Trust and building trust is a difficult task. The truth is that trust is a continuum. What we really mean when we say we want to trust someone is that we want to be able to share things with them without being hurt. To do this, we need to understand boundaries and how to use boundaries in relationships to build and maintain appropriate levels of trust. This blog is about how to put up and stay true to personal boundaries that help you feel safe and secure in your relationships. It is also about how to promote healthy productive client conversations using boundaries.
Have you ever learned something in adulthood and realized that if you had learned that earlier it would have made life so much easier and more enjoyable? You know, stuff like how to budget and save money, or how to find the G spot. Well, this is one of those things that you have heard a million times, never took the time to learn, but would revolutionize your life if you did. We are talking about boundaries. Yes, I know you think you know what boundaries are, but I am willing to bet that you have no idea. Why do I think that? Because I thought I knew and I was really way off, and if you are reading this blog I bet you are at least a little bit like me. Understanding, setting, and holding boundaries is a good practice to have in healthy, secure, safe relationships. You don’t get to be the best version of yourself without them.
Boundaries are actually not about what you put up to keep someone else out. A boundary is a set of things that you will not discuss, do, or think about. This is often in the context of a relationship with someone or something. While it often includes another person, it does not seek to control or change the people we set boundaries with. Simply put, a boundary is a commitment to yourself; a safety protocol that helps you make informed decisions on who to share with, what to share, and how. Having solid boundaries is the secret to having great intimate and authentic relationships without oversharing, giving away your personal power, or creating unnecessary drama.
The only person that needs to be aware of your boundaries is you (and maybe your coach so that they can help you develop them). You do not need to tell people about your boundaries, especially as it relates to them. In fact, telling someone explicitly that you have a boundary with them can be a breach of boundaries. It is a form of oversharing that kind of feels like you are asking that person to change who they are and how they show up. Setting a boundary is not a bargaining tool. If you are telling someone about a boundary and you sound like a kid on a schoolyard playground then it is no longer a boundary; “I am not telling you anything anymore unless you promise not to tell anyone else”. That is a threat and a misguided request for reciprocal trust that is obviously not available. If you feel the need to communicate a boundary with someone, stop and ask yourself why. Are you hoping they will change? Are you truly setting a boundary?
One of my favorite ways to use boundaries is to assign levels of boundaries to each of the relationships in my life. The way we interact with people, the way we would like to interact with them, can be categorized into a few different levels. There are people who we shouldn’t talk to at all because they are not good for us. There are people that we talk to in passing with no intimacy, like the bank teller. There are people that we see routinely that we have shared interests with but do not secrets with, like our co-workers. There are people that we routinely talk to and can share some intimate information with, but cannot count on constantly (many of our friends, family, and lovers will fall into this category). There are people that you can pour your heart out to and can expect them to consistently be there for you (there are not many in this category but you might have a trusted friend or two here). Then there is the person who you can be real and honest with at every turn (this is usually reserved for just yourself and your perception of a higher power).
Pivot calls these relational levels circle boundaries. They are like ripples from a drop of water. The inner circle is the one reserved for just you and your higher power. The next circle is called good, reserved for those few consistent intimate relationships. The next largest circle is called semi, and it is often the biggest because the majority of our relationships go here. Then there is the acquaintance circle for those people in passing, and lastly the outer circle. Outer is reserved for people that you know enough about to know that you shouldn’t interact with them. This could be toxic ex-lovers, friends, parents, and maybe even siblings. These are often people we love dearly but cannot ensure our own health when we are interacting with them. If you are constantly feeling like you cannot maintain a relationship with a person without “losing yourself” you may want to rethink which level of boundary you should have in place.
Each level has its own set of commitments you make to yourself, and sticking to these commitments is what makes boundaries so vital. Think of boundaries as arteries with little valves that more easily allow people to be moved to lower level boundaries than higher-level boundaries. When a person no longer meets the requirements for the level they are in, move them to the appropriate boundary level. Moving people into higher level boundaries takes discernment and time. It is good practice to start new people off in the acquaintance circle and then slowly, when they meet the requirements, move them higher. Most people you meet will never move into the good circle boundary, and that is okay. Some people will be in the good circle boundary for some topics and not for others, and that is okay too.
Go ahead, write down all the people in your life, and assign them a circle boundary. Take it a step further and write out a few safe topics and unsafe topics for each person as well. It gets real when you start to see it on paper. Once you have people in appropriate levels of boundaries, it is easier to understand how to best interact with them. You could start by making a list of what characteristics should go into each boundary level. To be in my good circle you have to have an open mind, work to understand me, and have a good track record of solid self-development (because why would I take advice from someone who doesn’t practice what they preach). Remember, this is a safety commitment to yourself that says you will not engage in or subject yourself to specific things.
I will not unload my shitty day on my barista because they are in the acquaintance level. I will not tell my mom about my fight with my boyfriend because she is in the semi-level and I can’t always count on her to be level-headed with this kind of emotional sharing. I will not discuss my finances with my friend in semi. I will not meet my alcoholic sister at any night events where there is alcohol. I will not passively listen to my brother bitch about his kids, instead, I will commit to always changing the subject or getting off the phone.
Boundaries protect us from oversharing or sharing with the wrong people, but they also protect us from expecting emotional support from people who have never offered it consistently in the past. This is all great information for you to have for yourself and, if you feel knowledgable enough about it, it is great information to offer your coaching clients.
These are hard things to do, and again, congratulations on doing the work and showing up for yourself. We get better at these skills by practicing in a safe container. If you are in need of a safe container to practice relational skills, consider my 1:1 Coaching Package to get started on being more authentic and creating safety in your intimate relationships.