

6. You don’t know your strengths.

This often goes back to childhood in which parents abdicated their responsibility to help you understand yourself. If no one pointed out your strengths or helped you develop them, it makes sense you’d struggle to know what they are.

If no one pointed out your strengths or helped you develop them, it makes sense you'd struggle to know what they are. Click To Tweet

When you grow up without praise or encouragement, you doubt whether you have any gifts at all. You underestimate your value because you learned from an early age that love and acceptance came from staying small.

That leads to hiding and minimizing your strengths. So, what can we do today to have a more accurate view of ourselves?

underestimate yourself

Do things that scare you a little.

Make it a point to get outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself. Ask for what you want rather than settling for what others are willing to give you. That applies in both the workplace and relationships.

Take time to know yourself.

Spend time alone journaling your strengths and gifts. Get to know your desirable qualities. Discover things you enjoy and do more of those, even if it’s a hobby.

Stop envying others.

Instead, see them as models and mentors, or friendly competition. It’s a known fact that success leaves clues, so follow them to discover best practices and achieve your own similar goals.

Keep standards.

Most of all, stick with them. Adhere to red flags and never make excuses to loosen those deal-breakers.

Our standards serve to weed people out, a necessary process when establishing new relationships.

Show up fully.

Stop hiding and playing small. Offer information about yourself rather than waiting to be asked. Take up your share of time and space in conversations with others.

It’s up to you to create your life rather than living one designed by others’ demands and desires. Spend time setting goals in all areas of your life and taking steps to make those happen.

It might mean offending overbearing family members. It could mean spending time alone because you refuse to settle for less than you deserve. But it’s a necessary step on the road to freedom from self-doubt and self-sabotage.

Signs of childhood emotional neglect and how to overcome

childhood emotional neglect
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If you’ve suffered from childhood emotional neglect, you may not be aware of your trauma. You know something was wrong growing up but can’t put your finger on it.

That’s because childhood trauma is usually framed as physical and, more recently, as emotional abuse. If your trauma resulted from what didn’t happen it can be harder to pinpoint and overcome.

If a parent knocks you down or swears at you, it’s easy to call abuse. The proof lies in the memory of what they did to you.

Neglect is framed as lack of food, shelter, or other necessities of life. Another evidence-based definition.

It turns out emotional neglect can be equally as painful as physical neglect. And as traumatizing as emotional or physical abuse.

Some say more so. But the clues are less tangible.

Childhood emotional neglect does not discriminate on the basis of wealth or status. In fact, some of the most rich and well-established families have seen the worst cases.

Childhood emotional neglect does not discriminate on the basis of wealth or status. In fact, some of the most rich and well-established families have seen the worst cases. Click To Tweet

Those of us who grew up with this type of neglect felt invisible, unloved and unwanted. We received no praise or encouragement from our parents or caregivers. In fact, they may not have even looked at us very often.

Unlike healthy parents, emotionally neglectful parents do nothing to help their children process their emotions.

Most of the time, feelings are forbidden and children in these homes learn to hide them in order to win acceptance.

Children are not loved for who they are, and are expected to cater to their parents needs by stifling their own. They grow up feeling like no one would ever love them for who they are.

If you’re struggling with any of the following signs, you may be a victim of childhood emotional neglect.

1. Overly self-sufficient

If you have trouble asking for help and feel you have to get things done on your own, you may have suffered from childhood emotional neglect.

You got used to having your needs ignored in the home. So, you’ve made an unconscious decision to rely only on yourself rather than re-experience the pain of rejection.

2. Poor sense of self

Your parents never validated your feelings and never helped you understand your strengths and weaknesses.

You have trouble discerning your likes and dislikes because you put those aside to avoid burdening your parents.

You have trouble discerning your likes and dislikes because you put those aside to avoid burdening your parents. Click To Tweet

As a result of this lack of guidance, you struggle to know who you are on a fundamental level. This makes if hard to create an authentic life and pursue heartfelt desires.

3. Weak boundaries

childhood emotional neglect

You put aside your own needs to take care of the needs of others. You do what you think will please people because you believe they would never accept you otherwise.

You may think you have a fatal flaw that makes you unlovable. You have trouble accepting that anyone would love you for who you are.

4. Difficulty with emotions

Your parents likely dismissed or punished you for having emotions they found inconvenient. As a result, you learned to keep their “love” by hiding those feelings.

You adopted the notion that certain emotions are negative or bad. You’ve lost touch with your ability to process your feelings because you never learned how to do so.

5. Low self discipline

Your parents either pounded you with rules or were too hands off. Both cases lead to poor self-discipline in adulthood.

Rule-ridden adolescents rebel against structure. If you’re only following rules to avoid punishment, you don’t learn the healthy reasons for habits and routines. Therefore, you won’t adopt them in adulthood.

If your parents failed to give you structure like mine did, you won’t learn the value of habits and routines. You will struggle to form them throughout life.

Healing from childhood emotional neglect

If these signs of childhood emotional neglect sound familiar, there are many things you can do to begin healing.

1. Start feeling all your emotions, and stop labelling some good and others bad. All emotions have something to teach us and we need them all to live fully.

Start feeling all your emotions, and stop labelling some good and others bad. All emotions have something to teach us and we need them all to live fully. Click To Tweet

2. Learn to set healthy boundaries that ensure you take care of your own needs. This will help you feel safer in relationships, and allow more authentic communication and intimacy.

3. Spend time getting to know yourself better. Journal your likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Allow yourself to pursue the things you enjoy for their own sake.

4. Develop healthy routines such as going to bed and waking up at the same times. Eat meals around the same time each day. Schedule in the things you need to do, then do them.

Honoring routines and habits that seem boring or pointless is the same as keeping promises to yourself. This will increase your sense of self-worth and lead to more success in life.

For more in-depth advice on these tips, click here.

Jesus is the light we need in the darkness

The following guest post is part of a series called When Christmas is Hard, which explores unique challenges and heartaches of the holiday season.

Jesus
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Growing up in a family in ministry had its rewards, and its challenges. My Dad directed the choir and my Mom played organ, so they worked every Sunday, and always on Christmas.

They worked for several churches over the years including the Catholic church, which paid well but also required the most time, with multiple times for mass every weekend. A challenging time commitment indeed for the family of the worship leaders.

I remember singing for church services with my family from a young age and have been singing my whole life. I find great joy in singing and performing but struggled to balance my feelings, especially at Christmas.

While I loved Christmas eve services and singing by candlelight, I longed for the opportunity to simply be together on Christmas without all the fuss. My parents worked regular jobs as well so there were hardly ever days off in my family.

I understood this was a source of income for my parents so I couldn’t complain about the time investment.  But oh, to not have to go anywhere on Christmas morning…this was a dream for most of my childhood.

Oh, to not have to go anywhere on Christmas morning…this was a dream for most of my childhood. Click To Tweet

At the same time, I loved Jesus, even as a little girl, and something within me has always longed to serve in the church through worship. Now, as an adult having served in church ministry myself, I know it can be both rewarding and taxing, fulfilling and draining.

There is a delicate line between a calling and an over-commitment. Many of those in ministry get burned out or have to learn to find balance.

Teen years

When I reached my teen years, I was old enough to stay home with my brothers and not attend all the services. When my parents worked for the Catholic church, my brothers and I would go to church down the street where some friends went.

Only attending one service on Christmas Eve definitely lifted a burden. Except, it didn’t lift the one that really mattered.

My parents started a tradition of making seafood chowder on Christmas Eve, a quick meal they could leave on the stove. They would come home between services and we would eat our chowder together.

My Dad would tell the story of the early church represented by the Ichthus fish and remind us of the importance of being disciples and having good attitudes about “sacrifice”. We got to open our presents to each other.

My mom always baked lots of yummy treats and we did have fun together. Then my parents would head off to midnight mass and we knew that when Santa came to our house, he brought stocking gifts that we were allowed to open whenever we woke up.

Santa never brought “big gifts” to our house, and that was ok because our gifts to each other felt more genuine anyway. My parents were in and out on Christmas morning, coming home between services. I always hoped for more meaningful time together, but things remained that way until I got married.

A difficult decision

My husband’s parents lived 500 miles away and when we got married we made a decision (since we are teachers and have two weeks off) that we would visit his parents at Christmas and in the summer.

When we had our first son, my parents did not like this decision. We tried to compromise with celebrating Christmas with them closer to New Year’s weekend, but they never seemed to accept that.

They carried a lot of resentment over us not being in town on Christmas day even though I explained I wanted to be in one place for Christmas. It was best for our family and the other grandparents aren’t local and have to miss birthdays and concerts, etc.

Unfortunately, this continued to be an issue even beyond the death of my Father-in-law and remains an issue every year. This year my family is not in communication with my extended family and will be celebrating Christmas at home.

Setting healthy boundaries

I am sad about the disconnection, although I’m proud of myself for setting healthy boundaries so I can heal.

I am sad that certain things have become an issue worth disconnecting over, although this is mostly me setting healthy boundaries so I can heal. Click To Tweet

My childhood memories of Christmas feel a lot like glimmers of light in the darkness, because I knew Jesus was there with me through some dark times. With the decision to be away from my extended family this year, I am sad, and also at PEACE. I still cling to Jesus, who was born to be “God with us”, not just at Christmas, but EVERY day.

He is the one helping me heal. He is the one who makes all things new. He is the one in whom I place my hope. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:4-5

Christmas is still hard, but I also know when I cling to Jesus and “turn on the light”, it is going to be OK, as I take it one moment at a time.

For more of Shelley’s writing, visit her at: The Amateur Acorn.