During most of my marriage I had mushy boundaries. Neither my ex-husband nor I had a good grasp on who we were as individuals but he had the more dominant extroverted personality so I let my identity form based on his and society’s expectations. As I developed more self-awareness toward the end of our relationship, I often felt the need to protect that newfound individuality by speaking up and asking for what I needed (namely time to myself and a respected voice in household decision-making). I vigilantly kept my guard up so as not to be engulfed again. I spent energy patrolling the fences as my writing coach, Lauren, so aptly described it. It was exhausting and I resented it. What I didn’t realize was that while I was preventing myself from being taken advantage of I was also learning how to define my boundaries.
Define boundaries, find exquisite intimacy
It may seem counterintuitive to draw a personal line in the sand and expect to be closer to your loved one but that is exactly what good boundaries can do. Defined boundaries show self-respect and lead to mutual regard and awareness. When you know what your partner holds sacred it is easier to respect it. If expectations are clear then everyone can let down their guard and relax. Relaxation leads to trust.Trust is a cornerstone of deep intimacy because it allows vulnerability to enter the relationship. Vulnerability leads to emotional intimacy which opens the door to profound physical intimacy.
So boundaries are essential…
How to know when your boundaries are being crossed
Psychologist, Dr. Dana Gionta, says there are two signs your boundaries are being crossed: discomfort and resentment.
Your feelings and emotions will let you know when your borders are being invaded. You may feel a vulnerable sense of being forced out of your element. An example of this would be if your significant other asks you to host a large dinner party with him for his extended family. There is nothing wrong with him asking but it may make you feel nervous and edgy. Notice this discomfort. It is your boundary being tested.
Let your partner know how you feel about playing this more extroverted role. You may end up loving and learning from the experience or you may be left feeling drained from all the activity and interactions. Either way it is up to you to define your boundaries and not allow the request (or any similar future requests) to develop into resentment.
Resentment arises when you don’t feel appreciated, when you feel you are being taken advantage of or when you are made to feel guilty for doing something or not doing something. If any of these feelings surface, your boundaries are in question.
How to establish boundaries?
So you know what it feels like to have your boundaries tested but how do you create healthy borders that lead to profound intimacy?
1. Who are you?
The first step to establishing personal boundaries is figuring out who the hell you are. How can you protect your identity and space if you have no idea what that looks like?
What do you stand for? Who are you without a relationship? Where do you draw the line regarding values, personal space and amount you are willing to give? These are large cumbersome questions. The answers most likely will not come to you one evening while watching The Bachelor. It will be a slow trickle of coincidences and experiences that lead to clarity of your essence. The most direct way I found to identify your spirit? Pay attention to when you feel most alive and at home. For introverts this is often during alone time. Solitude allows tangled thoughts and impressions to loosen and take shape, revealing the authentic individual you are destined to become. Once you have an inkling of who you are (this is a lifelong process so don’t expect full knowledge of your every character point), you will have a better idea of what you want to protect, which very well may be the right to spend time in solitude.
2. Be direct
Recently, I experienced the introvert’s most common conundrum, dealing with too many draws on our time and energy. In this case I ended up with opportunities to socialize five nights/days in a row.That’s a lot of Brenda be ON time. Ironically, all of the socializing involved fellow introverts. Even so, I had to say no to someone or risk introvert meltdown.
Initially, I asked my friend who requested to spend Saturday and Sunday with me which day he preferred and he said Saturday. Well, Saturday would be the perfect day for me to administer some self-care, i.e.take time for myself, because it is the first day I don’t have writing work to do, I don’t have my children and by then I will have already experienced three packed days of intense work and socializing.
I have a tendency to, as my mother would say, pussy-foot around things. I have a tough time declaring what I need because of my natural inclination to maintain harmony but because of my increased self-awareness it’s getting easier. I had to be more direct with my friend so I told him Sunday would work better for me. Upon declaring Sunday the better day, my friend then suggested we do something low-key on Saturday as well. He heard my request but was willing to push my boundaries a little… I felt a bit of discomfort but also had an interest in hanging out with him so now what?
3. Incorporate self-interest.
Boundaries can include a reciprocal component, a give and take. While considering plans with my friend for the weekend, I decided having the day to myself on Saturday would be enough to replenish my energy well. It would be fun to see him Saturday night and have a casual meal and maybe watch a movie. We could do something more ambitious on Sunday. I needed to get out of my place for yet another open house anyway, so it would work out well. He let go of seeing me during the day on Saturday but still got to spend time with me both days. I maintained space for myself during the day on Saturday and got to experience his wonderful company as well.
Those of us with strong empathy and feelings towards people need to remove ourselves occasionally from them in order to replenish our energy stores. If we don’t get away from other’s needs we become run down and less than our best selves. It is important for us to establish boundaries.
Not everyone likes it when you erect boundaries. It changes things and makes you seem less accessible. That’s hard. Others often see it as personal rejection when you draw a line to protect your core essence. I’ve learned how to let them know it’s not them, it’s me.
If it’s space I’m requesting, I’ve learned to liken my absence to a business trip overseas. I’m away and inaccessible but it’s nothing personal toward them. It’s just something I need to do. I will return. I give them specific times when I will be completely open and present for them and specific times when I will not.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I didn’t have a lot of self-definition in my marriage. I allowed my husband, society and our kids to dictate who I was. I don’t want to sound like a whiny victim. I just didn’t have the self-knowledge to do otherwise. Over time I became increasingly unhappy, uncomfortable and resentful. I had to become a more defined being. I did this by slowly and largely unconsciously erecting boundaries.
My marriage ended which was awful and painful and life-altering but part of my personal development.
Interestingly enough, after our divorce was final I ended up talking to my ex-husband’s girlfriend at a football party. We talked about introversion and boundaries. She said she let my ex-husband know right away that she is not available on certain nights after 9PM. He should not call her then because she has put her kids down to sleep and needs time to herself. I complimented her on her ability to establish boundaries early. They are still together and plan to get married.
Where are your boundaries mushy? Where are they strong? Do you see how healthy boundaries can lead to exquisite intimacy? What are some ways you have established boundaries as an introvert?
If this post spoke to you, you may also love:
10 Ways to Build and Preserve Better Boundaries (Psych Central)