Some suggestions for personal policies.
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about modern spirituality and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. To get more content about how to infuse your life with thoughtfulness, reflection, and meaning, subscribe here. I am also a holistic personal development coach. You can learn more about working with me here.
Last week, I had a Q&A with a friend who works in location data and user data privacy, and we talked about how, using frameworks that law and society have created around user data and privacy, we could think about creating a policy around our own emotional boundaries with regards to learning who to trust with our innermost self and vulnerabilities.
I was extra immersed in thinking about this as I read an article this week (linked below in my Reads section, as well) called Where Are Your Boundaries?, where the authors noted this: “A self requires a boundary. Even the most primitive creatures have a physical boundary (skin or another form of membrane) to discriminate “in here” from “out there.” The separation allows sensory stimuli to be processed, nutrients to be taken in and waste products to be discharged. Such a boundary literally defines the individual.”
So what does it mean, then, for us to create a user guide of our very own around our own emotional data and boundaries? How could we better discern whom to share our selves with, and if we share too easily — or, in fact, not easily enough, because that’s a thing, too — and if that is affecting our life, how can we grow and change to a more satisfying way of being?
Well buckle in, my friends. Like, always, THOUGHTS, I GOT ’EM. Read on below for my suggestions on how you can create your own personal guide to emotional boundaries.
Step 1: Understand where you are on the ‘boundary spectrum.’ We’re all coming from different places and perspectives. You may be somebody with weak boundaries; you may be somebody who is over-armored, from an emotional perspective; you may feel settled somewhere in between. Either way, the point is not to feel bad about if you’re a particular way; that fact is neutral. What you can do is have some self-awareness around your natural tendencies, and with that knowledge, be checking in emotionally with yourself and develop some frameworks around ways to proceed.
I like a good quiz, and I think this particular assessment, on finding out where you are on the authors’ ‘boundary spectrum’ is helpful. (It’s also super interesting because it ties your boundary level back to possible particular health conditions.) It may not shock you to hear that I, personally, scored pretty dang high on the boundary spectrum. That’s not a bad thing — that’d be like saying it was bad I was born with hazel eyes. But it IS. And it just means I am highly sensitive, and may, as a result, need to work a bit harder on reinforcing my emotional boundaries with others.
So take the quiz, and reflect: does it show something surprising to you? Were you aware of either having weak or defended boundaries? What do you think of that?
Step 2: Know the signs. Psychological research shows that boundary reactions can often manifest in one of two bigger feelings — resentment, or disgust. If you are consistently feeling resentment in your relationships, that’s a good sign that you have weak or thin boundaries. If you often feel disgust, that’s a sign that your boundaries may be too well established, and you haven’t worked on opening yourself up to new experiences, feelings and perspectives.
How do you know if you are feeling resentment or disgust? Resentment may show up as feeling like something has been incredibly unjust; you spend much of your time swirling around angry or bitter thoughts in your brain about this injustice. There’s a lot of dwelling.
Mark Sichel, LCSW, gives a good definition of resentment: “Resentment refers to the mental process of repetitively replaying a feeling, and the events leading up to it, that goads or angers us. We don’t replay a cool litany of facts in resentment; we re-experience and relive them in ways that affect us emotionally, physiologically, and spiritually in very destructive ways.”
Disgust? The Scientific American article explains it as thus: “At its core, disgust is an involuntary reaction aimed at quickly and efficiently distancing oneself from a poisonous, unsafe or unsavory “other.” Someone whose boundaries are relatively thick will be more likely to notice and react to what is unfamiliar (and therefore suspicious).”
So: Do you spend a lot of time feeling resentment or disgust? Those are great signs to pay attention that show that the way you currently hold your boundaries may be out of whack.
Step 3: Look to past historical examples. Self-knowledge requires, perhaps boringly, a lot of self-reflection, in my opinion. So one of the best ways to figure out how to build your emotional boundaries is to look to the past and the way you were or reacted in previous situations. Try writing down answers to each of these questions:
- Who is somebody you trust implicitly? Describe two ways in which they have made you feel safe.
- Who is somebody who violated your trust? Describe two ways in which they made you feel unsafe.
- Think back to a time when you felt completely safe and yourself. Pick five adjectives that describe that way of feeling and being.
Have these answers written down and staring you in the face will be critical in bringing to your awareness of things you need to replenish or build your boundaries, and you can rely on those facts going forward.
Step 4: Build a toolbox of phrases. For those of us in particular who have weaker boundaries, I feel that part of the reason we have a hard time shoring them up is that we’ve never learned the language around setting our boundaries. To rectify this, it can be useful to build and practice a toolbox of phrases that are neutral, simple, and easy to remember, to draw from in situations where you need to establish a boundary. Try some of the following, then work on creating your own. Simple is better; no need to go buck wild in multi-paragraph form to try to soften a boundary.
- I’d love to help, but I don’t have space for that right now. Good luck with it — it sounds awesome.
- I’m not going to be able to make that event this week, but I look forward to seeing you soon.
- Please stop that; it hurts my feelings.
- I don’t have the energy to put toward that right now, but I do have energy for [blank] if you could use my help there instead.
This article has 14 different suggestions for language that are helpful as well that you could build into your toolbox.
Step 5: Start working on your identity, stat. This article puts it well: “Unhealthy boundaries are often characterized by a weak sense of your own identity and your own feelings of disempowerment in decision making in your own life. This leads you down the road to relying on [others] for happiness and decision-making responsibilities thereby losing important parts of your own identity.”
Where to start with this whole identity thing? Well, just start with noticing. What makes you feel good? What makes you feel bad? When are you checking out — numbing yourself with TV, alcohol, social media — and when are you truly engaged in something, mind and body? Curiosity around who you are is the critical first step. This noticing, observation, and open curiosity around who the heck you are will start leading you down the path to better self-knowledge. And better self-knowledge leads to a stronger identity, and more agency, power, and intention in your own life.
One last thing: I was talking about all of the above with my friend Emily, and we had this exchange that I think is important to share:
Emily: re: user policy I think one thing to keep in mind is that there is also, I think, a misperception that it is “inappropriate” or a burden to share anything personal — especially our own troubles — when actually, that is exactly what strengthens relationships. Letting someone take care of you when you are sad, or advise you (within reason of course), is a way of getting closer. I purposefully do that when I’m trying to build relationships, like with our neighbors. I asked one of them out for drinks one night after I had a tough day and took the (semi-)risk of talking to her about it and we’ve been a lot closer since then.
Catherine: Great points. I definitely want to reinforce that to have some guidance around these things doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take risks, because taking those emotional risks — yeah, sometimes you get hurt. But a lot of the time, that’s where the most beautiful stuff comes from. Having a user guide around emotions and boundaries just ensures you have a foundation to come back to and tweak for next time.
Good luck out there, my friends. The emotional field of life is, no doubt, a risky one — but also incredibly rewarding when you start thinking about who and what enlivens you, protects you, nourishes you, and how you can move forward through it.