Understanding Boundaries and Standards

Beverly Nelson, Ph.D.

In the LifePath retreats we lead, we help people understand that healthy boundaries and high standards are essential in creating a LifePath that is in alignment with who they are. In the many articles and books written about boundaries and standards, these topics are often treated under the same category. However, that can be misleading. Boundaries are what others cannot do to you or around you; standards are what you do (and, to some extent, what you won’t do). By drawing this distinction, we can more quickly learn about ourselves and understand the role that we play and the role that others play in our lives. If we called everything boundaries, it would all be about learning to say NO! and all about self-protection. If we called everything standards, it would all be about learning to say YES! The following distinctions may be helpful.

Distinction Number 1

Boundaries are what you have determined that other people or environments cannot do TO you. Boundaries are basically a No! For example you may say “No, you cannot be rude to me or “No, you cannot ignore me” or “No, I cannot do that for you.”

Standards, however, are the behavior/excellence that you naturally hold for yourself. You might say that standards are basically a Yes! “Yes, I treat others well. ” “Yes, I am honest. ” “Yes, I am someone who learns quickly. ” “Yes, I don’t tolerate much. “

Distinction Number 2

Boundaries are important because we are fundamentally animals with an instinctual need to survive. Boundaries keep us safer from threats, real or imagined. Standards are our human “being” side, where we have been given the opportunity to choose who and what we are, to develop into our highest selves and thus able to more enjoy life and able to enjoy and share the gifts that we have been given.

A trap that we must watch for when developing our boundaries and standards is that we may begin to define ourselves by them, thus we use boundaries and standards to validate us only externally. It’s common to do this as we are learning our “No’s” and “Yes’s”, but as we evolve, become conscious, and develop personal responsibility for every situation we encounter; we can begin to see the limitations of boundaries and standards. You may always have boundaries and standards and I expect that they will continue to extend and rise during the rest of your life. However, they will probably become less of a focus in your development and life. They just are. They will probably even extend and rise on their own, without you having to “watch out” or “correct them”.

This is assuming that you’ve worked on and completed your personal foundation work including completing major incompletions in your life, freedom from addiction to substances or compulsive behaviors, and removing tolerations from your life. If you have emotional damage that you’ve been ignoring, it’s important to address it. If not, boundaries and standards will never become automatic and self-managing. You can still work on your boundaries and standards, but they probably won’t last long and you’ll wonder why your boundaries keep being invaded and your standards never become natural or consistent. The solution is to work on all of the areas of the personal foundation process. Boundaries and standards are difficult to develop fully without a comprehensive approach.

Which comes first, Boundaries or Standards? The Chicken or the Egg? Boundaries do. You have to learn to say no, before you can say yes. I’m certain you have watched a young child developing their “NO”. It’s an important developmental process and one that cannot be ignored or punished. When we are capable of self-protection, then we can say “YES”. One of the greatest compliments that a friend gave to me was that she was never afraid to ask me to do anything for her because she knew I would say “NO” if I really didn’t want to do it or it wasn’t possible for me to do it. This gave her the freedom to feel comfortable when I said, “YES”, because she knew I really meant it. Sure, you can be a very positive person, say yes to everything and hope for the best. It’s sometimes a tempting approach, but one that’s fraught with resentments, guilt and a denial of YOU! Without a strong personal foundation and the ability to say “NO”, there’s little chance that you will be able to access, develop and fully enjoy the gifts and talents that you have been given. What a waste!

How do Boundaries and standards work together? There is a strong dynamic between boundaries and standards. Every time you extend a boundary, you will naturally and almost automatically be able to raise a standard. And, then, when you’ve raised a standard and you feel comfortable with it, you’ll then find yourself naturally extending another boundary, then a standard, and so forth. It’s fairly simple but not necessarily easy. That’s why it is essential to work on all elements of your personal foundation concurrently with your boundaries and standards development work.

Just remember that you are so much more than your boundaries and standards. Boundaries and standards are key to your development, but don’t let them become who you are or identify yourself with them. And, importantly, don’t use your boundaries and standards as weapons. Enjoy this stage of your personal development, but move on to more rewarding and fulfilling places along your path.

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