Helpful Communication Steps to Establish Healthy Boundaries
by Nirmala Raniga, Founder and Director
Boundaries are clearly established parameters of emotional, physical, and mental space that we expect others to respect in the relationships they have with us. Learning how to set personal boundaries in life is necessary for emotional balance, allowing us to maintain a healthy sense of self and find fulfillment in both professional and personal relationships. Healthy boundaries also provide the physical and emotional space we need to act and express ourselves as unique individuals, capable of making our own choices, and give us the ability to recognize and acknowledge the same in others.
People with healthy boundaries look only to themselves to define their sense of self worth, which gives them the freedom to be their true selves without feeling the need to please others to feel worthy of love and connection. Such stability allows a person to create fulfilling relationships that are based on mutual acceptance, love, and respect, rather than overly dependent relationships that are based on fear or control.
We learn how to form boundaries and communicate our needs in childhood by observing and interacting with our parents and caretakers. The psychological and emotional issues of those who raise us can inhibit our emotional development, ability to communicate, and self-image. For most of us, it takes introspection and personal work to come to terms with how our parents’ limitations have impacted us in these areas.
In his book, Free to Love, Free to Heal, David Simon, M.D., writes, “All emotions derive from needs. Uncomfortable feelings arise when our basic needs for security, trust, attention, and caring aren’t met, or when emotional or physical boundaries are crossed without permission.” Dr. Simon further explains that by identifying unmet needs and recognizing that our pain is a result of a boundary violation, we can open the door to taking emotional responsibility for our own wellbeing.
Fortunately, through practice and awareness, we can learn how to improve our communication skills in order to maintain healthy boundaries that will support our needs. A good way to start is to learn how to take responsibility for our own feelings and not take responsibility for the feelings and emotions of others. We must recognize that we are not responsible for making another person happy, nor is it our job to keep a person from being angry or sad. Likewise, we have the ability to choose how to react to a situation and should not leave that responsibility up to another person.
The following process of non-violent communication as developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg is an empowering step-by-step method to help us take emotional responsibility and establish healthy boundaries:
Step 1: Observe a situation without judgement.
Key Question: “What is happening right now?”
Stop and observe. Look at what is happening without assigning blame to you or others or connecting the situation to the past.
Step 2: Identify what you are feeling.
Key Question: “What feelings are arising in me?”
Pay attention to where inside your body are you experiencing the feelings that are coming up. Recognize that a feeling may be triggered because of a situation or interaction with another person, but know that you always have a choice as to how you will react based on that situation.
Step 3: Identify your need.
Key Question: “What is my unmet need?”
This is a physical, emotional, or mental need we have for ourselves, such a need for safety, nourishment, autonomy, love, self-expression, play, respect, rest, caring, etc. As young children we expected our caretakers to meet our basic needs, which were expressed very simply by reaching out or crying. As adults, if we expect others around us to identify our needs without clearly expressing them in words, we are setting ourselves up for feeling unloved, disrespected, or disappointed. Part of maintaining healthy boundaries is to learn to recognize what we need or want for ourselves, rather than relying on others to figure out how to satisfy our needs for us.
Step 4: Make a request or suggestion with awareness.
Key Question: “What do I want to request?”
Once you have gone through the above three steps, clearly ask for what you want based on your observations, feelings, and needs. Speak kindly, and be as specific as you can. Making a request rather than a demand also means that you are willing to accept the other person’s answer of either yes or no. In relationships based on healthy boundaries, all parties involved should feel free to ask for what they need as well as to respond honestly without blame, judgement, or criticism or self-judgement expressed through shame, submission, or defensiveness.
Becoming aware of what healthy boundaries are and how to establish and maintain them enables us to create nourishing, safe, and healthy relationships and helps us enjoy happy and fulfilling lives.
Here at Paradise Valley Healing Center, we offer individual and group therapy to assist clients in developing healthy communication skills as well as a comprehensive assessment to address mental health concerns. Learn more about our programs.