Tuning Into Boundaries | Counseling | Therapy

Tuning Into Boundaries

Jessica Soriano , LSW — Associate therapist

Tuning Into Boundaries image

How Do I Know if My Boundaries Are Being Respected or Violated?

Our feelings act as our internal alarm system. At their core, alarms are a mechanism that alert us to distress or danger. Feelings serve a similar function. Owning a functioning fire alarm can play a role in preventing your house from burning down. Similarly, being aware of your feelings can help you prevent burnout. When someone violates our boundaries, we are more prone to negative emotions like anger, frustration, sadness, fear, discomfort, confusion, resentment, exhaustion, etc. Being able to identify the presence of negative feelings can give us insight about a situation where our boundaries are being violated. Conversely, when our boundaries are respected, we are more prone to feel safe, accepted, understood, appreciated, validated, etc.

Think about different people in your life and how they make you feel. You may find yourself in a situation or relationship that brings up feelings and you may not understand why. This is an opportunity for you to examine the situation and explore what about the relationship or interaction causes you to feel the way that you do. It is important to approach your feelings with empathy and curiosity rather than judgment.

If you are new to boundaries, you may find these guidelines helpful in better understanding your how to better understand your boundaries in any situation.

A General Approach to How to Better Understand Your Boundaries In Any Situation:

Step 1: Name your feelings.
Being able to identify your emotions with as much specificity as possible can provide more insight into your needs and preferences.

The more specific you are with your feelings, the more easily you will understand your needs. A relationship where you feel undermined and unappreciated, may prompt you to reconsider how you allocate your time and reinforce the importance of communicating your needs.

There are different resources you can use to get a better handle on your feelings, including the feelings wheel and mood meter. The mood meter is great if you are a visual learner or a more concrete thinker, as it plots emotions on two spectrums: how pleasant an emotion is and how much energy is behind an emotion.

Step 2: Monitor your feelings throughout the interaction.

  • How did you feel before meeting up with this person?

  • How did you feel during?

  • How did you feel after the interaction?

  • When did the negativity start for you?

  • When did the negativity peak?

Step 3: Recognize shifts in your behavior.

  • Did you notice a shift in your attitude or demeanor?

  • Did something happen that caused the shift?

  • Did the person say something that caused the shift?

  • Did your behavior change during a certain point?

  • Did you feel open or guarded during the conversation?

  • Did you shut down? If so, at what point?

  • Did you feel pressure to behave in a certain way?

Step 4: Consider patterns based on the person/situation.

  • Is this typically how you feel in this situation?

  • Is this typically how you feel when interacting with this person?

  • How comfortable are you with this person/situation generally?

  • How present are you with this person/situation generally?

  • How nervous do you feel with this person/situation generally?

  • How much are you able to be yourself with this person/situation?

  • How much do you generally compromise with this person/situation?

  • What is the balance of give/take with this person/situation?

Step 5: Consider how you would have wanted the interaction to go.

  • How would you have wanted the interaction to go?

  • How did the reality of the interaction differ from your expectation?

  • Is there anything that could have made the interaction more positive?

  • Is there anything that could have prevented your discomfort/negative feelings?

  • Is there anything you would have wanted to do differently?

  • Is there anything you would have wanted the other person to do differently?

As you go through these questions, what stands out for you? What do you have strong opinions or feelings about? This is important to note. If you lack a strong reaction or feel indifferent to some of the assessment questions, that can indicate that the issue is of minimal importance.

Putting the Guidelines Into Practice: How to Better Understand Your Boundaries By Looking at Two Different Scenarios

To help illustrate how these guidelines come into play, put yourself into the following scenarios and use them as practice to showcase how to better understand your boundaries.

First Scenario (Mother-in-law): Imagine a situation where your mother-in-law stops by your home without notice on your day off during the summer. Because she is visiting, you go out of your way to make a nice brunch for everyone even though you were originally planning on just heating leftovers. While she is at your home, she notices that your child is not wearing socks and tells your child, “Your feet are cold! Mommy didn’t put socks on you.” Then she proceeds to go to his room without asking to find socks for your child, even though it is warm out. While you are preparing brunch, she comments about how she cannot watch television because you have a “no screen time policy” for your child. While eating brunch, she comments that it is “weird” that there is garlic in the potatoes. When it is time for your child’s naptime, she asks that you keep them up as she does not visit often and wants to spend time with them.

Second Scenario (Friend): Imagine another situation where you are hosting a good friend for brunch. They call you in advance and ask for your availability. You collectively decide to meet on a weekend at your house. Even though you are hosting, you talk about making it a potluck since your time is limited now that you have kids. Your friend is vegan. While they have prepared a vegan stuffed squash to share with everyone, they fully understand and respect that you will be making bacon as a side because your family enjoys it. When your friend arrives, they ask if you need help with anything. As you are beginning your meal, your friend asks permission to go into your fridge to get some chili oil and other condiments for the meal. When it is time to put your child down for naptime, they understand and say their goodbyes.

Step 1: Name Your Feelings

In the Mother-in-law Scenario, perhaps you recognize that you feel generally “unpleasant” and “more high energy.” Emotions like “stressed,” “frustrated,” “annoyed,” “disrespected”, and “exhausted” come to mind.

In the Friend Scenario, perhaps you recognize that you feel generally “pleasant” and “low energy.” Emotions like “comfortable,” “at ease,” “respected,” and “cared for” come to mind.

The negative feelings present in the first scenario serve as our fire alarm indicating that something is wrong and that further reflection would be helpful.

Step 2: Monitor your feelings throughout the interaction.

In the Mother-in-law Scenario, perhaps you feel anxious at the thought of being around your mother-in-law. Perhaps the discomfort comes from her unexpectedly showing up at your home and perhaps it increases as she comments on your parenting. Perhaps you feel extremely burned out when she finally leaves.

In the Friend Scenario, perhaps you are excited to spend time with a friend and genuinely enjoy your time together. Even though you are cooking, it may not even feel like work. Perhaps there is no negativity given that your friend is considerate of your needs and comfort, and asks for permission when navigating your home. Perhaps the visit leaves you refreshed and energized.

Step 3: Recognize shifts in your behavior.

In the Mother-in-law Scenario, perhaps you notice a shift throughout the visit. You might start off feeling anxious and eager to please. As criticisms emerge, perhaps you feel more closed off, less open to sharing. You might also notice shifts in your body. Perhaps your heart rate has increased or you feel tension in your shoulders or a knot in your stomach.

In the Friend Scenario, perhaps your excitement shifts to feeling relaxed. As the time goes on, perhaps you find yourself more open to sharing and even venting some of the difficult things that have been going on in your life. You might notice that your posture is more relaxed and that you're not ruminating on what could happen. Perhaps you find that you are able to let your guard down.

Step 4: Consider patterns based on the person/situation.

In the Mother-in-law Scenario, perhaps you reflect on specific patterns like a lack of communication, a lack of regard for your time and emotions, and a lack of respect for your decisions.

In contrast, in the Friend Scenario, there are positive patterns including respect for your time, emotions, boundaries, needs, and rules of engagement in your home. Your friend does not criticize you nor do they try to impose their beliefs on you.

Step 5: Consider how you would have wanted the interaction to go.

Given that the Friend Scenario is generally positive, there may not be much that you would like to change.

The Mother-in-law Scenario, in contrast, might cause you to reconsider how you spend your time. For example, making sandwiches rather than investing time (time and material boundary) preparing a special meal as your efforts are not appreciated. Similarly, you may reconsider what you would like to communicate (emotional, intellectual, time, and social boundary) to reinforce your boundaries, such as:

  • “We appreciate the time we spend with you but would like it if you could reach out and check-in with us a few days in advance.”

  • “We know you are concerned about your grandchild, but would appreciate it if you could trust that we are making the best decisions for them as their parents. If and when we need advice, we won’t be shy about asking.”

  • “We appreciate your sacrifice and would like it if you would avoid criticizing the rules we have set in the best interest of our child. If watching TV is important to you, perhaps we can schedule your next visit around your TV show.”

  • “We love that you want to spend time with your grandchild, but it is important that they stay on their nap schedule.”

The idea of being so direct in communicating your needs and boundaries may feel difficult, but remember, boundaries are direct, relational, and an act of self-love.

Imagine the potential impact of articulating your boundaries in the Mother-in-law Scenario. Perhaps your mother-in-law is not aware of her impact. By communicating your needs, you give her an opportunity to understand her impact and give her the opportunity to decide whether she would like to change. If she is not receptive, that may say more about her, as nothing you are asking for is unreasonable.

While it may feel more safe or comfortable to not share your boundaries due to fear of how the other person will respond, it may be equally important to consider the impact of not communicating your boundaries and how it may create added resentment and erode the relationship overtime.

If you are feeling stuck and would benefit from getting support from a therapist, at the Center for Growth, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ocean City, New Jersey, Mechanicsville, Virginia, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, trained therapists are available to help you navigate how to better understand your boundaries.

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