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Let’s talk about boundaries.
Everyone says we should have them in order to be mentally healthy. And I agree with that sentiment.
If you’re neurodivergent you know that healthy boundaries are far from easy to navigate. And no-it’s not because something’s wrong with you!
No, it’s due to a huge variety of societal and developmental reasons. Everything from how we experience emotions as Neurodivergents to traumatic family lives to the Double Empathy Problem stands in our way when it comes to developing strong boundaries.
But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you can’t have strong boundaries! It just means you need a guide that’s suited to your experience as a Neurodivergent. And that’s just what we’ve put together for you today!
So read on to learn more:
Why do we need strong boundaries as Neurodivergents?
Why do we need strong boundaries as Neurodivergents?
Well, to put it mildly: we NDs live in a world that’s constantly on our case.
Sensory sensitivities make everyday experiences like being in a crowd feel like an invasive nightmare. We’re constantly being forced out of our safety zones by neurotypicals (often in order to make them more comfortable). Some predators may even capitalize on our differences in order to take advantage of us.
That’s why it’s so important for us to have well-defined boundaries.
Strong boundaries will:
- keep us out of invalidating relationships and circumstances
- keep us safer from predators
- help us build self esteem (which we can use to better thrive as an ND in an NT world)
- save our precious energy (which can already be in short supply for many NDs)
- help us live an overall happier and more satisfied life.
Why it’s harder for Neurodivergents to set boundaries
As we’ve already said, its extra difficult to set boundaries as a Neurodivergent.
But why exactly is it harder for us?
Well, it’s because of:
- Consistent invalidation and gaslighting makes us believe our needs are less important
- Trauma from bullying, unsafe home environments, and forced compliance makes boundaries unclear, unsafe and confusing
- ND processes like low interoceptive awareness and Alexythemia making it harder to recognize when a boundary is needed
Consistent invalidation makes us believe our needs are less important
Our needs are significantly different as Neurodivergents. Some of us may need more space and time to process. Others will need to meltdown or shutdown in order to regulate in difficult situations. Many of us have physical conditions that accompany our Neurodivergence that need to be accommodated.
However the world most often invalidates those needs because they are different. Society views needing extra time as being slow or lazy. Meltdowns are equated to tantrums. Shutdowns are seen as manipulative. Invisible illnesses are just people being hypochondriacs.
All this messaging infers that our needs are not important. And when we hear that from people we trust like teachers and parents, day in and day out, we start to believe it.
We get conditioned to believe our boundaries don’t matter.
Trauma can also affect how we build boundaries
All trauma from the life shattering Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to the unending nightmare of “othering” (bullying, forced compliance, and invalidation due to being Neurodivergent) has an effect on how we perceive boundaries.
The trauma of being Neurodivergent in a Neurotypical world can be especially damning for NDs who are trying to set boundaries. That’s because we’ve been taught that fitting in and complying with NT society standards is more important than our own wellbeing. And this is not a benign process, many of us have been physically forced to change our behavior, which is beyond damaging to us.
This culture of compliance by fear and threats teaches NDs only one thing: that holding our own boundaries is fundamentally unsafe.
How toxic family systems affect how we build boundaries
if you grew up in a toxic environment it’s very likely that you’ll struggle with boundaries as an adult.
Trauma bonded families don’t understand space, either physical or emotional. Everyone is in each other’s business (check out the Triangulation Dynamic). Co-dependence makes you so emotionally attached to others you can’t make a decision for yourself.
Bottom line is: boundaries virtually don’t exist in these situations. Because of this, you may not have ever learned what a boundary is supposed to look like. Or you’ve learned to set barriers in an unhealthy way.
It’s important to note here that all people can experience toxic families. However Neurodivergents may experience the damaging effects more profoundly.
*If you’re struggling with a toxic living environment please know there is hope. Check out our guides on creating space and keeping your sense of self while you work to escape: How to Create Space When You’re Part of A Toxic Family and What to do When You Can’t Escape a Toxic Living Situation
ND processes like low interoceptive awareness and Alexythemia may make it harder to recognize when a boundary is needed
And finally, certain Neurodivergent specific factors make boundaries harder for us to achieve.
Before I get into this little section, I want to make it clear: if anyone is crossing your boundaries – it’s NEVER your fault. I’m only mentioning this as a way of understanding yourself and do not intend to place blame on the ND.
How we interpret emotion can have an impact on boundary building for NDs. Interoception, the process of feeling your feelings (both physical and emotional), can be difficult for some NDs. We see this in the form of Alexythemia, where an ND might have difficulty recognizing their emotions. Some Alexythemics may feel totally numb while others may only be able to recognize and feel certain emotions.
Having poor Interoception may play a part in our boundary struggles. This is because emotional pain is an indicator of danger and if we can’t recognize that alarm going off we may not know it’s time to set a barrier.
What constitutes a strong boundary?
Okay, so. I know the previous section makes it seem like there are a TON of challenges to building boundaries as an ND. And the truth is, there are a lot of hurdles in our way. BUT that doesn’t mean we can’t set boundaries. Far from it. In fact, we are capable of setting AMAZING boundaries.
And I’m going to show you how, step by step!
The first thing you need to know is: What constitutes a strong boundary? What does it look like?
A good boundary:
- Is a statement on what you are going to do (or not do) instead of an attempt to change their behavior
- Is not a threat or an ultimatum
- Is usually accompanied by a physical movement like removing yourself from the room or hanging up a phone
- Is repeated firmly using the same wording each time someone pushes it
- Might be pushed back, but that doesn’t mean it’s not working
Basically a strong boundary isn’t going to change someone else’s behavior. It’s a commitment within yourself not to participate in their behavior anymore.
This looks like “I am taking a walk for five minutes to cool down,” or, “I won’t continue speaking with you while you’re calling me names. I’ll be available to talk when you’re calmed down.” It can even be as simple as saying “No, I’m too busy to do that right now,” to your boss.
This differs from an ultimatum which sounds like: “You need to calm down or I’ll leave.” Not only are ultimatums fighting words, they’re also just not very effective. That’s because it puts the impetus to change in someone else’s hands.
This is about YOU. You are taking your power back, not waiting for someone else to change.
When and where to set boundaries
As I mentioned above, it can be difficult to know exactly when to set a boundary if you struggle with interoception or residual trauma.
It can be helpful to know the situations where a boundary is needed. Now, we all know that we need boundaries around overtly abusive behaviors like physical violence, emotional manipulation, and hateful speech. But what about when it’s less clear?
It might be time to set a boundary when:
- You’re being asked to do something far beyond your present capabilities. This happens a lot in the workplace and is a sneaky one because challenging tasks are common in most careers. BUT if you don’t have the proper information, support or skillset to accomplish the task, it may be an unreasonable request unless expectations are adjusted.
- You find that you’re consistently zapped of energy after being around a person or group. If you notice a pattern of feeling emotionally drained or on edge around a person, place, or group it might be time to set a boundary.
- You’re feeling resentful in your relationship. 9 times out of 10 when I notice I’m irritated with my spouse it’s because I’m feeling resentful about my needs not being met (and vice versa)! That means it’s time for us to hash it out and set some new boundaries in order to get our needs met.
- You’re having a fight that’s getting out of hand- Even emotionally healthy relationships can have toxic moments. When you’re triggered it can be all too easy to go from healthy conflict to hurtful fight. If you notice this happening, it’s time to set a boundary by walking away from each other and resuming when you’re both calmer.
- Someone is pressuring you to do something you don’t want to. Friends and family can be pushy, especially when they believe they know what’s good for you. But remember, you know yourself best. If you don’t want to go somewhere or participate, you can say “no” or “maybe” instead of yes.
- Someone is making you feel “icky.” Okay, icky isn’t a very scientific term BUT it does a great job describing those situations where you just get a feeling something is wrong. You are under no obligation to allow someone access to you if they make you feel uncomfortable. You can set a boundary here by ending a conversation, walking away, or changing the subject.
In addition here are a few places and situations where you often encounter the need to set boundary:
- At work with bosses, co-workers, and clients. You can also set boundaries on your time at work.
- In romantic relationships (especially situationships)
- With family
- With people on the internet (some solid tips on that here)
- At school
- When you’re starting to go into sensory overwhelm, shutdown or meltdown mode
How to set boundaries
Okay, so we know what boundaries look like. And we know when and where to set them.
But the big question remains: HOW do we set a boundary? What are the concrete steps?
Well here they are!
- Step 1: Validate your feelings
- Step 2: Decide whether it’s safe to set the boundary
- Step 3: State your intention not to participate in the situation making you uncomfortable
- Step 4: Physically distance yourself if needed
- Step 5: Negotiate if necessary
- Step 6: Self care
Step One: Validate your feelings
The thought of “am I being too sensitive about this?” still runs through my head when I set a boundary. And I’m sure the same goes for you too.
Neurodivergents especially have been conditioned to believe we’re “too sensitive” just for asking for basic needs. Trauma responses and triggers can also muddy the emotional waters when it comes to trusting ourselves.
But the thing is, if something bothers you or feels harmful that’s valid. Your needs matter and you should be able to express them.
If you’re uncomfortable with a situation or person that’s a clear sign it’s time to set a boundary.
Step Two: Decide whether it’s safe to set the boundary
As I mentioned earlier, many Neurodivergents were taught that setting boundaries could be a painful experience. For many of us, if we resisted orders as children emotional and physical violence were the consequences.
Because of that, setting boundaries is likely going to be triggering for you, raising your anxiety through the roof.
It’s up to you to decide whether you want to spend the emotional energy. If you don’t feel safe to set a boundary in the moment, that’s okay. You can always approach your partner, friend, or co-worker later to discuss it when you’re feeling more grounded.
Now if you are in a toxic living environment, it might be a different story. In this case, setting a boundary with someone can be draining at best and dangerous at worst. It’s important to set boundaries for yourself in these situations but please, please be careful if you do.
People who are used to getting their toxic behavior rewarded with your attention can become irate when you change things up on them. In this case it may be best to forgo any of the more advanced boundary setting and use passive resistance (not responding to their “hooks”) to keep yourself safe.
Step Three: State your intention not to participate in the situation making you uncomfortable
If you do feel safe and grounded enough to set a boundary, here’s what to do next!
State your intention to the other person. Let them know you won’t be participating in the uncomfortable situation or dynamic anymore.
This can look something like:
- “I’ll no longer be working extra hours. I will be available for extra hours once they are paid accordingly and/or when I have the time to devote to them.”
- “I won’t participate in this fight, I’m going to take a walk to cool off and we can talk when everyone is calmed down.”
- “I’m not going to talk about someone else behind their back. Im happy to talk about a different subject though.”
- “I don’t want to go but thanks for inviting me.”
- “I’m not available to work that day.”
- “I can’t do that task right now.”
Try to be as clear and concise as you can. You don’t need a lot of detail.
Step Four: Physically distance yourself if needed
Not all boundaries need a physical component, but a lot of them do. By physical component I mean:
- Walking away or cooling off during an argument
- Hanging up a phone to safe guard yourself from abuse language
- Shutting your office or bedroom door
- Turning off your work related email and phone after a certain hour
- Muting notifications on group chats or from distracting conversations
- Not answering phone calls you know will be triggering
- Physically leaving an event when you’re ready to go (I always drive separate so I can have a way out if needed)
- Using body language that blocks energy and indicates “I’m done” (crossing your arms, turning away)
- Putting in headphones
As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Mindful physical actions can strengthen your boundaries by displaying your resolve.
Step Five: Negotiate if necessary
Sometimes it’s necessary to negotiate your boundaries. This can be in the case of work when you need to complete tasks but maintain your sanity at the same time.
Or it can be in relationships when you want to let the other person know you need space but also remind them you still love and care for them.
In these cases you can say something like:
- “I’m angry and I need to take a walk to calm down, I will be back in 15 minutes. I’ll be able to talk when I’m calmed down.”
- “I can’t do that task right now. I can do it after 3 PM.”
- “I can’t meet that deadline, it’s too short for the work involved. Can we extend it to Friday instead?”
- “I don’t want to go out tonight but check back with me next Saturday, I’ll have more energy then.”
These types of boundaries give reassurance and a little leeway so the other party knows you’re working with them. I don’t suggest using them in toxic situations – in those cases be as firm as possible.
Step Six: Self Care
As I mentioned in step one, setting boundaries can come at an energetic toll. That’s why it’s crucial to self care!
In terms of boundaries, you’re likely to be emotionally amped up afterwards. That’s where grounding techniques come in handy. Tools like EFT tapping, the 5-4-3-2-1 method, and changing your temperature can be extremely helpful to discharge that energy. Exercise is a great tool here as well.
Another factor to consider is the emotional toll setting a boundary can take on you. Journaling, venting to someone you trust and validating your feelings are going to be crucial when building and maintaining boundaries.
Pssst..you can get some great strategies in our Self Care Center 😀
What to do when someone pushes back against your boundary
Wouldn’t it be great if we could just set a boundary one time and that’d be the end of it.
Sigh, in a perfect world amiright? Unfortunately, people and systems that are used to having unlimited access to you aren’t just going to give it up so easily. They’ll resist. Either by finding new ways around your boundary or directly challenging you. That’s why your follow up game has to be strong too.
To combat against this you can:
- Repeat the boundary word for word, using the same direct and simple language. Don’t negotiate in this case.
- Remember it’s not about changing their behavior – it’s about changing yours in order to take back your power.
- Physically remove yourself from the situation.
- Get help and support, don’t go it alone. Reach out to trusted mentors, counselors, family, friends, etc to lean on while you learn to build healthy boundaries.
- Don’t get hooked. Oftentimes people who lose that sense of safety of having 24/7 access to you will do everything they can to grab your attention again. Learn to be less reactive to these hooks and they will slowly stop using them.
- Remind yourself of your why. Why is this boundary so important for you to hold? What made you want to make the change? Remembering your why will give you resolve to keep holding this boundary longterm.
- Understand that if someone is getting upset because you set a boundary – you definitely needed to set that boundary. You did the right thing.
A final note on building boundaries for Neurodivergents
I want you to know that you’re going to be bad at this.
No I’m not trying to discourage you! Quite the opposite. Healthy boundaries are a high level communication skill that takes years to master. And that’s if you grew up already learning the basics.
I don’t want you to quit or get discouraged because your boundaries don’t work perfectly the first, second or even 573rd time you try them. I want you to understand that it’s a process. Mistakes are bound to happen and that’s okay.
Don’t give up! Because your boundaries matter. Your needs matter. YOU matter.
I also want you to know that not only am I here to support you in this journey (firstname.lastname@example.org), but there’s an entire community of amazing Neurodivergents out there who are ready and willing to root you on. We’d love you to join us in our Neurodivergent Learning and Lifeskills group and our trauma specific group: the Neurodivergent Trauma Support Group.
Between the two groups, we’re over 1,000 strong and we’ve all got your back.
Whatever you’re going through, whatever mountains you’re climbing – we got you. You can do this.
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