Boundaries are a process of deciding on and setting emotional and physical needs and limits that protects our personal value system and relational tolerances and acceptances. Boundaries are tested when our identity, values, self-worth, and safety are threatened. Boundaries are unlike defenses in that defense mechanisms are unconscious drives to protect our core being. Boundaries are conscious coping choices to take responsibility and care for our self and what we value.
When wise, self-caring boundaries are set in a relationship, we are able to love and care for others without hurting ourselves and we are given freedom to live without excessive guilt or resentment. As healthy boundaries manifest, the process may encourage and motivate people around us to solve their own problems.
When appropriate boundaries are not set, we run the risk of becoming either too detached from or too dependent upon others. Negative consequences of infused or enmeshed boundaries are excessive worry and preoccupation, obsessive attempts to control, emotional reactivity and dependency, care taking, rescuing, and enabling.
In communicating compassionate, skillful boundaries, think of this three-part test; Is what I am about to say True?…Kind?…and…Helpful? The way in which language is spoken is important because true, kind, and helpful speech alleviates suffering rather than intensifying pain.
Practicing mindfulness helps determine if what you are about to endear is within your personal value system. Stop, look within, notice, listen, and assess how you feel at the moment, both in body and in mind. During this time as you are checking in with yourself you may ask:
How do I feel in this situation? How am I going to feel afterward? Is this within my values? Is this helpful to me now? Is it true to me? Ask yourself if the language or action you are about to engage in is true to your true identity and values. Are you going to say or do something because of social pressure or to impress others? Is what you’re about to say or do kind and helpful to yourself?
These factors often involve looking at the timing. Maybe what we’re considering (e.g., inviting guests for dinner) meets the test of true, kind, and helpful to others, but given the limitations imposed by our health, it’s time to set a self-caring boundary because we’re not well enough to expend the energy it takes to engage with others. By not engaging in speech or action that violates our values, we are, in effect, saying “no” to ourselves—”no” to speech or action that will intensify our own suffering.
A Buddhist fable explains the importance of setting boundaries through a short story about an acrobat and his assistant. The acrobat erected a bamboo pole and told his assistant to climb up it and stand on his shoulders. Then the acrobat said to his assistant: “Now you watch after me and I’ll watch after you. This way we can show off our skill and come down safely from the pole.”
But the assistant replied: “That won’t do teacher. You watch after yourself and I’ll watch after myself and in that way we can show off our skill and come down safely from the pole.”
The Buddha said: “What the assistant said is right in this case because when one watches after oneself, one watches after others.”
Understanding how to do your best for others means surveying yourself and determining if saying “no” or “not now” will help everyone presently. Mindfulness can help you assess whether what you’re about to say or do is accurate, kind, and supportive to yourself and others.