In my previous post I identified 3 main ingredients needed to create a healthy self-care practice.

I am a visual person, so I created a diagram to help illustrate:

venn diagram self care

Today I’ll expound on the first area:

Establishing Healthy Boundaries

First let’s talk about what I mean by that term. A physical boundary, by definition, is a line or established area that marks a property or territory. Emotional or personal boundaries are described by Wikipedia (yes, I actually like their definition) as:

“…rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards him or her and how they will respond when someone steps past those limits.”

Did you catch that? Each person creates it. You’re in the driver’s seat.

It’s our job to make sure others treat us the way we want to be treated. And when they don’t, we have choices. We can’t truly care for ourselves when we allow others to treat us poorly, or when we don’t consciously decide what we will and will not allow in our lives.

This was a revolutionary concept to me when I was on the “other side of the couch” in 2001, before I became a therapist.

Enmeshment

At that time in my life I was “enmeshed” with the majority of the relationships I considered “close.”

Enmeshment is a psychological term that means we don’t know where we stop and another person begins.

It’s very common (and was my “norm”, growing up in an Italian family). However, it can inhibit our growth, happiness and even our ability to take care of ourselves.

I had a habit of taking on the problems of others as if they were my own, and offering “help” even if others didn’t ask for it. I also accepted help I didn’t really want and never asked for. This worked quite well, since most of the people in my life also had unclear boundaries. It was their norm as well. But what I didn’t realize was that it was also the cause of my being stressed and miserable.

At that time, I had blamed my son’s autism for my miserable state. It wasn’t really the autism diagnosis. It was my lack of healthy boundaries.

Here are a few areas where you may be getting stuck as an autism parent due to poor boundaries:

Advice From Others

A person who does not have healthy boundaries will often assume others know what’s best for them. So when grandma says, “He needs stronger meds to control that behavior,” or a friend mentions, “You really should try this therapy for your daughter,” a range of emotions and responses can ensue.

The person with confused or undefined boundaries may find themselves second- guessing and even obsessing over the advice. They may become very angry that the advice was even given. Or they may even do what others tell them to because they’ve been told to do it, and not because they truly want to or believe it’s what is right for their child.

Take Back Your Power

The person with healthy and well-established boundaries has the ability to see that the person giving the advice is simply doing just that: giving advice. You then have the ability and the power to accept it or reject it. When healthy boundaries are present, the advice doesn’t annoy you, because you know you ultimately have the final say and can exercise that without fear the person might reject or ridicule you. You have power. Power to decide how it will effect you. Power to be in control of how you feel, without allowing someone else to decide that for you.

If the person does reject or ridicule, you’re able to see that it’s about THEM and not YOU. The person with well-established boundaries understands that they have a choice in how they will allow others to interact with them. And if they continue to receive unsolicited advice, they have the courage to let that person know it’s unhelpful and ask them to stop doing it.

Acting Out Of Love Vs. Fear

Most people who have unhealthy or established boundaries have difficulty doing this because of FEAR: Fear of rejection, fear of ridicule, or fear of making the wrong decision. We fear others might not like or accept us. We fear doing it “wrong”. When we act out of LOVE; for ourselves, for our children, and for our family, the results are more likely to be positive. Even if it turns out we’ve made the “wrong” decision.

Are you acting out of love or fear? What are you afraid of?

Acceptance

This can be a loaded word, but in this case I’d like to talk about how you may have accepted the diagnosis compared to how your loved ones have or haven’t.

One of the biggest issues I see in my office is the difference between husbands and wives in adjusting to the diagnosis. Often one parent is forging ahead with a game plan, while the other either gets lost in their work, TV, or other diversion. Consequently they become angry with each other because their partner isn’t responding the way they “should”.

A person with clear boundaries understands that everyone responds to stressors differently, and that just because their husband hasn’t read the book about autism you’ve left on their nightstand, doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care or aren’t “on board”. It may mean they are simply responding differently.

I used to be very resentful that I was “doing all the research” and making all the calls, setting up therapies, arguing with insurance companies, etc. while my husband did not. However, I had a choice: I could become resentful, or I could discuss my feelings with him and we could come to an agreement. The latter may mean that I wouldn’t “get my way” or that I would have to listen to his perspective, which was different than mine. Over time, my son’s autism “trained” us in how to do this effectively.

By understanding my own boundaries, I realized that the ‘have-to’s” I was becoming a slave to were by my own choice.

What would happen if I asked him to do it instead?

What would happen if he disagreed?

Or, what would happen if I discovered he actually did care about all of it, but just didn’t know how to respond because it was so painful?

This became an opportunity for connection between the two of us.

How to start establishing healthier boundaries today

Here are a few things you can start doing immediately to increase your boundary- setting skills:

  • Understand that boundaries are the cornerstone of every relationship you have. They are not just for the people who tend to hurt you.

  • Realize it is nearly impossible to have a truly healthy relationship with ANYONE unless you can establish healthy boundaries.

  • Say “NO” when you mean “NO” and “YES” when you mean “YES”.

  • Speak up for yourself and tell others what you need…and what you don’t.

  • Stop allowing others to mistreat you. Speak up or get some space from them.

  • Stop taking responsibility for everyone else’s feelings. They are not yours to fix.

  • When you find yourself worried about a problem, be sure it’s YOUR problem to worry about.

  • Stop putting the needs of others before your own.

This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and may require the help of a therapist.

But it is completely worth it.