The origin of emotional distress is commonly expressed as symptoms of depression or anxiety, and possibly mixed with physical pain. It can so often be traced to unmet needs and unsupported values. Knowing this, the question becomes clear. How do we support our values and meet our needs to promote emotional well-being?
The answer, too, is clear. Theoretically. Healthy boundaries enable us to communicate needs and values, so we are optimally caring for ourselves. In practice, however, people can be hesitant to define and maintain healthy boundaries in their relationships. An individual might have an idea of a healthy boundary. But when asked to be specific, they describe a healthy boundary as a “wall.” Then quickly decide they don’t want boundaries between themselves and their friends, family, and partners.
3 Steps to Healthy Boundaries
Instead of thinking of a fixed, defensive wall, try envisioning a healthy boundary as a flexible barrier that is both protective and nourishing. In a quiet moment, try this exercise. It not only helps conceptualize healthy boundaries, but also connects those boundaries to our values and needs.
Step 1: Picture your favorite tree: a giant sequoia, a hardy oak, a flowering cherry. This tree is a metaphor for a value that is personally important to you.
Step 2: Now picture the root system of that tree. The roots spreading underground and supporting the majesty we see above ground. Consider the roots to be specific needs that support your chosen value.
Step 3: Finally, picture the soil around the tree. The soil carrying water and nutrients to the roots while protecting the tree’s support system. Think of the soil as the healthy boundary that will ensure your needs are met and that your value is supported. Ultimately, you are supported.
An Example of Healthy Boundaries
Let’s use Alex as an example. Alex values dependability (the tree). In order to support this value, Alex needs their partner to communicate changes to their work schedule (the root). Alex’s ability to inform their partner of their need and their partner’s ability to meet that need represent the healthy boundary (the soil). No one is perfect, and there likely will be times when Alex’s partner does not meet their need. Alex’s awareness of their needs, values, and boundaries will help them communicate their degree of flexibility when boundary issues arise.
You are Your Best Caretaker
Why does any of this matter? Because abuse loves unhealthy boundaries. Poorly defined boundaries can enable manipulation of one person by another. Boundaries that are so rigid can enable secretive behavior. These climates are invalidating, unsafe, and unsupportive. We become our best caretakers when we know our needs and values. Self-care is clearly communicating our boundaries. We equip ourselves to build relationships that thrive.