In the theme of personal resources I would be amiss if I did not include boundaries. I talk to my clients a lot about boundaries but it seems to be something that is consistently hard to do. I wonder if it has to do with the lack of conversations around it when we were children? Remember hearing over and over again to give this uncle a hug, and to sit in that one’s lap. We were not given choices and labeled difficult or sulky if we expressed our own discomfort. This is changing slowly in relation to the expectations we place on the more vulnerable people in our care, but what about in relation to our our vulnerabilities and self care.
Often, as a society, we don’t stress things like communication needs, personal limits or consent, which are great examples of boundaries. Maybe it is because the term “boundary” is vague and is often unique to the individual. There also seems to be one ‘predetermined’ set of boundaries that men are expected to abide by but women are expected to ignore when they do not.
So let’s get concrete about what a boundary is.
Personal boundaries are the rules we set for ourselves and the limits we have with all relationships. They are created so that we can identify what is reasonable, safe and what we are willing to permit within each relationship. When there are “healthy” boundaries they can protect against pain, they help keep your mental wellness and increase not only self-respect but others will respect you more.
Personal boundaries are hard to find, unlike physical boundaries. A band aid is a physical boundary used to protect a sore from bacteria. A “No Trespassing” sign tells people where they aren’t allowed to go. Personal boundaries are the same only they are what are in place to define where you end and they begin.
Clear as mud? How about a comparison?
A Healthy Boundary allows you to:
- Have higher self-esteem and self-respect.
- Share personal information gradually, in a mutually sharing and trusting relationship.
- Protect physical and emotional space from intrusion.
- Have an equal partnership where responsibility and power are shared.
- Be assertive. Confidently and truthfully say “yes” or “no” and be okay when other say “no” to you.
- Separate your needs, thoughts, feelings and desires from others. Recognize that your boundaries and needs are different from others.
- Empower yourself to make healthy choices and take responsibility for yourself.
Unhealthy Boundaries are characterized by:
- Sharing too much too soon, or at the other end of the spectrum, closing yourself off and not expressing your needs and wants.
- Feeling responsible for others’ happiness.
- Inability to say “no” for fear of rejection or abandonment.
- No real sense of your own identity. You base how you feel about yourself on how others treat you.
- Disempowerment. You allow others to make decisions for you; consequently, you feel powerless and do not take responsibility for your own life.
So, why are they important? Personal boundaries help you practice self-care, self-respect and increase your self-esteem. They communicate what your needs are in the relationship regardless if it is a friend, co-worker or intimate partner. They help create space for the positive interactions as well as set healthy limits on the relationship.
If boundaries weren’t confusing enough it is important to note that there are different kinds of boundaries! Click here for a list of types of personal boundaries as well as traits of boundaries.
If you feel that you currently don’t have good boundaries or want to tighten them up because they are too porous then we will explore some guidelines around establishing healthy boundaries.
What is important to note is that just like learning anything new, there will be some challenges. You may already know some of the boundaries you wish to set, and others may come up through time.
A common boundary that is ignored is over enmeshment with someone. This is when you and the other person MUST do everything together. You and the other person must think, feel and act the same way. This often happens in unhealthy relationships. Others include feelings of invisibility, smothering or lack of privacy.
The challenge may be, that when you start setting new boundaries where there was none previously, there may be an increase in conflict with individuals around you. People have been conditioned to treat you poorly because in the past the lack of boundaries has allowed them to take advantage. like the old adage says, we teach people how to treat us!
The trick to setting new boundaries is being consistent. Once a boundary is set you need to know how to set consequences if that boundary is not respected. Stating a consequence like” “If you break plans with me by not showing up or calling me, I will call you on your behavior and let you know how I feel” or “If you continue to ignore my feelings, I will assume that you are uninterested and I will consider all my options including leaving the relationship”.
You may allow for some gradual change as being too rigid with the newly established boundaries may alienate those that you truly care about. This new you, and new way of treating you will take time for others to learn. You will have to decide which are negotiable while you are establishing them and which ones require more rigid lines in the sand.
When establishing healthier boundaries first identify the symptoms of your situation currently. Have your boundaries been clear, are they being violated or ignored? If so, then identify any irrational or unhealthy thinking or beliefs that have allowed them to be violated. Identify a new rational or healthy thinking that will encourage you to change the behavior to allow for healthier boundaries. Identify new behaviors you need to add to sustain the new boundaries. What consequences will you set? Implementing healthy beliefs around the new healthy boundaries so that they will no longer be ignored or violated.
Practice practice practice.
This will take time.
Consider what the natural consequences of setting healthy boundaries will have on your relationships. Moving from unhealthy beliefs such as “I can never say “no” to others”, “It is my duty to hold them together”, “I’ve been hurt badly in the past and I will never let anyone get close enough to hurt me again” to healthier beliefs like: “I have the right to say “no” to others if it is an invasion of my personal space or a violation of my boundaries”, “I have the right to take care of myself. We all share responsibility to create interdependency needed to keep us a united group” or “I do not need to be cold and distant to protect myself. I choose to open myself up to others trusting I will be assertive to protect myself”.
There is predictably when there are clear boundaries for yourself and for the people around you. It is a personal resource you get to lean into to protect yourself from pain. The boundaries will provide balance and freedom. When they are established they will create the parameters for what makes you unique, autonomous, and will help in future problem solving.
Remember that respectful relationships start with the one you have with yourself!