Healthy boundaries are essential to our wellbeing and our success–in both our business and personal interactions with other human beings. When we create and hold healthy boundaries, we are able to say “no” in order to say our best “yes” when it matters most. And we’re able to show up in ways that respect and support others’ boundaries. Good boundaries are key to trust and psychological safety for ourselves and others.
When we talk about boundaries in this context, there are two dynamics at play:
- Our ability to manage and regulate our own emotions and behavior, having the emotional awareness and maturity to keep to ourselves any thoughts, emotions, or behaviors that are inappropriate in the moment.
This is not at all to say that it is wrong to be direct, vulnerable, or authentic–quite the opposite. Rather, it is knowing when, with whom, and how much to share to protect both yourself and the other people involved.
- Our ability to either allow in (“yes”), or to deflect (“no”), requests, judgements, assumptions, emotions, and actions coming at us from others.
The same principle applies to both positive and negative, welcome and unwelcome interactions with others. The point is pausing to filter and consciously decide what we want to allow through the boundary.
(I want to acknowledge that, far too often every day on our planet, the sovereign will of individuals is violated in countless heinous and insidious ways. This is in no way the fault of the person whose boundaries and desires are violated. In this piece, I am referring to relationships in which the parties have the privilege, freedom, and personal power to choose.)
Depending on many factors–the specific circumstances we find ourselves in, the other parties involved, our cultural background, gender, personality traits, perceived level of power and influence–we will create boundaries with different levels of permeability.
- If our boundaries are too loose, we may sacrifice our own wellbeing in service to another and be afraid to hurt someone’s feelings by telling the truth, or find ourselves with too much work to do.
- On the other hand, when we hold boundaries that are too rigid, we may be shut down, unable to adapt to changing circumstances, or unwilling to let in others’ caring, help, or love.
It’s also worth noting that, even when we are unfamiliar with these ideas or unaware of what our own boundaries are, we still create them and they are running the show from our subconscious! We just don’t know or understand that it’s happening and the impact can be less than ideal.
Good boundaries are a two-way street, allowing the right amount of information, emotion, and energy to flow between individuals in any given situation. To understand how this works, picture yourself and another person, perhaps someone you have conflict or discomfort with, facing one another. Imagine that, in front of each of you, is a wall that represents your boundaries. These walls are magical: they can move closer to you for greater protection, or further away to allow more distance. They can also become more or less porous or permeable, allowing different amounts of energy to flow both from you and to you. And the secret to the magical power is this: you get to control your own boundaries when you are emotionally intelligent and self aware!
Now picture that between you is an infinity shape which represents the flow of thoughts and ideas, emotions, and effort that you both put into the relationship or situation/collaboration. The energy is constantly moving between the two of you along the infinity shape. Sometimes, your loop gets bigger as you give and open more, and sometimes the other person’s loop grows while yours gets smaller. The loop interacts with the boundary walls that you are each moving closer or farther away from, becoming more or less permeable as needed while you build trust, improve your communication, and create agreements.
Let’s connect healthy boundaries to the four quadrants of emotional intelligence:
Self-awareness: I understand what motivates influence my behavior in relationships with others and why I draw the boundaries I do. I know when I am setting a boundary, whether it is articulated out loud or not.
Self-management: I say “no” when I mean “no” and “yes” when I mean “yes” in support of my own wellbeing. I practice emotional regulation and containment, pausing to choose how I want to show up in any given situation.
Social awareness: I notice where other people draw boundaries. I consider how our boundaries impact one another and where they could be modified for a better outcome.
Relationship management: I actively create healthy boundaries and mutual agreements in my relationships with others. I pause to clarify and re-negotiate boundaries as needed. I honor and respect the boundaries of others.
This is what healthy boundaries look like. They arise out of self-awareness. They both depend upon and build trust. They can be porous or solid; they can be close and tight or open and spacious, as called for by the situation. They can (and ideally should) be discussed and negotiated with the other parties involved, to create clear agreements to manage impactful relationships.
Check out my upcoming blog post to learn more about creating agreements.