Have you ever read a book that changed your life? I have several that I read at just the right time with the message I needed right at that moment. One of those books is “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. I highly recommend it. The concept of boundaries is critical to finding balance in your life and for those of us who suffer with mental illness, this is one of the key skills to learn if you want to move from being battled by the storm to riding it out.
Boundaries are the limitations you put on your life. They are not walls that are put up to keep others out or worse yet, you in. They are ways you can protect yourself from outside forces. So, how do I tell the difference between a boundary that keeps me safe and a wall that keeps me imprisoned? It’s all about the result. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out which is which until the result is apparent but that just provides you with information to learn from.
There are different ways to picture boundaries: as a rubber band that stretches, a bubble that protects you, or a fence that keeps the bad forces out. What’s important is not the image, but the function. However you think of boundaries, they are critical because there are times when we need to hold firm to those boundaries. We need to say, “No”, in order to protect ourselves – to maintain hard fought sanity. There are times when we may need to not go to the wedding out of state because we don’t have the emotional fortitude to survive it. And there are times when we need to say, “Yes” and stretch our boundaries - even when we don’t want to - because it is important to someone we love and we need to think of others.
Boundaries can be flexible, with give and take. They can move and stretch according to your needs. Stretching boundaries doesn’t mean making a one-time leap from point A to point B. Stretching can be slow and gentle. I don’t have to rush stretching my boundaries.
I just need to learn what my limitations are. I know what I can do and what I can’t do.
The advantage of this image is it helps you understand that circumstances can change. You may have to say, “No” to going to an over-stimulating event – like that wedding – on one occasion but be perfectly capable of doing it at another time. Perhaps you don’t go to over-stimulating events as a rule but this is the wedding of your sister, and you love her, so you stretch your boundary and go. Stretching your boundaries is good as long as they – and you – don’t break.
While not my favorite analogy, a bubble can capture the sense of a boundary in that it protects you and puts a space around you. But bubbles are often fragile and boundaries should be strong. Sometimes, you need to keep people at arms-length to protect yourself from negative influences. Protection is a good and important thing. You deserve to be safe but you don’t want to keep people out forever and you don’t want the bubble to break at the wrong time.
You can also see boundaries as more firm, like a fence. A fence is a finite barrier. It keeps animals out and pets in but you can put a gate in the fence. You can go past that fence, into the world. You control when you leave and when you stay. You can return to the safety of the yard at any time. There are times when you want to be safe, and times when you want to explore, and both are ok. Only you know when that fence turns your home into a prison and only you know how much exploration you can take before you feel lost in space.
Creating a safe space
When talking about walls versus boundaries it is important to determine how to create a safe space. Everyone needs to feel safe. You can’t take risks if you don’t believe you can come back to safety. Danger all the time is exhausting but leaving your comfort zone, every once in a while, is how we grow. In order for that to happen, however, we need a comfort zone to begin with. We all need a base where we feel safe to be ourselves.
To create a safe space, first define that space. You need to have a clear understanding of where your comfort zone is. For me, my safe space is my home. When I’m at home, I feel secure. I don’t like uncertainty. I like rules and order. When I’m at home, I set the rules so there’s no risk of my not knowing what they are. I’m comfortable in my home. I have everything I need. I don’t like leaving the security of my home. Instead, I prefer to have people come visit me. There are times, however, when I need to stretch my boundary and go visit others. It’s a challenge but I can do it because I know I can return to my own safe space when I’m done.
Learning your boundaries
I’ve had to say, “No”, much more than I liked but I’m to a place now where I can say, “Yes”, more often because of the strength I’ve gained by protecting myself. Learning how to use boundaries effectively can be a life saver. I can’t tell you when to say, “Yes” and when to say, “No”. Only you can determine that. I can tell you it is well worth the effort to learn how.
Applying boundaries is a learning process. It takes time to learn where your boundaries are and it takes trial and error. Stretching your boundaries moves you from being stuck in negativity to being healthy and positive. Boundary setting is something you need to do for yourself. You’re the one that will face the consequences: positive or negative. Either way, you will learn from the experience.