#1 Ingredient for Healthy Relationships
Healthy relationships require us to establish rules (healthy boundaries) that identify reasonable, safe, and permissible ways for others to behave toward us. We create these rules to feel both safe and appropriately balanced between independence and connection with others. Through our limits, we negotiate the balance of power and getting our needs met in relationships. There are five major areas in which we set limits for others: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and time.
Setting healthy limits with others is difficult. For one thing, we must know ourselves well enough to know what we want, what we need, when we are not sure about what we want or need, and how to communicate this with others. When we don’t know what our personal preferences are, we are susceptible to allowing others to define them for us. It takes courage and hard work to first sort out our own likes and dislikes and strengths and weaknesses and then to effectively communicate them to others.
Boundaries are also difficult because they are dynamic. There is rarely a black and white standard to set because every situation and relationship is different. Take for instance the boundaries of a parent and an infant compared with those of the same individuals when the baby becomes a teenager and then a young adult and then a mature adult who is now caring for the parent. Typically, the boundaries between an infant and their parent are nonexistent due to the baby’s dependence for survival. These boundaries become more obvious as the child matures and develops a more clearly defined sense of self.
Here are few examples of what limits define in our interactions with others:
- how much you do for others and how much you will ask others to do for you
- how much you self-disclose to others and how much you will ask others to self-disclose to you
- how much time you will spend with others and in what activities
- how willing you will be to engage in legal or otherwise binding partnerships
- how willing you will be to “agree to disagree” vs. how much you need others to think the same as you
- how much loyalty you will give others and what you will require from others
- how similar you are willing to dress, decorate or otherwise appear as others
Think about your relationships with your family members, closest friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers. What are some of the limits that are important to you in those relationships?
2 Types of Limits
Limits help us define and express our individuality while at the same time connect with others and belong in relationships. We are constantly setting and relaxing boundaries to maintain this fine balance. Boundaries are dynamic, constantly adjusting to preserve our sense of safety in both individuality and belonging. In this process some of us may tend toward one extreme more than the other and have boundaries that are either more permeable or more rigid.
When they are more permeable, there is potential risk to be taken advantage of and be hurt by others. On the other hand, when they are too rigid, we risk not being “known” by others. Either extreme can lead to lonely and unsatisfying relationships.
When our limits are more permeable or fluid, there is not a clear definition between where we end, and others begin. We have trouble formulating our own opinions and life philosophies, so we take on those of others. We may find ourselves taking on other’s thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and expectations as our own. We become what others say about us or what they want or need us to be.
An illustration of this concept is Julia Roberts in the Runaway Bride. By the end of movie, she was able to be in the relationship of her dreams because she finally discovered how she liked her eggs. Until then, she always liked her eggs just as her current boyfriend did. The eggs illustrate how she allowed others to control her life by determining her likes and dislikes rather than setting limits to discover and express her own desires and define her own individuality.
On the other hand, when our boundaries are more rigid, we will struggle to develop and maintain a connection with others. Our limits become a fortress denying access to others and creating a prison for ourselves. The fear of losing control of our ability to protect our image and individuality does not allow for vulnerability and connection with others. We keep our walls up and hold others at a distance. Others might give up on the relationship due to lack of connection and a feeling of emptiness.
On the scale of permeable to rigid, rate where you feel your boundaries are with each group of relationships (i.e. family, close friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers)?
Are you ok with this rating?
What needs to change if you are not ok with the rating?
4 Ways to Set Limits With Others
There are four different ways to set limits and respond to boundary violations: passive, aggressive, passive aggressive and assertive. Most of us vacillate among all four ways, but the goal is to be assertive at least most of the time. We may have some relationships in which we feel very safe. There is a clearly and mutually agreed sense of who we are, who they are, and what the relationship is. We have learned it is ok to be assertive, to express our individuality and needs because the other person will respect and support our assertions and we will offer the same. Then, we have other relationships that are bit more complicated challenging our ability to be assertive. The more we understand about the importance of setting boundaries, our rights and the rights of others, the more successful we will be at assertively setting appropriate boundaries.
Sometimes, we struggle to set limits because we feel guilty, or we do not want to hurt another’s feelings. We tend to believe that our worth is not as valuable as others and that their needs and opinions are more important than our own. Other causes for passive limits is the fear of rejection or retaliation physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually or with our time. Regardless, whatever the reason may be, when we find ourselves saying “yes,” when we’d much rather say, “no” or agree when we really disagree, or give far more than we get and fear far too much what others think of us, we are likely passive in the way we set limits with others.
We often do not realize we have been overly passive until we find ourselves replaying conversations in our head, or avoiding people we’d rather not talk to, or finding ourselves quick to be intensely angry over the minor infractions of others.
Another way to struggle with limit setting is to be aggressive. Sometimes we are aggressive in the way we set boundaries because we believe our way is the only way or best way to do something. Other times, it could be because the only way we know how to set a boundary is to get angry enough to do so. We also might be experiencing fear or avoiding feeling vulnerable.
Regardless of the reason, when we are aggressive in the way we set limits, we disrespect the rights and wishes of others. We may expect others to change their opinions and think and behave in ways that are more congruent with our own. We are less tolerant of others’ needs and opinions and seek to dominate to get our way or our point across. Often, we do not realize we are being aggressive until someone tells us we are being mean or that we need to calm down.
Passive aggressive is a way to set limits that is both passive and aggressive. It is passive in the sense that it does not directly address the boundary issue and aggressive in that our behavior is intended to be punitive or to “get back” at the other person. People who set boundaries in a passive aggressive way may tend to be both passive and aggressive. Sometimes, people who are more passive will use this way to avoid “stuffing” their anger and feel a sense of “sticking up for themselves.” While people who are more aggressive in the way they set boundaries will know the behavior is inappropriate but do it in such a way to avoid being confronted for their behavior.
Regardless of the reason, passive aggressive behaviors can trigger an intense emotional response from others soliciting the intended outcome. Typical passive aggressive behaviors can be pouting or giving someone the silent treatment, backhanded complements, or subtle insults, not following through on something you’ve agreed to do, misplacing items that are of value to others, or just being stubborn because you know it really bothers the other person.
Being assertive requires a great deal of emotional intelligence. Assertive boundary setting is when someone can stand up for themselves or others in a way that is calm and positive. People who are good at this are often able to set boundaries in a way that is not offensive to others and preserves the relationship. This is because someone who is assertive recognizes their own value as well as the value of others. This enables them to express their needs, thoughts, feelings, and concerns while also considering the perspective of the other person. Someone who is assertive recognizes the worth and rights of people as well as themselves.
On the scale from 1 to 10 rate how often you respond with each type to boundary violations from others (family, close friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers).
passive aggressive 1——————————————————————-10
Think of a time you successfully set a boundary with a family member. What were your thoughts about yourself? About the other person? About the future of your relationship?
Think of a time you did not set a boundary with a family member. What were your thoughts about yourself? About the other person? About the future of your relationship?
Think of a time you did not set a boundary with a close friend. What were your thoughts about yourself? About the other person? About the future of your relationship?
Professional Limits in Human Services
Limits in professional relationships require conscious awareness, education, and training on the ethics of professional relationships. There are many universally accepted guidelines and parameters for setting professional boundaries. They include things like not accepting gifts, not giving out your personal phone number or not engaging in a sexual relationship or adding dual roles to your relationship.
As a helping professional our role is to give; to keep the focus on the needs of those we are helping. We essentially get paid to not ask for reciprocity. The key to creating and maintaining healthy professional relationships with clients is to ensure that our personal needs are being met elsewhere.
Knowing the professional relationship is one sided, we should have noticeably clear parameters around the relationship. For instance, clients should not expect friendship or 24×7 access. If care is required outside of the billable time or session, we should have clear clinical justification, a plan, and accountability. Supervision that includes discussion on setting healthy limits to ensure our boundaries are clear and that our intentions are for the client’s progress in treatment can be tremendously supportive for helping professionals.
Setting limits in our professional relationships with clients is the key to avoiding compassion fatigue and burnout and truly being effective in our work. The perfect balance for healthy limits requires equal measures of empathy and objectivity. With this balance, we can be the best care giver for both ourselves and our clients. But if we over identify with our clients’ needs, we are unable to offer hope and see a clear treatment path for them. And if we under identify with them, we are unable to provide a healing therapeutic relationship.
Maintaining this balance means that we can be fully present with our clients and transition with minimal effort to celebrating with our dear loved ones. These healthy limits allow us to be our authentic selves in our various roles and relationships.
Tips for setting professional Boundaries
- Keep professional relationships professional; focused on the consumer and their needs and have a single purpose or role.
- Operate within one’s level of competence. Acquire the training and support that allows success.
- Create a structure that is represents your values.
- Communicate your values and structure.
- Take time to reflect upon moments of negative emotions such as anger, resentment, frustration, etc. to eliminate stress and anxiety.
- Take time to respond to requests.
- Be prepared to reinforce or negotiate your boundaries. Have a plan.
What are some of the professional boundaries you set in relationships with consumers?
What are some of your priorities or things you value that you want to protect from your professional life taking over them?
What are some of the structures you set in place or could set in place to protect your values?
What are some of the professional encounters that seem to have the most significant negative impact on you? The ones that are the hardest to bounce back from.
What are some of the boundaries you have in place or could have in place to allow for self-care?
Setting limits is not easy. It requires a great deal of emotional intelligence and maturity. Good boundaries create the perfect balance for protecting your rights and preserving your identity while at the same time connecting and belonging with others.
Assertiveness is the balance that allows an individual to express their needs, ideas, feelings and wishes while also respecting the same in others. Assertiveness allows people to safely maintain strong connections with others and belong in long-term, satisfying, and supportive relationships.
Professional relationships require a vastly different balance. The professional relationship is one sided with the client’s needs and preferences at the forefront. Therefore, there must be a clear difference between professional and personal relationships and a clear delineation between professional responsibilities and personal life. The more we assertively define and “defend” our limits, the easier it becomes to feel balanced about life.
To learn more about setting healthy boundaries visit Online Counseling for Compassion Fatigue to schedule a session with Shari Morin-Degel.