How to Set Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship
If you want to learn how to develop strong personal boundaries, this is your roadmap.
Here to help demonstrate is Isabella Bunny, whose interests range from romance and relationships to hopping around the world in pursuit of new and exotic carrots.
This is her humble home, where she plants and grows her own fruits and vegetables on the land. She eats some of the produce, trades some with others, and shares the rest. Gardening is a vital activity for Isabella, as this is what allows her to survive and sustain her life energy.
If her friend Scarlet comes by for some carrot soup, Isabella gladly welcomes her over.
However, there are some Troublemakers in Bunny Village that try to steal carrots that aren’t theirs. They don’t do it out of hunger, but merely for sport, greed, and ego. These Troublemakers constantly keep an eye out for bunnies with weak boundaries, so that they can take full advantage of the situation and stockpile more resources. And, you better believe — they are prepared to use every trick in the book to get what they want.
For some of the bunnies who toil in the fields tirelessly day after day, they never seem to get ahead. This is because the Troublemakers are experts at timing when the worker bunnies will be away, so that they can steal lots of carrots. Without enforcing any sort of boundary to protect the carrots, the worker bunnies are at the mercy of the Troublemakers. They could easily build a fence, but simply aren’t confident in their abilities to stand up for themselves. This is known as having a soft boundary.
Isabella, on the other hand, has become wiser through the years. To enforce her boundaries in a healthy way, she put up a fence high enough to prevent the Troublemakers from jumping into her garden. Here’s a view from above:
Pay close attention to the gates in the front and back of the boundary. While the fence is designed to keep the bad out, the gates are what enable Isabella to let the good in (known as a flexible boundary). Without the gates, Isabella would be completely isolated from the outside world, and would likely not be able to survive or live a very fulfilling life (known as a rigid boundary).
Additionally, if Isabella was not skilled at knowing how to determine what is good for her to let through the gates (and what is not), the fence would not be able to serve its intended purpose — and would be largely ineffective (known as a spongy boundary; which produces similar consequences as the soft boundary).
Here is a visual representation of what all of these different types of boundaries look like; with the flexible boundary being the ideal one to aspire towards.
When the Troublemakers see the flexible boundary, they may try a number of different tactics to get Isabella to open the gate, including flattery, guilt, or even intimidation.
In this example involving carrots and actual physical boundaries, it’s pretty easy to see what is and what is not acceptable. In reality, boundary issues are not only physical; they can also be psychological as well. In real life, the carrots that we spoke of earlier can represent your time, money, energy, self-esteem, or other resources.
There’s an old adage that says, “Your right to swing your arm ends where another individual’s nose begins.” In other words, freedom means that you can do whatever you wish, as long as you are not encroaching on anyone else’s equal freedom. Your freedom isn’t any more or less valuable than anyone else’s freedom.
From a psychological standpoint, you get to decide what is and what is not okay in terms of how others treat you in interactions. You are allowed to trade or share your carrots in any way that you feel is fair. However, if someone tries to force you to give up your carrots against your will, that is where they have crossed the line.
Additionally, even if someone else doesn’t physically take from you, they can still cross the line by taking from you psychologically. If someone is ridiculing you or treating you unfairly in some way, this is another instance where they may be overstepping the boundaries, and you have the right to distance yourself from them.
A situation that’s important to address is when you may say no to someone, but they ignore it and impose their will upon you anyway. This is what’s known as trauma.
After dealing with traumatic situations, it can be understandable that some may want to give up on the idea of trying to maintain a healthy, flexible boundary with others. Some may try to overcorrect by moving towards a rigid boundary that doesn’t let anyone in at all. Others may develop a spongy boundary that is not enforced very effectively — some good is kept out, while some bad is let in.
If you’ve been betrayed in the past, and have dealt with traumatic situations, it’s crucial to your well-being to do whatever it takes to be able to heal from this and move past it. You are definitely not alone in this; countless others have dealt with abusive situations as well.
Fortunately, many have been able to bounce back stronger. Therapy can be effective in helping you to express your emotions, fully accept the past, face your fears, and move forward in a healthy way. Just the act of talking about the trauma with someone and seeing yourself as separate from it can be extremely relieving. It’s of the essence to understand that trauma is not your fault, and does not define who you are. If you’ve been betrayed by someone, that defines their character — not yours.
Isabella has used her trauma to become a wiser bunny. She’s now more discerning, and takes more care in ensuring that the individuals she lets into her life have her best interests at heart — the same way she does for them. She knows that this dynamic is the healthy foundation she needs in order to be able to someday meet the bunny of her dreams, and build a loving relationship together.
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