September 12, 2017

Building better boundaries

It can be uncomfortable meeting someone who has different boundaries than you. Maybe they’re a “hugger” and you’re not. Maybe they share intimate details and you’d prefer they stick to the highlights. Whatever the differences, we all have our limits. And knowing just how far they extend can actually help us create healthier and stronger relationships with others.

UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, explains that boundaries – physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual – help us define who we are and even what we value.

“Think of them like a shell for a turtle or a protective shield that we carry with us at all times and that gives us a sense of feeling safe in the world,” she said.

The challenge is that often, we’re taught to ignore our comfort zone. Maybe we don’t want to be rude, or we find it hard to say no. But there are ways to make sure we’re honoring our own needs without crossing the line.

Knowing your comfort zone

Mirgain explains that our comfort zone is that place where we’re relaxed and feel safe.

“It’s important to know when you are in your comfort zone and when you’re outside of it,” she said. “Paying attention to the sensations your body is experiencing can help you identify when something is – or isn’t – in your best interest.”

Think of a time you felt a sense of comfort and bring that memory to mind. Mirgain suggests focusing on how you felt at the time – what occurred internally, were there sounds, smells or images that come to mind? When you think of these sensations, it can help you find your comfort zone and it becomes a space that no one can take away from you.

Just as it’s important to identify your comfort zone, it’s also important to figure out when you’re stepping beyond it. Mirgain suggests thinking of a time you were uncomfortable, got hurt or were walking into a dangerous situation – what cues or signals did your body or mind give you? Maybe a queasiness in your gut, tightness in your shoulders, sweaty palms, racing thoughts or a rapid heartbeat? These are all signals that you’re about to cross over your own boundaries and leave your comfort zone. Sometimes that’s okay – like if you’re trying something new, but if your body is reacting strongly it may be with good reason.

Saying no

When we’re approached to do something – take on another project at work, volunteer with a social group, maybe even pet sitting for a neighbor – it can be hard to say no. Mirgain said that sometimes we’re in denial of what we are actually capable of doing, we are afraid of hurting other people’s feelings, or we’re afraid of a negative reaction and even rejection. But, whatever the reason we don’t say no, she adds, yes is not the only option.

“You have the right to say 'yes' or 'no,' but it can be uncomfortable,” she said.

While you don’t want to ignore a request that has been made, there are strategies that can help.

  • Wait for the request rather than volunteer

  • Take time to think about the request before you give your answer – and ask for more time if you don’t know how to respond

  • Don’t make up unnecessary excuses because then it makes it seem like you can’t do it, rather than you’re choosing not to

  • Stay committed to your refusal

If you have always said “yes” in the past, it can be very difficult for those around you to accept your “no.” Because of that, Mirgain said, people might push harder at first if they think you may ultimately give in or they may even become defensive.

“Some people may take your ‘no’ as a rejection, but it’s not personal. It’s a matter of staying true to your boundaries,” she said. “It’s common for women in particular to put others' needs first, but it’s a matter of doing what is right for you.”

Asking for help

Just as it’s hard to say "no," it’s just as hard to ask for help for a number of reasons – we’re worried about inconveniencing others; we feel guilt over the need to ask; we worry about the consequences of asking – being perceived as ineffective, weak, uncertain, etc.

But we have the right to ask and they have the right to say "no," Mirgain said.

“There’s the saying: There’s no harm in asking. And there’s not,” she said. “Don’t apologize or put yourself down when asking. And, focus on specific ways the person can help.”

Mirgain suggests using the DESO script technique.

D: Describe – Clearly describe what is going on that is difficult for you
E: Express – Explain how you are feeling, using “I” statements when possible
S: State – State your request in clear, specific, concise terms
O: Outcome – Describe the outcome that will follow if the person does or does not go through with your request

Mirgain said that if you haven’t been setting boundaries – or firm in maintaining them – you may experience fear and nervousness when you do. But when you’re true to yourself and clear about your needs, you’ll not only grow personally, but your relationships will grow stronger as well.