I thought I knew what boundaries were, and I thought I set them. But as I sat on my dirty bathroom floor, 7-weeks postpartum, breathing sharply and trying not to think about the people holding my baby in the adjacent room, I realized how much I didn’t know.
I didn’t have good boundaries.
You love your friends and family, but you don’t share the exact same stories, problems, or feelings with all of them, do you?
Maybe you do. Maybe you share the exact same intimate thoughts with your brother as you do your co-worker or your mother-in-law. If that’s you, and it makes you happy and you don’t have any issues, that’s great. But if you don’t, that’s OK. This next part is for you.
You don’t have to share your private thoughts or experiences with everyone.
I love my family and friends, but I don’t share the same moments of my life or struggles with my dad the way I would with my best friend or sister. It’s called a boundary.
PositivePsychology defines it as, “A limit or space between you and the other person; a clear place where you begin, and the other person ends.”
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A boundary helps you decide who you let into your life, how much you share with them, how they treat you and vice versa. And it’s part of developing a healthy relationship.
I learned how important boundaries were when I didn’t have any.
Is it just me or are unhealthy patterns more obvious when you’re pregnant or become a parent? Suddenly, the bad behavior we’ve put up with from others isn’t OK. Perhaps it’s because we don’t want our kids to be treated the way we’ve let ourselves be treated.
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I didn’t have good boundaries. And I suffered because of this.
I struggled early in my pregnancy with being pregnant. It was such a paradigm shift—I wanted kids, but I imagined creating my family via adoption, not pregnancy. While I was processing this, my husband and I were visiting his immediate and extended family across the country.
I wasn’t close with any of them and didn’t have boundaries on how much I shared about my personal life with others (yes, even family). That weekend I saw just how unhealthy it was to not have boundaries.
I wasn’t close to those people, and yet, I felt the need to answer all their personal, probing questions about my pregnancy with deep honesty. I felt pressured to share how much I was struggling. And, when those people responded rudely and insensitively, I was angry at them. But I was also angry with myself. Why did I tell them so much? Just because I was (legally) related to them?
Boundaries matter—especially with family.
After my daughter was born, a couple of family members visited us. I was 7-weeks postpartum, sleep-deprived, sore, and drained in every way possible. I was extremely vulnerable. Honestly, I wanted to wait much longer to have visitors, but certain family insisted, and I felt a social pressure to let them visit.
I remember those family members staying in our apartment for hours, demanding to hold the baby every second and holding her in a way that made my skin crawl. But I didn’t say anything because they were family. It reached a point where I couldn’t even watch. I went to my bathroom and sat on the cold floor with the fan on while I hyperventilated.
I was acting based on others’ expectations and feelings, not my own needs. I didn’t set boundaries for myself or my baby, to the point where I ended up on a grimy floor that probably hadn’t been cleaned in weeks.
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Let’s be clear: I hold people accountable for their words and actions. I also hold myself accountable for giving them the space to respond and act at all. Yes, their questions were too personal, and their responses were insensitive. Yes, they should’ve been empathetic and noticed my reaction as they held the baby. But, if I’d set boundaries, I could’ve avoided some pain and anxiety.
If I didn’t share details of my struggle with pregnancy, there would be nothing for them to respond to. If I’d waited longer to have visitors and said no, you can’t hold my baby, I could’ve avoided the hyperventilating.
It’s not about lying; it’s about not sharing every detail. It’s not about control, it’s about boundaries.
How To Set Boundaries
“The first step in setting any boundary is self-knowledge. You need to know what you like and dislike, what you’re comfortable with versus what scares you, and how you want to be treated in given situations,” Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in California, told PsychCentral.
For me, being truly honest with myself is the hardest part. It’s not about what others expect of you, or what you should do, it’s what you want and need.
Next, Dr. Howes says you should be clear about what you need and communicate it directly and specifically. For example, if you have a friend or family member who makes you feel emotionally drained after spending time with them, set a boundary. It could look like this: “I enjoy catching up with you, but not quite so often. Let’s talk once a month instead of once a week.”
Think of a boss you’ve worked for. You didn’t share every detail of your marriage, friendship, family, or health issues with them, did you? Instead, you chose how much you shared about your personal life. That’s a boundary.
Think of a friend or family member you’re close with. You probably wouldn’t share your spouse’s personal issues with them, would you? Your spouse’s issues are his or her own and not yours to share. That’s a boundary.
If you don’t share something with someone, does that mean they’re bad or untrustworthy people? Not necessarily. It just means they aren’t privy to the same parts of your life. And that’s OK. Not everyone gets to experience the same part of us, not everyone gets to know our deepest, most private thoughts and feelings.
Boundaries are important, even if they upset others.
I was afraid to set boundaries with people. I felt worried about how they’d react, and that fear stopped me from doing what was healthy for me. When I started setting real boundaries with others, it wasn’t easy. People didn’t always respond well. But pleasing others isn’t the goal, having healthy relationships is.
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As New York Times bestselling author Brené Brown said, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
You must decide for yourself who is safe and healthy in your life, who you trust to share the most intimate things about yourself and your life.
It’s taken me being hurt, processing with close friends, going to therapy, and time reflecting to learn how much boundaries matter. I hope you learn with less pain and I hope you have the courage to set healthy boundaries so you can have healthy relationships and a healthy life.