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Healthy Boundaries 101: How to Break Free of the Enmeshment Trap

It can be hard to know how to have healthy boundaries. Especially if you grew up in a family that didn’t model or encourage them.

In my last blog post, I wrote about enmeshment, and how it feels OH SO GOOD at first (which is how we get enmeshed), but isn’t so great for the long haul of a relationship because, again, it doesn’t leave room for people to have their own thoughts and feelings, which becomes surprisingly problematic.

So let’s talk Healthy Boundaries 101.

A wise woman said to me recently, “Healthy boundaries are hard, but they’re simple.”

Having healthy boundaries is hard because it’s hard to actually follow through with them at times, depending on how you’re doing, who you’re dealing with and well, the context.

For example:

A close relative, who has struggled with addiction on and off for years, leaves you a desperate voicemail asking for your help — they need money to pay for their rent or they will be evicted by the end of the week. You are having a rough week, juggling a lot of different responsibilities and pretty stressed out. Your first thought is, “If they get evicted, they’re going to have to come live with me.” You don’t call back because you’re too stressed. Then the texts start. “Call me ASAP.” “Where ru? Need to talk now.” Your heart races each time your phone gets a new text. Your palms are sweaty and you’re not sure what you should do. You actually just fell into some extra money and could actually afford to give them some of it. What do you do?

vs.

Someone you don’t know very well from church calls you and asks for help paying their rent. You know that this person has struggled with addiction on and off for years. You also know that they tend to call around the church membership each time they hit a financial snag, and you’re pretty sure the last time you saw them, they looked like they’d been using drugs. Aside from all of those things, you’re flat broke yourself, and have your own family to think about. What do you do?

Hopefully, the second scenario would be MUCH easier for you to practice healthy boundaries with. If not, I recommend this book!

Healthy boundaries are simple because it always boils down to you having your own thoughts and feelings and then honoring those instead of pushing them aside for the sake of someone else.

For example:

A good friend asks you if you’d like to see the latest cop-buddy movie.

You hate cop-buddy movies.  Always have. You tell your friend this, and propose an alternative movie.

They insist they really want to see this movie, and you tell them you’ll pass and that you’d love to meet them later.

or

They say yes to your alternative movie proposal.

or

They insist they really want to see this movie, and even though you won’t like the movie, you love this friend so much and enjoy their company enough that even seeing a bad movie with them will be fun — their laugh always makes you laugh. Besides, you are craving movie theater popcorn and Milk Duds.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that healthy boundaries are an art and not a science. There is rarely ONE answer, one way of doing things. It’s about negotiation. But if you check with yourself and find that you are usually the person who is “giving” or shifting, that may be a sign that you’re not exercising healthy boundaries. The ultimate sign of this? Resentment.

So, the first step to healthy boundaries? Pay attention to how you’re feeling. If you are noticing resentment cropping up, consider that your itchy messenger that something is up with your boundaries, i.e. you may not be honoring your boundaries.*

*One tricky thing about boundaries is that sometimes it seems like that other person has crappy boundaries when, in fact, neither of you are winning the Healthy Boundaries Awards.

But you know what? It’s hard to know if you’re honoring your boundaries if you’re not even sure what they are! So that is a good place to start. Good questions to ask yourself are:

  1. How am I feeling about this relationship?
  2. If there is irritation, resentment, anger or something else in that neighborhood, what thoughts come up for me?
  3. Are the thoughts accurate and true? Are they a story I am telling myself? Or, are they somewhere in between? Have I talked to this person about my thoughts and feelings about our relationship?
  4. What do I want from this relationship?
  5. Am I mostly getting what I want from the relationship?
  6. Am I feeling manipulated in this relationship?

Once you get clear on the answers to these questions, you can begin to determine what your boundaries are going to be. Then you can begin to prepare to set and hold those boundaries.

Remember that setting and holding boundaries when you haven’t been doing it is going to get a reaction, and that’s okay. A great article on what to expect when you set boundaries might be helpful to you.

Meantime, remember to get support as you’re trying out these new “boundary muscles” of yours! You wouldn’t lift weights on that bench thing all by yourself without a spotter, would you? Pick a friend or loved one that you feel is respectful of your boundaries and talk with them about all of this, too. If you don’t have that person in your life right now, there are awesome therapists out there, books to read and support groups galore that might be right in the pocket for you and give you the extra support you’re going to need.

Last, but not least: Getting “un-enmeshed,” or differentiating, is a process, and not a final destination. You never become “differentiated,” but instead, you are always in the process of differentiating. Like so much in life, it’s not about the destination, but about the journey. You will get to look behind you and see how far you have come, but there is no finish line. Which is actually good news.

Although there are usually snacks at the finish line…. So bring snacks with you.

Always, always bring snacks with you.


January 19, 2016