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Boundaries are what we use to maintain a healthy sense of self. They are the line between interactions that are acceptable or not: physical, spiritual, emotional, sexual, and relational. Healthy boundaries are flexible, allowing intimacy when it’s wanted and being clear about when an interaction is unwelcome.
Boundaries enable us to live lives of compassion. They help us live within our integrity.
Wait, what? Saying no is compassionate?
Listen to researcher Brené Brown talk about compassion and boundaries and doing the best we can.
Saying no to an opportunity or request for interaction is not a rejection of the person, just a statement of one’s own comfort level and needs. This is a huge one to ponder, especially if you find yourself saying yes when you don’t really want to or if you get frustrated when others don’t do what you want them to do.
We saw that Step 4 of NVC is to make a request. But the other person has every right to say no if your request doesn’t suit them. If they have the emotional space to do so, they’ll work with you to come up with another way to get your need met, some strategy that meets their needs, too.
Really soak that in:
Noncompliance is not rejection.
Noncompliance is not rejection.
Noncompliance is not rejection.
Noncompliance can come from a desire to reject someone, but that’s not necessarily the case. When one is mindful of their yesses and nos, saying no to a request is just about the request, nothing else.
When someone asks me to do something, and I say no, I’m not rejecting them as a person. I’m only rejecting what they’ve asked me to do because saying yes would interfere with meeting my needs. That’s all.
I’m not saying I don’t like or love the person. I’m saying it’s not in my general best interest to say yes to the opportunity that they’ve presented.
And the flipside is true. People can love me and still say no to particular requests that I make.
Being mindful of my needs not being selfish, because one of the needs I’m watching out for is my need to contribute, especially to the wellbeing of the people I love. By saying no to their request, I often have more energy, time, etc. to contribute in a more valuable way.
Codependence, independence, and interdependence
One of the main reasons people start working on boundaries is to combat codependence. There was a popular push away from codependence that urges people to be completely independent, and that’s not healthy, either. The pendulum is starting to swing back to center with interdependence.
Codependence is merging in a relationship. A person tries to meet all the needs of the other and is threatened by any differences.
- Fluid or nonexistent boundaries (accepts whatever happens to them and does not assert needs)
- Uncomfortable doing things alone and upset by activities or interactions with others
- Trying to liked or fit in, saying yes/no when it’s not one’s truth (people pleasing)
- Hurtful, judging, or controlling communication
- Feeling smothered by or addicted to the other person
- Statements like “you make me feel”
- Low self-esteem
- Does not meet the need for autonomy, trust, empathy, self-expression, freedom, independence, for example
- If problems are discussed, the codependent partner changes to make the other happy
This shows up in relationships of all kinds from romantic to platonic to parenting, even in our relationships with dogs.
The idea of codependence was developed when one or both partners were fighting addiction. It’s been taken to the extreme of idolizing independence. I call it reactive independence, because it’s done as a reaction to codependence, an attempt to find a healthy sense of self, but over-doing it and blocking everyone else out. Independence is *a* need, but it’s not the only one, so strategies to become more independent shouldn’t block us from meeting our needs for community, intimacy, etc. That’s where interdependence comes in.
First, let’s look at the drawbacks of trying to be completely independent.
Reactive independence is all about trying to be healthy as an island:
- Distancing, boundaries are too rigid (no emotional intimacy, asserts ones own needs without concern for the other)
- Taking no responsibility whatsoever for the emotional response of the other
- Statements like “you can only count on yourself” and “Your happiness is an inside job, talk about feelings to your therapist.”
- Thinking of people (or dogs) with needs as being “needy”
- Not comfortable talking about feelings or being vulnerable
- Does not meet the need for intimacy, to see and be seen, support, community, etc.
- If disagreements arise, the person trying to be independent focuses on getting their way
Interdependence is more natural, because humans need to be able to count on others. We have a need to contribute to life and we have needs for autonomy, expression, and so much more.
In an interdependent relationship:
- Listening and holding space for sharing happen easily, so both can be vulnerable
- Doing things alone is not just allowed, but respected, and encouraged
- Doing things together is done by mutual choice
- Conflict is seen as an opportunity to discover the inner world and meet the unmet needs of the individuals
- Good boundaries and solidly aware of responsibility for behavior
- Healthy self-esteem
- Honest sharing is valued
- Requests can be denied without feeling like a rejection
- Partners can hold space for the other to explore their inner world and find their own path
So how does one actually set a boundary?
The first step is to figure out where the boundary is and that can take some practice feeling the sensations in your body. I can tell a boundary is being approached when I get a sort of icky sensation, a sinking in my gut. It might be different for you, maybe there’s an emotional shockwave of anger, numbness, worry, feeling overwhelmed, or just a desire to put a stop to something.
Boundary enforcement is naturally strengthened by negative reinforcement, in the sense that the intrusion on your safety zone has been repelled. When you set a boundary and, say, the person doesn’t touch you in an uncomfortable way, they don’t coerce you to eat something or believe a certain religion, there’s a sense of relief.
Boundaries should be flexible to adapt to the context. What I feel emotionally, physically, or spiritually safe with from a partner is not the same as what I allow from a first date or a stranger. What my dog allows from me is not the same as what he allows from another dog in the household and that’s also different from what he allows from a dog outside of the household.
Boundaries can be too close (weak sense of self), too distant (not allowing intimacy at all), permeable (not actually blocking unwanted intimacy), too rigid (not adjusting to different contexts, everyone kept at the same distance), too flexible (inconsistent, constantly changing and negotiable).
We start learning boundary setting quite young, in our first relationships with caregivers. Like all behavior, boundary setting is subject to reinforcement (it “works”), punishment (it “backfires”), or extinction (no particular consequences). Because how boundaries were responded to in different contexts or with different people, a person might have healthy boundaries in one area and not in others.
Boundaries that are too close may have ended up that way because setting boundaries was perceived as rejection and punished by abandonment (negative punishment for us dog geeks who like quadrants). Setting a boundary feels unsafe.
Distant boundaries may have developed because closer boundaries were punished. For example: the vulnerability of closer boundaries feels unsafe in some way due to a history of other people not respecting the boundary (allowing one kind of touch opened the door for another kind, for example) or violating trust (sharing a deep emotional story with the person and they tell someone else, for example). A boundary is used to keep the other person from getting anywhere near intimacy, because intimacy feels especially unsafe.
Permeable boundaries might have developed because boundary setting was ignored (learned helplessness). For example, a child says he’s full and the parent makes him eat everything anyway, even to the point of nausea. Boundaries seem pointless or impossible.
Please feel the sensations in your body as you read the various boundary setting (or not) in these responses:
A friend describes a problem with her dog and asks you to come over to help her for free. You believe she won’t actually take the advice if it’s free. [insert another type of request that matches your line of work if you aren’t a dog trainer]
- You really like the dog and hope that maybe she will listen. You squeeze her into your schedule and end up having to miss your son’s basketball game.
- You let her know that you would be happy to fit her into your schedule, but it has to be as a paying client. You offer a friends and family discount of 20%.
- You say no to scheduling a session with her but she persists and you end up emailing long messages that you think she probably didn’t even read.
- You tell her that you have a policy of not working with friends’ dogs and ask whether she’d prefer a referral to another local trainer, an online school, a video, or a book.
- You tell her you’re too busy and start avoiding her calls.
- She’s a close friend and really want to work with her dog because then your dogs could walk together, but you have a strict no-working-with friends policy because you’ve been burned in the past.
- She’s a close friend and really want to work with her dog because then your dogs could walk together. You use NVC to express your concerns about her not doing the work if it’s free and ask her to honestly tell you if she thinks she will be able to follow through on your advice, which will require some behavior change on her part. She clearly understands your dilemma and reassures you that she will prioritize the work with you.
Hopefully you were able to sense the differences in how you’d feel giving each of these responses. Some of them probably feel more healthy, more authentic and powerful. Which one would be your current go-to response? Which one feels like it might better meet your needs? Feel free to discuss what you think about these scenarios in the How to Human private Facebook group.
For me, Option 1 would feel like I’m letting myself be taken advantage of, the boundary is permeable, not protecting my time and energy. Option 2 might or might not feel like a healthy, authentic boundary, depending on whether I could afford giving that discount. Option 3 is similar to option 1 except the issue is being overly flexible. It sets a boundary at first but then allows a boundary violation eventually anyway. Option 4 is healthy boundary setting that still helps the person get their dog trained.
Option 5 sets a boundary but uses a lie and distancing the person would feel icky. This is an example of too distant of a boundary (no contact at all). Someone might use this strategy if they were afraid that they couldn’t trust their boundary setting skills if they were in contact with the person, or if they correlate boundary setting with rejection. Option 6 establishes a boundary is too rigid, because it doesn’t allow exceptions in cases where doing so would meet my needs. Option 7 is healthy boundary setting. It uses clear communication and shows flexibility to adjust for close friendship. If the person is not able to follow through, more NVC could be used to comfortably enforce the boundary and discontinue training.
Healthy boundaries help people know that they can trust you, and they facilitate true intimacy and communication. Your yesses mean yes and your nos mean no, which means it’s easier to truly count on you. Skilled boundary setting is contagious and the people we care about can learn to set their own boundaries and take better care of themselves, too. When we set healthy boundaries we also learn to respect the boundaries of others (including other species).
Boundaries are also super-important for preventing burnout. Dog trainers and shelter workers are one of the highest risk career categories for burnout and boundary setting is one of the main reasons. You can help more dogs if you set healthy boundaries.
For more information on boundary setting, I highly recommend Ann Katherine’s book, “Boundaries: Where You Are and I Begin” and her more step-by-step book “Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day.”
Here’s a video on setting boundaries with and for the animals in your care. It’s one of videos in the member library for my online school, so when it references ‘other videos’ just ignore that, or check them out in the library if you have a Student or Pro membership in the Animal Building Blocks Academy.