Maintaining Healthy Boundaries While Including Other People
Miles Sherts – on Conscious Communication
Many of us who think of ourselves as conscious or progressive struggle with how to set clear boundaries that meet our needs, while also taking into account the needs of others. It seems that in the name of being more open or inclusive it is common to assume that ordinary rules or boundaries are not necessary or “cool”. When our intention is to be more loving and compassionate toward each other, we may assume that we don’t need to take care of ourselves and that others will automatically sense what we are feeling and needing and respond accordingly.
Not so. My experience is that no matter how much you care about another, the only person you can really take care of is yourself. Whether you are aware of it or not, most of the time you are primarily concerned with meeting your personal needs. And, contrary to the way many of us were taught to think, taking care of your own needs is not selfish, but is necessary for you to have the capacity to care for others.
The problem is that we often define our needs merely in terms of the ego, which always wants more and is never satisfied or secure with what it has. The things that truly nourish us – our real needs – are much broader than the endless cravings and fears of our ego. Our real needs include being connected to other people, belonging to a community, and being able to help others effectively, as well as the obvious needs for food, shelter, love, recognition, and respect. In fact, many of our most basic needs like safety and security are only fully satisfied when we realize that we inherently belong to something much larger than just our individual self.
It is common to think that being more spiritual, “new-age”, or progressive means minimizing or sacrificing your own needs. In fact this was the paradigm of conformity in the 1950’s that so many of us rebelled against. Now we have a new paradigm of individual creative expression that often leaves us bewildered about how to be in relationship with others and still be ourselves.
The answer is healthy boundaries. We all need some boundaries to meet our basic needs and establish the safety required for deeper intimacy. The problem is that many of us do not know how and when to set a boundary, and how and when to let down our boundaries. This is a dance that requires practice if you want to be connected with other people and maintain your independence.
Most of us tend to either have a fixed boundary that always keeps other people at a distance, or to have no boundaries which invites other people into our space without regard to our real feelings or needs in the moment. In the first case we may feel safe, but we sacrifice our need for connection. In the second case we may feel more connected, but we sacrifice our need for safety. In the end both of these common ways of approaching other people don’t really satisfy our needs for safety or connection, and usually lead to more distance or tension with other people over time.
One of the basic skills of Conscious Communication is Supportive Listening, which enables you to include another person by recognizing and validating their basic emotions and needs in the moment. Another is the skill of Assertion which enables you to take care of yourself and establish a personal boundary by expressing your own emotions and needs without blaming another person or making them responsible.
As you experiment with both of these skills you will begin to feel the natural ebb and flow of relationships. You will learn to sense when the other person is emotionally charged and needs understanding, or when you are charged with emotions and need understanding. Some of you may find that asserting and drawing clear boundaries is easy for you, and your stretch may be to learn how to receive other people’s experience and offer them understanding and acceptance. Others will find that listening supportively and making space for other people comes more easily, and your challenge is to assert your own feelings and needs.
The idea of communicating more consciously is simply to become more aware of your communication and recognize that how you approach a conversation with another person may determine whether you get your basic needs met at that moment or not. Remember that you do not have to sacrifice your need for safety so that the other person will like you, nor do you need to be chronically defended in order to be safe.
Consider too that one of our most common basic needs is for understanding and empathy. Having your feelings and needs recognized and validated does not fix whatever problem you are having at the moment, yet, it can greatly soothe your fear and anxiety because you feel a connection to another person. When someone offers empathy, you know that you are not alone dealing with your dilemma in isolation and this can give you the courage to find your own way through the challenges facing you.
Many of us want to be of service and want to do whatever we can to help other people. Yet there are times when you simply cannot give them what they want. Remember that if someone else is having a difficult time and they seem to be upset, you can always offer them understanding and empathy. Even if you have to say no to their request, you can first receive and validate their emotions and needs.
If your partner tells you they want something from you that you are not giving them for example, instead of getting defensive or trying to fix the problem right away, you could say;
“It sounds like you are upset with me right now because I am not giving you what you want”
Remember that at this point you are only offering understanding and empathy, and this will only work if you set aside your own judgments or agendas and focus on their immediate feelings and needs. Listening supportively in this way helps the other person to feel connected to you and usually calms them down because it makes room for their emotion to discharge. Then you can often have a more reasonable conversation about their request and think together of some other ways that you might help to meet their needs. Even if that persons needs are not able to be met in that moment, they will leave the conversation feeling more connected to and supported by you.
This process of supporting and asserting is the basis of healthy relationships. If you practice these skills you will find that each encounter you have is an opportunity to meet your own need either to be of service, or to be recognized and understood. When you are able to receive and recognize another person’s feelings and needs without offering your opinions or solutions, and express your own feelings and needs without blame or defensiveness, you will leave a conversation feeling more connected and less alone. And isn’t that what you really want in the end?