There is so much information out there about boundaries, especially on social media these days. But even though there is a lot of great infographics and articles available, boundaries can still be quite confusing. What exactly does it mean to have a boundary? Why do we need them? How do we know when a boundary becomes unhealthy? What is the difference between good and bad boundaries?
I think one of the best ways to think about boundaries is using three different glasses and a small stone. One glass is tiny, like a shot glass; one glass is a tumbler; the last glass is a like a mason jar. In the shot glass, the little stone takes up a lot of room. In the glass tumbler, the stone takes up less room. And in the mason jar, the stone takes up hardly any room.
See this stone as an issue you are dealing with, such as a toxic person in your family, at work or at school. This issue is very real, just like the stone is real. And, if you feel like you need a boundary, this means that you feel that this person or people are invading your personal space, which can have real physical and mental repercussions. In fact, every interaction with this person adds more and more toxicity to this issue. (This is at the heart of what it means to be “triggered”.) The issue gets bigger and bigger in your mind, which has a greater impact on your wellbeing. Issues don’t just stay in our mind and brain, it affects our entire person.
A healthy way to deal with this “stone” and put up boundaries involves creating space around the issue, not allow it to get any bigger. This allows us to gain perspective, which then enables us to get to the root cause of the issue and work on managing and reconcepualizing it, as I discuss in my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and my app Neurocycle.
You can’t fix or change the person who is impacting you in a negative way; you can only take responsibility for your own response – that is, what you choose to do and how you choose to respond. This means, using the analogy of the glasses, moving the rock from the shot glass, where it is taking up all that space in your life and is all-consuming, to the tumbler glass, where you have more space and perspective to work on it. Then, you eventually move it to the mason jar glass, where, through healthy boundaries, it no longer defines you or your wellbeing. Here, you have had enough space to work on it and get to the root cause(s), and you are learning how to manage its impact in your life and deal with the person or people affecting you in a healthy way. You are working towards resolving the issue and finding the best way to move forward FOR YOU.
Some examples of ways to do this are:
- Agree to disagree with someone: create space/distance, which will allow you to process and learn how to manage this disagreement by choosing to opt out of the conversation in the moment or for the near future. But be specific! How will you create this space? For how long? Why? What will it look like if you eventually choose to interact with that person in the future? Or if you choose to no longer have a relationship with them?
- Use space/distance to examine why you feel the way you do: ask yourself questions! Why were you triggered? Why did you show up or react in this way? How do you see yourself and this issue? Why did this person who triggered you react the way they did? What may be going on in their life that is affecting how they respond to you? Are they responding this way because they don’t like you, or because they are going through something challenging?
An unhealthy way of creating boundaries, on the other hand, means putting up a wall to keep that person or people out of your life without creating space for dealing with the issue in your own life. This means that that stone is still in the shot glass, which you have only moved some distance away. You haven’t created space to work on the issue in your own life, and you haven’t found a way to resolve the problem and move on. It is still there, but you are just trying to ignore it, which never works! In this confined space (the stone in small glass), there is no room to see clearly—the emotional information dominates your interactions, potentially impacting your mental and physical wellbeing, as well as your relationships.
When you create a healthy boundary, the issue stays the same, but a boundary creates the space you need to look at the issue differently, work on it and reconceptualize it over time, thereby finding a way forward. This is key! Even if the person who triggered you remains toxic, you can still control how they affect you, which is incredibly empowering. Hopefully, the way you are managing yourself and becoming less reactive will impact them, and they too will recognize that they need to create space to work on themselves!
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