Updated: Oct 26, 2020
“You change for two reasons: either you learn enough that you want to, or you’ve been hurt enough that you have to.” —Unknown
Do you have a hard time standing up for yourself? Do you keep agreeing to do things that you really don’t want to do? Do you tolerate rude comments or pushy people because you can’t handle conflict? Do you always take things personally? If any of these sound familiar, then you may have a problem with the “B” word…boundaries.
What Are Boundaries?
A boundary is a line of respect. It’s a certain limitation that you put on certain behaviors that are unpleasant or unwanted. It’s a way to verbally and non-verbally communicate how you want to be treated.
Boundaries serve many functions. They help to protect us, to clarify what is our responsibility and what is another’s, to preserve our physical and emotional energy, to stay focused on ourselves, to live our values and standards, and to identify our personal limits.
Setting boundaries is an important part of establishing one’s identity, as well as being crucial for one’s mental health and well-being. There are different types of boundaries, from physical boundaries to emotional boundaries, and there are also different levels of boundaries, from loose to rigid, with healthy boundaries falling somewhere in between.
What Are 'Healthy' Boundaries?
A boundary is a limit or space between you and the other person; a clear place where you begin and the other person ends. The purpose of setting a healthy boundary is, of course, to protect and take good care of yourself.
In general, healthy boundaries are those boundaries that are set to make sure mentally and emotionally you are stable. Another way to think about it is that our boundaries might be rigid, loose, somewhere in between, or even non-existent. But, a complete lack of boundaries may indicate that we don’t have a strong identity of our own.
Healthy boundaries can also serve to establish one’s identity, as well as what one is responsible for. Specifically, healthy boundaries can help someone define themselves as a person (rather than simply as part of a group or partnership) and can help someone decide what they will and will not hold themselves responsible for.
While healthy boundaries are often psychological or emotional, boundaries can also, of course, be physical. Healthy boundaries are a crucial component of self-care in all aspects of our lives. This is important because it indicates that properly-set boundaries can help someone find more fulfillment and less stress in their life.
More generally, the consequences of not setting healthy boundaries can include stress, financial burdens, wasted time, and relationship issues, which can cause mental distress. In other words, a lack of healthy boundaries can negatively affect all aspects of someone’s life. On the other hand, setting healthy boundaries can help you make decisions based on what is best for you.
This leads to the question, what do healthy boundaries actually look like? The types of boundaries one might set depends on the setting, so healthy boundaries will look different with your significant other than they do with a boss or co-worker.
How to Set Personal and Emotional Boundaries
The first part of setting boundaries is examining the boundaries that already exist (or are lacking) in one’s life. For example, someone might decide that they have healthy boundaries with their partner but not with their friends and co-workers. From there, they can decide what types of boundaries they want to set with their friends and co-workers.
As for how to exactly set these boundaries, it is always best to say “no” simply but firmly to something you do not want to do. Do not feel that you need to explain. Not over-explaining is an important aspect of setting boundaries as everyone has the right to determine what they do and do not want to do. This brings up another important point: keeping the focus on oneself.
Another important thing to remember is that it’s impossible to set boundaries without setting consequences. This means that when setting boundaries, it is important to explicitly state why they are important. It is also crucial to only declare consequences that you are willing to follow through on, or else the boundaries will not be effective.
In general, the key to setting boundaries is first figuring out what one wants from their various relationships, setting boundaries based on these desires, and then being clear with oneself and with other people about these boundaries.
Boundaries in Relationships
Boundaries in relationships can be especially important because when one person is in control of another, love cannot grow deeply and fully as there is no freedom. Healthy boundaries can be the difference between a healthy, happy relationship and a toxic, dysfunctional relationship. A lack of boundaries can lead to an unhealthy relationship because one partner may feel that they have no privacy anymore. On the other side of things, too many boundaries can also be an issue.
One way to avoid crossing someone’s boundaries (and to avoid having your own boundaries crossed) is to have honest conversations about boundaries with people.
Healthy boundaries are a crucial part of life and an important aspect of any self-care practice. While one might feel selfish when setting boundaries, they are necessary for mental health and well-being. Although, appropriate boundaries can look very different in different settings, it is important to set them in all aspects of your life.
Boundaries are essential to healthy relationships and, really, a healthy life. Setting and sustaining boundaries is a skill. Unfortunately, it’s a skill that many of us don’t learn. We might pick up pointers here and there from experience or through watching others. But, for many of us, boundary-building is a relatively new concept and a challenging one.
How to establish your boundaries effectively:
Be self-aware. The first step in learning to set boundaries is self-awareness. For example, pay close attention to the situations when you lose energy, feel a knot in your stomach, or want to cry. Identifying where you need more space, self-respect, energy, or personal power is the first step. Get to know yourself as best you can. This means that you need to learn what’s really important to you, what you really value apart from anyone else. Gaining access to your inner world by becoming familiar and comfortable with your own beliefs, emotions, feelings, and ideas is essential. The intimacy you experience within yourself serves as your own personal relational barometer. The better you know yourself the better you are able to understand and choose those significant others that best mirror the kind of life experience you want to have.
Name your limits. You can’t set good boundaries if you’re unsure of where you stand. So, identify your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual limits. Consider what you can tolerate and accept and what makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed. Those feelings help us identify what our limits are.
Be direct. With some people, maintaining healthy boundaries doesn’t require a direct and clear-cut dialogue. Usually, this is the case if people are similar in their communication styles, views, personalities, and general approach to life. They’ll approach each other similarly. With others, you’ll need to be more direct about your boundaries.
Give yourself permission. Fear, guilt, and self-doubt are big potential pitfalls. We might fear the other person’s response if we set and enforce our boundaries. We might feel guilty by speaking up or saying “no” to a family member. Many believe that they should be able to cope with a situation or say “yes” even though they feel drained or taken advantage of. Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of self-respect. So, give yourself the permission to set boundaries and work to preserve them.
Consider your past and present. How you were raised along with your role in your family can become additional obstacles in setting and preserving boundaries. If you held the role of caretaker, you learned to focus on others, letting yourself be drained emotionally or physically. Ignoring your own needs might have become the norm for you. Also, think about the people you surround yourself with. Are the relationships reciprocal? Is there a healthy give and take?
Make self-care a priority. We at Queens Healing Queens make self-care a priority. When we do this, our need and motivation to set boundaries become stronger. Self-care also means recognizing the importance of your feelings and honoring them. These feelings serve as important cues about our well-being and about what makes us happy and unhappy. Putting yourself first also gives you the energy, peace of mind, and positive outlook to be more present with others and be there for them. And, when we’re in a better place, we can be a better wife, girlfriend, mother, sister, co-worker, or friend for example.
Seek support. If you’re having a hard time with boundaries, seek some support, whether that’s a support group, church, counseling, coaching, or good friends. With friends or family, you can even make it a priority with each other to practice setting boundaries together and hold each other accountable.
Be assertive. Of course, we know that it’s not enough to create boundaries; we actually have to follow through. Even though we all know that people aren’t mind readers, we still expect others to know what hurts us. Since they don’t, it’s important to assertively communicate with the other person when they’ve crossed a boundary.
Start small. Like any new skill, assertively communicating your boundaries takes practice. Start with a small boundary that isn’t threatening to you, and then incrementally increase to more challenging boundaries. Build upon your success, and at first try not to take on something that feels overwhelming. Setting boundaries takes courage, practice, and support. But, remember, Queen…it’s a skill that you can master.
Develop a healthy respect for yourself. All your experiences, including the mistakes you’ve made help to shape your character—who you are. No one besides you, no matter how persuasive they may be, can define you or try to control who you are. When you respect yourself, all of who you are, you should expect that others will treat you with respect. If they don’t, that’s a clear sign not to engage.
Take heed to the warning signs. Stay away from anyone who has his or her own agenda and thinks nothing of pushing the limit, of invading your space. This is not a hard thing to recognize since there’s usually not much subtlety involved. In fact, the more you resist their attempts to engage you in a way that’s best for them, the more obvious, desperate, insulting, and difficult they may become as they try to up the ante.
Don’t try to fix people. Fixing others is a way of trying to get love, attention, and/or validation. It’s honestly a waste of your time and energy to try to fix anyone because, bottom line, they’re not interested in being any other way than what they are. You are in charge of your choices. You have the right to change your mind or your direction at any time. You don’t need to feel that you owe anyone anything more than you want to give with your free and conscious heart. Anyone who mistreats you, is disrespectful of your wishes, refuses to hear you, and has no intention of changing is a problem. Be ready to walk away without fear or guilt and don’t look back, Queen.
Pay attention to your feelings. There are three key feelings that are often red flags or cues that you need to either set boundaries in a particular situation or that you are letting your boundaries slip (and not maintaining them). These feelings are discomfort, resentment, or guilt. If a particular situation, person, or area of your life is leading you to feel uncomfortable, resentful, or guilty, and it has happened several times, this is an important cue.
Consider your environment. The environment you are in serves as your context and can have a strong influence on your behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions. Family and work environments are two examples of powerful contexts. Social circles are another. Why is it important to consider your environment when it comes to setting boundaries, you may be wondering? Your environment can either support your setting boundaries—making it easier for you—or present obstacles to boundary setting—making it more challenging for you. Consider your social circle of close friendships. Are these relationships generally reciprocal, with a natural give and take? Or, do they feel lopsided, with you more often giving than receiving? If more lopsided, it will likely be more uncomfortable, and therefore more challenging, for you to begin to set boundaries or to maintain existing ones in these relationships.
The Importance of Setting Boundaries
Setting boundaries can be difficult but is such an important part of having healthy relationships and establishing an overall sense of well-being. It’s helpful to remember that when you say “no” to things, it frees up your time to focus on the pursuits that truly energize and excite you. Having good boundaries also enables you to experience less stress and to follow your life’s passion and purpose.
Knowing When to Say “No”
A healthy relationship requires the space to be yourself, to maintain your personal integrity. Most people will respect your boundaries when you explain what they are and will expect that you will do the same for them; it’s a two-way street. Not so with people who don’t understand where you end and they begin. Chances are people who try to invade your space are not thinking about you or how pushing the limits of your boundaries will affect you. They clearly feel entitled to get whatever they ask for, whatever they think they need because, of course, their needs are more important than yours.
For many of us our earliest experiences have been positive enough to allow us to adapt a trusting attitude when it comes to others. Some people, however, who have a great deal of difficulty with trust as a result of instability, inconsistency, invasion of boundaries, and even actual threat of harm or alienation at some point in their lives, may be more vulnerable, more open to boundary violations. Many in this situation may have issues with low self-esteem, may fear the loss of a relationship (without even understanding how limiting or damaging it is to them), and/or have guilt about making someone angry or unhappy if they don’t engage.
How Do You Know If Your Boundaries Are Being Crossed?
Generally, there are a few broad categories that comprise boundary violations: verbal, psychological, emotional, and physical. Ethical, spiritual, and moral boundary violations exist as well.
Verbal violations include not allowing you to speak or be heard, raising their voice, and/or screaming at you, saying things that are derogatory or inflammatory about your integrity and character, gossiping about you.
Psychological and emotional boundary violations include preying upon your sense of self and self-esteem, using what you’ve told them in confidence against you, lying to you, criticizing, demeaning, judging, or manipulating you, making fun of you, your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, trying to make you feel guilty or responsible for them or a situation, making demands of your time and energy, shaming or embarrassing you, bullying you, assuring you that their thoughts and beliefs are superior to and more important than yours.
Physical violations include moving into your personal space, touching you without permission, being inappropriate or too familiar, especially sexually, (including sexual references), touching or handling things that belong to you, violating your privacy (cell phone, computer, social media contacts, personal records), damaging or destroying your personal property, threatening you with physical harm.
Set Your Boundaries in Your Head First
Before you approach the person you plan on setting a boundary with, you need to have a clear idea of why you’re setting this boundary, both for yourself and so that you can explain it to the person you’re setting it with. Upholding a boundary isn’t solely dependent on the person you’re setting it with. If they break the boundary, it’s important to stand your ground and implement conditions. Ask yourself if and how you’ll be able to stick to the particular boundary you plan to set. You have to be able to back it up and enact whatever action is necessary to keep that boundary in place. There’s no use in setting a boundary you don’t plan to stick to.
Then, take time to really think about the person you want to approach: their personality, your relationship, and anything else that may be relevant. Are they a good listener? If not, you may need to be extremely concise and clear, setting up strict rules and leaving little room for ambiguity. Are they someone who doesn’t take constructive criticism well? If so, you may want to be extra aware of your tone.
How Do You Have a Conversation About Boundaries?
If you think you can set boundaries by ignoring texts or otherwise hinting that you’re upset, I hate to tell you that this, Queen, but it will never work as well as using your words.
It may seem obvious that conversations about personal boundaries should happen in person, but it really depends on your comfort level. You’re the one setting the boundary, so you get to decide when that conversation happens and where and how it looks. If you’re prioritizing clarity or feeling super uneasy by having this conversation face-to-face, having it through email or text may be best. The benefit of writing it is that you get to be very certain about what you want to say and how you want to say it.
Explain to the person why you’re setting the boundary, and how their behavior has upset you in the past. Discuss the boundary as something that will help improve your relationship, rather than push the two of you apart.
But, remember, you’ll have to confront the possibility that your friend, family member, or whoever it is may not take your attempt to set a boundary well. Up until that point, they’re used to being able to have a certain kind of lenience with you. The minute you start to change that tide and say, “This is not okay with me,” you should expect some resistance and push-back. You should expect there to be some conflict and tension around whatever it is that you want to change. If you find yourself in this situation, maintain the boundary anyway and have a series of conversations with this person about what this boundary means to you. It doesn’t have to be, “It’s my way or the highway,” but, “Here’s what emotional injury you were causing me before; here’s why I need this to be different in order for me to remain in this relationship with you.”
Don’t lose hope though, Queen! It’s not unheard of that the person you’re confronting might actually welcome the boundary. There are instances where someone who cares about you, who really wasn’t aware how they were hurting you, welcome you setting that boundary because they’re more interested and invested in making you feel good and helping you maintain that relationship with them versus getting their way.
Maintaining Your Boundaries
Maintaining a boundary means not only sticking to what you said you would do but holding the other person accountable as well. If you’re having trouble maintaining a boundary, put yourself and your own feelings first in terms of why you’re setting a boundary and why it’s important to you. The other person may not like it, but they have to respect it.
Intention is huge when it comes to setting boundaries, and it can be easy to fall back on old behaviors if you forget why you implemented the boundary to begin in the first place. Regardless though, you’ll be proud of yourself for looking out for your own needs first.
“True strength is found in standing firm yet bending gently.”
Boundaries are a way to take care of ourselves. When we set boundaries, we’re less angry and resentful because our needs are getting met. Boundaries make our expectations clear, so others know what to expect from us and how we want to be treated. Boundaries are the foundation for happy, healthy relationships.
Ideally, people will respect our boundaries when we communicate them clearly. But, we all know that some people will do everything they can to resist our efforts to set boundaries; they will argue, blame, ignore, manipulate, threaten, or physically hurt us. And, while we can’t prevent people from acting like this, we can learn to set clear boundaries and take care of ourselves.
Setting boundaries is an ongoing process, and there isn’t a quick fix for dealing with habitual line crossers. The bottom line is that we can’t make people respect our boundaries, but we can control how we respond.
These steps will help you create and maintain healthy boundaries. Building boundaries is like any muscle or practice—the more you work with it, the better it serves you. You got this, Queen…happy building!
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