The boundary circle is a journaling exercise for anyone struggling to set boundaries in their interpersonal relationships. Boundaries by definition are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits. The boundary circle encompasses the whole process of setting a boundary: defining what the boundary is, or what you need to feel safe, how to communicate the boundary, or capturing the words that reflect the need, and clearly defining the consequences if your boundary is not respected. The boundary circle is a journal exercise designed for you to get clear about what you’d like this boundary setting process to look like, helping you to hone in on what you need, how to say it and how to uphold your limits. When you feel as though your boundaries have been violated, it’s hard to address it in the moment. Journaling through the boundary circle process is a way for you to explore on your own, without yet needing to take the risk of bringing it to another person.
When You Don’t Uphold Boundaries
Setting boundaries is not easy. We can’t control whether or not another person adheres to our limits, or exactly how they will react to our assertiveness. Not everyone is able to honor our needs. We may be used to thinking about other people’s needs before our own. We may have stated a need and communicated it in the past, but haven’t upheld the consequences when our limit was violated. Setting a boundary without upholding a consequence is an incompletion of the boundary circle process because a boundary with no consequence is just a suggestion.
If you’re in a relationship of any kind, in which your boundaries are being repeatedly violated without consequence, then your inner-world may feel unsafe and anxious. Your boundaries are your personal limits and needs to feel safe and sane. If your boundaries are continuously violated without consequences, you may be sending the message to yourself that your needs aren’t a priority. Your self-esteem may have taken a hit from the repeated violations. You may feel confused because you’re not really sure where your limits are. Perhaps you’ve tried to set limits, but go back on them and now it’s hard to figure out where to draw the line. Maybe you know what you need, but you haven’t yet found the strength to uphold this need. If you’re in a relationship where your boundaries are continuously violated, or your needs are not taken into consideration, the boundary circle may be helpful for you to re-think the process of setting boundaries, and claiming your right to your needs, finding a clear expression of them and to think through consequences of continuous violations, even if you chose to only process though consequences internally. The boundary circle is first and foremost about you. You may eventually choose to apply what you learn through the process to your relationships, but it’s important to give yourself some time to get clear first.
The Boundary Circle Exercise with Examples: A Journaling Exercise
What do you need to feel safe? (Emotionally, Physically, Mentally).
In your journal, write down what you need to feel safe emotionally, physically and mentally. Think of safety as an ability to relax in your own skin, to feel some level of predictability within your close relationships, eliminating extreme levels of stress, overwhelm or discomfort. What do you need to feel safe as far as your emotional health? What would help you find more emotional balance? What would reduce anxiety? And mentally, what do you need to help your mind remain clear and focused? What could help you feel as though you had a grasp on your life? What could put you back in the driver’s seat?
Examples of defining what you need to feel safe:
· I need clear dating labels. I like knowing my place in people’s lives. If I don’t know “what we are” for too long, I end up getting preoccupied. I want to keep the status of my relationships simple.
· I need respect to feel safe. I need an absence of name calling and down-talking. Conflict can be handled without verbal abuse.
· I need personal space during arguments, I don’t feel safe when people get close to me when they’re yelling, or angry. I need you to stay an arm’s distance from me when we’re fighting.
· I do not feel safe being around you when you’re intoxicated. Your behavior becomes unpredictable when you’re drunk and it’s not good for me to be around.
What can you say to the other person in order to state your boundaries? What are the words that capture your needs? What behavior is making you feel unsafe? What is being avoided that needs to be addressed in order for you to feel safe? This step is to help you get more clear about how to put your needs into words. Remember that this exercise is for you to gain more clarity; this is a personal exercise that can encourage you to explore yourself freely without having to express them to anyone else yet. It helps to write as though you’re talking to the person who is violating your boundaries because it helps you to capture and define what you want to say to the person without yet having to take the risk of saying it. Focus on how you’re feeling, and keep it simple. “When you X, I feel Y”. And then you can state what you would prefer happen instead and why it’s important to you.
Use your own voice, but pull from the examples below for inspiration.
· “When you raise your voice at me, I feel frightened. I am requesting that you refrain from raising your voice when we have disagreements, and instead, I am asking that you take a few minutes alone to cool off if your anger is getting the best of you. Yelling makes me feel unsafe, and I don’t want to feel unsafe any longer.”
· “When you cheat on me, I feel played and inadequate. I am asking that you honor the relationship arrangements we’ve agreed to, and refrain from seeing other women. I am willing to do the work and move past this, but only if you agree to be transparent going forward. I want trust and good communication in this relationship”.
· “When you call me names, I feel belittled. I am asking that you refrain from calling me names during arguments. Calling me names makes me feel disrespected and in danger. It’s scary, and I don’t want to experience this anymore.
· “When you tell me “I don’t know what we are”, it makes me feel uncertain about how important I am to you. I would like to know where we stand in our relationship. It’s not healthy for me to be uncertain about this for an indefinite period of time. I would like to have a conversation where we both state our desires around commitment.
What are the consequences? What are the words you can offer yourself to remain strong in your boundary setting? How can you uphold this boundary? Why is it important to you? Can you make a declaration of empowerment to yourself? Write freely, this space is for you. The boundary circle is for personal reflection, so that you can get clear about what you’d like your limits to be.
· “There are standards that others have to follow in order to keep me in their lives. I honor my limits in interpersonal relationships. I have to uphold my boundaries so that other people know where my limits are.”
· “I will uphold my boundary because I’m no longer interested in being hurt or confused!”
· “I have the right to uphold my boundary.”
· “If I don’t uphold my boundary, this person may continue to behave in a way that makes me feel unsafe or uncomfortable. I have to set limits so that I am treated in a way that I’m okay with”.
· “If he/she/they aren’t willing to put a label on our relationship, or make a commitment to me, I have to exit the relationship because it means that our wants/needs are not compatible. I’ve established that labels are important to me.”
· “If they violate my request for physical space during arguments (no yelling or posturing close to me), I will not see them for 1 week, because I deserve to feel safe and not threatened. ”
· “If they cheat on me again, I will have to take at least 2 weeks of space from this person in the form of not seeing them physically and limiting phone contact. I have to give myself time to process whether or not this is a behavior I am able to deal with in my relationship.”
Consequences are personal, and you can choose a range of options here. The important thing to recognize is that the boundary circle is not complete without upholding your consequences. It’s okay to take your time, and go easy on yourself in this process. Setting boundaries is not easy, it’s okay to struggle with this. Within the struggle, you may learn more about who you are, what you need and how you want to uphold your needs. Some of us have a harder time discovering what it is that we need, and prioritizing ourselves. And thus, we need some help getting in tune with what we need and why it may be difficult to set limits.
Setting boundaries is no easy task, especially if we’re not in the habit of doing so. Society doesn’t exactly give us a playbook on how to do this, and we don’t really learn it in school. If we grew up in a household with poor boundaries, we may have never learned the script to assert ourselves, or maybe we didn’t learn that our needs and limits are worth protecting. If we’re used to being in a friendship or partnership where we feel as though our needs are trampled over repeatedly, you may be used to reacting to boundary violations rather than setting boundaries and upholding consequences. It may have gotten more difficult to find your voice and tap into the strength needed to gain clarity around the boundary setting process. Setting boundaries is especially challenging in relationships that are difficult and complex, or if any kind of abuse is involved. The boundary circle is an exercise you can do alone to begin getting comfortable and familiar with boundary setting, prior to introducing them to another person. This is also a good exercise to process with your therapist, who can provide you with insight within the boundary circle process.