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How to Have Healthy Boundaries

We often think about boundaries and are immediately overcome with thoughts of the “guardrails” we place on the people we love. We create these to prevent others from taking advantage of us and establishing a more natural sense of self. A boundary is a limit we set for ourselves and the people around us to respect our values. We tend to create these with our close circle of friends and families. In this article, we will look at the difference between a boundary and an emotional cut-off.

According to Murray Bowen, the founder of family systems theory and the one who coined the term “emotional cutoffs”, the emotional cutoff takes place when we are ripping the fabric of communication and contact between ourselves and the person in our life who has “wronged” us. We will avoid speaking to them, interacting, or even being in rooms where their names are being spoken. Many people might see this as a “boundary” they have placed upon the person and justify their reasoning for protecting their space. Murrey Bowen discusses cutoffs as the reduction in communication and certain “sensitive” topics from being talked about to keep the status quo within the home.

Ultimately, this results from unresolved issues that go undiscussed for fear of disrupting the homeostasis in the family dynamic.

So how do boundaries fit in this mix?

The two words have interchangeable behaviors that appear to be similar at a distance but have an undercurrent of difference. An emotional cutoff completely shuts down the avenue of communication between the other person and yourself. This can look like no interaction or limited interaction. A cutoff can occur due to inability to withstand discomfort and dysregulation at the hands of the other, so one may refuse to be in contact with this person.

A boundary setting can be the person disclosing to the other where he/she stands, addressing the uncomfortable conversation, and creating avenues of conversation where they can agree to disagree on the topic at hand.

Cutting off a relationship or avoiding certain topics may sometimes be necessary due to compromising your emotional safety, however this should be a last resort.

Here are seven tips on how to break down this issue:

  1. First, we determine what the gridlock issue is with the other individual. What aspects of it have led to it being unresolved so far?

  2. What is the cost/benefit analysis of having this person in our lives, and what parts of them we see in ourselves? This includes their negative and positive parts. What I mean by this is; how often do you repeat a similar behavior as the partner that you’re frustrated by? At times it can seem easier to point the finger at our partner for their wrongdoings but when it comes to judging ourselves we tend to fall short.

  3. We must address the 7-foot elephant in the room and articulate the unresolved issue with this person. Picking a better time and moment is helpful.

  4. Come prepared to use active listening skills - this can be using “I” statements instead of resorting to “you”. When we use “I” statements we acknowledge our role in the problem by taking accountability for our feelings and also come from a place of vulnerability. This will disarm the listener and get them to feel like there is a problem to solve as opposed to a point of view they need to defend. When we use “you” we are immediately placing ALL the blame on our partner and making them solely responsible for our emotions.

  5. Suppose the other person refuses to participate in the conversation. In that case, we can choose to create clear boundaries where we disclose our stance and then put the responsibility on ourselves to respect the other person’s stance. This can be in the form of a contract we make with ourselves where we choose to deviate from the conversation or step out of the room when the person triggers us. If we find ourselves becoming triggered when in the presence of this person, we can resort to our protocol and choose a more reflective approach. The other person is not responsible for our boundaries; we are.

  6. When it is not possible to achieve this, it can be helpful to consider seeing a family therapist to assist in the process.

One last question to ask yourself is; are there other relationships in our lives where we repeat these interactional patterns of cutting off? If so, is it possible that this is our tool for regulating ourselves? We often respond with our family of origin, similar to how we react to our close friends. These are learned survival skills that we attributed from a young age. I use the word “regulating” in relation to emotional cutoffs because Bowen found that when people emotionally cut off others, they do so as a way to create space from a perceived threat to their status quo. This is a way to “protect” inner peace. In our culture, many of us are getting away with this method of enabling our emotions because of all the boundary talk that has been saturating our pop culture. As great as it is to protect ourselves, it also creates a space where conversations must be guarded because otherwise, we will “violate” a cutoff stipulation.

All in all, the common goal is resolution and better communication skills. It is important to have boundaries in order to protect ourselves and our space. With that being said, we don’t want to swing too far on the pendulum where we end up going to an extreme. Remembering to determining what the gridlock issue is and then trying to converse with the other person within the confines of your boundaries will work to establish patterns of resolution with future relationships.

For more tips, please check out our other tips here: . You can always find us at 954-903-1676 for counseling services.

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