Building Healthy Connections Means Having Healthy Boundaries
A model for healthy connections in our daily lives, inspired by a herd of horses.
“Having a boundary isn’t about keeping others out as much as it is about keeping ourselves in.” — Mark Wolynn
Boundaries are a way of establishing connection. Well-established boundaries can even increase a sense of connection between us. For some of us, this can feel like a mind and heart bender. Sometimes, we think of boundaries as being like border walls or ways to keep others out of our space. It can feel scary to assert if our own boundaries have been permeable or non-existent for much of our lives. Yet, healthy relating involves healthy boundaries.
How can we get a sense of what our boundaries are?
Boundaries help us feel safe and whole. Healthy boundaries let others know what’s Ok for you, and what isn’t. Likewise, knowing what’s Ok for someone and what isn’t helps you to navigate being together with clarity. (And, as Brené Brown reminds us, “Clarity is kindness.”)
Boundaries, and the clarity that comes from them, create a sense of safety that makes connection possible. The clarity that comes from knowing each other’s boundaries also leads to greater connection because there is no fear — of our self, of the other, or of what’s in the space between us.
Consider for a moment: What do you often feel like in relationships? What happens to your sense of self? What happens to the other person? Do you stay small to stay out of the way? Do you leave yourself to cater to the other person? Do you feel squished? Do you shut the other person down or out? What happens to you, your breath, and your needs or requests when in relationship to another person?
To get a sense of what healthy boundaries look like, here’s a model:
Imagine two whole circles maintaining shape while being together. They don’t overlap like a Venn diagram. They may be next to each other, but don’t touch. Like two non-stacking coffee cups on the same table, there is a space between them that is maintained, nor can they collapse into each other.
In a relationship model like that, each person remains intact and centered within themselves (a bit like planets in orbit). It’s easy to think of boundaries as an increase in the distance between folks. Yet, what happens is more distinction. Each party remains whole and distinct. In a model like this, we stand a chance of seeing the other more clearly, hearing what they have to say, and getting curious about what’s happening inside their world and inside their bubble of experience.
“And then I learned the spiritual journey had nothing to do with being nice. It was about being real, authentic. Having boundaries. Honoring my space first, others second. And in this space of self-care being nice just happened, it flowed not motivated by fear but by love.” — Michelle Olak
In a horse herd, boundaries as a form of connection.
Being the harmony-seeking animals that they are, horses’ greeting rituals establish boundaries first and foremost. If you watch herd mates upon meeting each other, what you may see is a series of muzzle touches and breaths being shared. Here they are learning where one ends and one begins. In a sense, they are saying to each other “I am here; you are there” literally by noting where each other’s bubble of space ends and begins at the edge of their sensitive muzzles.
Once those “edges” of the self are clear to the other, then they can decide what they want to do next, and who wants to lead. (The latter part of that sounds like a well-run meeting or collaboration, doesn’t it?) As they go along in their conversations, they each hold their own space — sometimes negotiating what they want to do together, sometimes ending their conversation.
Pausing at this short segment of equine etiquette: boundaries are a key to self-respect and self-care. Each horse lets the others know not only where they are in physical space, how big their space bubble is, what sort of space they need, but also what is ‘OK’ and what is not ‘OK.’ As therapist Terri Cole writes in her book, Boundary Boss: “You write the instruction manual on how you treat yourself (internal boundaries) and how others treat you (external boundaries).
Communicating boundaries with clarity is a kindness not only to yourself but to others as well. Well-defined and clearly communicated boundaries allow you to show up, fully, for as much as you are available, in any situation.
“Once you know the difference between “This is OK”, and “This is not OK”,” writes author Elizabeth Gilbert, “You can walk anywhere in this world safely — your guard down, your eyes filled with curiosity, your soul filled with simple wonder.”
Therapist and author Mark Wolynn notes: “Having a boundary isn’t about keeping others out as much as it is about keeping ourselves in.”
In the world of equines, ‘keeping themselves in’ is an act of self-preservation quite literally rooted in the perception of their bodies in their environment and the fact that they are prey animals. If they weren’t concerned with their place in space and how it was treated, they would become someone’s lunch, and the species would be on the brink of extinction. Instead, it’s their keen sense of who they are and their sensitivity to what is and what is not okay for them that has helped them be the successful land mammals that they are.
Consider: What do you know about your personal space bubble? What might it look like if you were to draw out a circle or shape around you? What size might it be? Try this with a string and mark a patch of ground that feels like ‘your space’. What inside of you tells you this is the right amount of space? As you take your place in the center of the circle, imagine people or things in your life approaching your circle. What happens in your body as each thing or person approaches? Notice the sensations.
The notion of boundaries as a kindness may be a counterintuitive concept. Establishing your boundaries with clarity may not feel like a kindness if you worry about the reactions from others on the other side of the fence you’re establishing.
Yet, we have a similar mammalian sensibility about us. Our bodies give us much information about the world around us and the people we are with. All too often, this information gets overridden by other inputs, opinions, beliefs, or invalidations by ourselves or others. We may not have learned to trust this part of us as much as we can in order to reap the benefits of staying true to ourselves and rooted in that foundation.
When we are oriented to others from that place, it’s easier to know what we need to feel safe, what makes us feel safe, and what is threatening to us. Additionally, we have an increasing sense of who we are from the inside out, we know how to advocate for ourselves and ask for what we need, and how to communicate what’s true for us.
Without a well-established sense of boundaries, we may let the world get too close to us and give too much of ourselves when it’s not necessary, or we don’t have much to give. We may say ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no,’ and let resentments build. We may leave our own ground to lean too far into fixing or caretaking for someone else or contort our sense of self, our needs, or our voice in order to manage someone else’s emotional state. We may give up our space entirely for someone else to take or take advantage of.
While the basic boundary of ‘no’ may be hard for us to put to use in our lives, it is in many ways, a necessary magic for keeping ourselves aligned with our first fidelity: our relationship to our self.
We get to decide what comes in and what stays out.
How we are in relationship says a lot about our relationship to boundaries. Sometimes with others, we reach for a sense of false belonging in order to be loved or feel safe, but at our core, we’re reaching for a more profound need and filling it at an empty watering hole.
Consider: What does being in relationship bring up for you? What do you notice about yourself when you’re with others? How secure you feel in yourself and your boundaries?
Reflect on these questions below:
- How free do you feel in your relationships?
- How safe do you feel to show up as your authentic self in a relationship? How does that vary from person to person, depending on the type of relationship?
- To what extent does control play a part in your relationships? What are the ways in which that manifests for yourself and the others around you? How firm can you stand in what’s true for you? How easy is it to voice that?
- How easy or hard is it to ask for what you need or to make requests?
- How easy or difficult is it to give someone feedback about something that matters to you?
- How often do you say ‘yes’ when you want to say ‘no’?
- How often are you more concerned about how the other person feels or thinks, or how they might react?
- What, if any, feelings come up for you around these lines of inquiry?
In relationship, we can see what this brings up around our own emotional maturity with our fellow human herd mates. We can see how our own senses of communication, trust, and vulnerability are online, or not.
Mutual respect, care, and presence are characteristics of healthy relationships in our organizations, our families, and our communities. We can ensure the safety of someone else’s wholeness in that way. This creates deep trust and a sense of safety in the presence of each other. The freedom of each other’s differences and their experience is honored and part of the equation of success. It begins with the small but potent act of self-responsibility.
“Compassionate people ask for what they need,” writes Brené Brown. “They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
Like the horses, we too can check in on what’s important to us in our relationships. In doing so, we make room not only for ourselves, but also for others. You can name what’s true for you, what you need, and what you’re available for. They get to do the same. When we respect our own space and ask for respect for that space in return, we can provide relief and safety to others in our lives. They know where we are and how they can meet us. Such a check-in with each other establishes: “This is where I am. This is where you are. Now, we can see how we want to be together.”
Some Caveats and Misperceptions
What do you tolerate that is actually a violation of your very self?
Author Toko-pa Turner writes in a post called Everything is a Mirror Until It’s Not that as we learn to navigate the synchronistic relationship between the inner and outer life, between self and other, using the belief that ‘everything is a mirror’ can be a powerful practice to consider at times — but not to the point of self-detriment. “There are times when someone else’s bad behavior is theirs and theirs alone,” she writes. “And, instead of reflecting on how you might improve yourself or “rise above your emotions,” you must respect your reaction and Become the Mirror. Which is to say, show the other your strong, clear boundary.”
“This idea that we should have unlimited patience and flexibility implied in the mirror precept trains us to tolerate more than we should, always working on ourselves, quelling our disagreements, being more evolved, and attaining inner peace. But what if inner peace depends upon your speaking your NO? What if being evolved means wielding the sword of discernment, which knows its own standpoint and isn’t afraid to say, ‘I’m not in that.’”
Horses know this stance intimately. While folks can have a hard time asserting boundaries and setting limits, a well-placed ‘mare kick’ goes a long way. More notably, it can be a solid form of self-care.
Control Isn’t Connection.
Boundaries are how horses connect. Horses connect through the space between them, which can be an odd concept if we perceive space as distance or detachment. Yet, it’s in the greater sense of distinction — with you there, me here — that connection and closeness can happen.
They need to feel the boundary of the other to feel safe. A herdmate’s respect for the other is how they know how to be together in the normal day-to-day, and when the stakes are higher. If the herd needs to move fast together, the space between them is where the communication happens to keep them moving swiftly and to keep those large bodies moving safely, at speed, together.
Basic boundaries clear up all the uncertainty about important things — where you are, who you are, where the other person stands, what you need to feel safe in your space, and how we want to be together.
Isn’t connection what we long for in most relationships? According to Bettina Shultz-Jobe, the founder of Natural Lifemanship (an approach to Equine Assisted Services based on the science of relationships), boundary issues are connection issues. In her work, having boundaries means:
- I am me and you are you.
- My body is my body, and I have a right to choose what happens with it
- My feelings are my feelings, and I have a right to my own feelings.
- My thoughts are my thoughts, and I have a right to my own thoughts
- It is not my job to fix others
- It is okay for others to feel any emotion — anger, sadness, rage, loneliness, etc.
- I don’t have to read the minds of others or anticipate their needs
- It is okay to say no
- I need only take responsibility for myself
- Nobody has to agree with me
- This is a way of being in the world and in relationships
If we’re used to reaching for a false sense of belonging in our relationships, embodying the stance enumerated in these bullet points can feel strange or uncomfortable. Yet, if you think about relationships in which these bullet points are not the guidelines for engagement, how much freedom do you feel, and how much freedom do you grant the other person?
As one of my favorite horsemen, Andres Castano, once said, “when you stop controlling, you start connecting.”
Or, in the words of poet Nayyriah Waheed:
things. that should be asked
often. in every type. of
how is your heart.
is your breath happy. here.
do you feel free.
Learning to stand in your truth creates a stance in which you can move through the world with more clarity about where you are and who you are and what matters to you. From here you can begin to feel what it’s like to be in relationship with yourself and an other (or a group of others), without losing connection with either.
Additional books to dive into:
Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free, by Terri Cole
Boundaries & Protection, by Pixie Lighthorse
Flying Lead Change: 56 Million Years of Wisdom for Leading and Living, by Kelly Wendorf
The Human Herd: Awakening Our Natural Leadership, by Beth Anstandig