A lot of people struggle with boundary setting in their relationships. I often see people complain that their family members don’t treat them well, that their spouses don’t, and it seems all the worse for people with chronic illnesses. And actually, that is part of what Gabor Mate says in When the Body Says No. Boundary issues are common within families, and perhaps are part of the “social” part of the biopsychosocial aspect of disease.
And look, I’ve been there. Though I have good boundaries with my family members, it’s often because I set them. For example, I tend to not talk politics with some of my family because our differences in views were causing me stress (and stress is bad for chronic illness!). I do sometimes still struggle in romantic relationships and friendships. Setting a boundary means being assertive, and sometimes that pisses other people off, especially if they’ve gotten a way with violating that boundary for a long time. As chronic illness warriors we need to get good at setting boundaries as part of our self-care. Here is one way of thinking of boundary setting.
Imagine that you are a castle, and the boundary is the personal space that you are placing between yourself and other people. The walls of the castle show that personal space. The moat lets other people know how close they can get to you, and in this case it can change size depending on the person and/or situation. The draw bridge itself is what allows people to get in, and keeps people out. This draw bridge helps us to feel secure. The castle guards are the actual skills we have to protect our boundaries. They can also help us when someone crosses our boundaries. And it’s important to remember that boundaries can be verbal, physical, emotional or spiritual.
So how do we exactly do this? Well, short answer is to say no, resolve conflicts, follow our values, be assertive, and express our needs. But that is easier said than done. Saying no and being assertive both require practice, and if we’re nice (which most of us with chronic illness apparently are), it’s super difficult to do these two things. If you have a therapist, then that might be where you practice these skills. Otherwise, it’s easiest to start with boundaries that aren’t going to upset the other party as much. The other pieces of this: resolving conflicts, following our values and expressing our needs can be handled with some self-exploration, by answering the following questions for ourselves:
- Who are the most important people in my life?
- Who is there for me when I’m struggling?
- What are these above relationships like for me?
- What are the positive things I get from this other person?
- What are the negative things this other person says or does? And how does that affect me?
- What do I want to get? And what am I willing to give?
- What have I tried already in regards to boundary setting and how has this worked for me?
Once we’ve done this, we have three options:
- Leave or end the relationship.
- Stay and live by our values: change what we can (remembering that we can’t change other people’s behaviour) and make some room for things that we may not like (that aren’t in dire need to change)
- Stay and give up acting effectively – which is all to common an occurrence
The more you practice setting boundaries, the easier it will be. It will also start to reduce your stress, which means you may start to see an improvement in your symptoms (be it physical or mental health), and are more likely to improve your well-being. Let’s keep making the most of it everyone!
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