Boundaries and Assertiveness

There are many things that get in the way of healthy relationships. One of the key things is how we handle our “boundaries”. The issue of boundaries have been made very popular in recent years through Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries, a very helpful book for anyone wanting to balance their lives and relationships. Boundaries distinguish one person from another physically (skin, distance), emotionally (feelings), intellectually (thoughts and opinions), and spiritually (values and beliefs). We take all these together to define who we are and they help us make responsible choices. Exerting our boundaries is an act of our will that is given to us by God in order to choose right and refuse wrong. They give us the opportunity to ask for what we need and to refuse what we do not want. This is where we learn to honour and respect others’ boundaries, their wants, and their desires. We can struggle with boundaries because of the messages we hear and internalize about ourselves, others, and God. Messages like:

  • Don’t disappoint
  • Don’t disagree
  • Don’t feel
  • Don’t have needs
  • Don’t have own opinions

But the truth is, that when we have healthy boundaries we are neither shutting people out nor allowing them to take advantage of us. We are free to love others in the way that God intends – with a giving service to others that respects ourselves. Could it be that Jesus, when giving the “greatest commandments” implied that to “love others as you love yourself” means you have to first know how to love, care for, and honour yourself? God has limits – sin, holiness, commands for what is godly living. He expects us to have limits, as well. We need to develop the boundaries in our lives if we are to be mature and effective in our relationships. Boundaries are what allow us to be assertive. Underdeveloped boundaries will lead to difficulties with assertiveness because we are not empowered to take responsibility for our life; our feelings, thoughts, actions, beliefs, etc. will be expressed according to what we think others expect of us.

Assertiveness is interpersonal behaviour involving honest and relatively straight-forward expression of thoughts and feelings. It is socially appropriate and takes into account the other person’s feelings and welfare. It is expressing your boundaries in a suitable and acceptable way. Non-assertive behaviour (allowing boundaries to be violated) happens when we allow feelings and tensions to be internalized. Emotions such as anxiety, fear, guilt, fatigue, depression or nervousness are experienced, but not expressed verbally. This behaviour includes:

  • Giving in to other people's requests;
  • Not putting forward your own needs, ideas and feelings;
  • Being aggressive and demanding;
  • Running yourself down to others.

 

Some reasons we find it difficult to act assertively:

1. Not expecting assertiveness to make a difference
2. How we feel about ourselves - self-esteem
3. Skill deficit - it has not been taught, modeled
4. Trying to avoid hurting or upsetting others
5. Trying to gain the approval of others
6. Learned that the rights of others are more important that my own

 

Learning to be Assertive (i.e., strengthening my boundaries)

Important points:

1. We must be able to meet our goals without creating adverse consequences for other people;
2. We don’t always need to have a reason for exerting our boundaries. An excuse is not always necessary, but so often we feel we need to have a reason for not doing something.

 

Types of Assertiveness

1. Refusal: not giving into the demands of other people when they expect things, cross your boundaries, assume things about you or are attempting to displace your goals with theirs.

Examples:

“I am not comfortable with the way you speak to me”.
“I was in line first”.
“I cannot run that errand for you”.

 

2. Commendatory: expressing feelings and thoughts that are positive, like love, appreciation, admiration, praise, gratitude, etc.

Examples:

“You look pretty today”
“Thank you for helping me with my homework”
“That was a great comment you made in class!”

 

3. Request: making requests of others in order to meet our needs and goals. It must NOT violate the rights of the other person or else it becomes aggressive.

Examples:

“Could you please look over my exam. I believe it was added up wrong.”
“I was in line first. Could you please go to the back of the line.” (in conjunction with refusal)
“I really like you. Would you go out for dinner with me on Saturday night?” (in conjunction with commendatory)

 

Take a good look at how people talk with you and what they may expect from you. Look, too, at how you react when people make requests of you or interact with you in different ways. If we are not aware of our boundaries, then we will easily become angry or depressed. Having a balance in our relationships is very important. Practice the types of assertiveness listed here and put some thought into how your boundaries have developed over your lifetime.

Speak with a counsellor at Tyndale Counselling Services if you would like talk more about how boundaries and assertiveness play out in your life. Click here to schedule an appointment with a counselor.