Boundaries would seem to be a very simple concept; after all, we see boundary landmarks all the time and understand them perfectly. “Do Not Cross”and “No Trespassing” signs are clear and make sense. State lines, while decided by humans,are respected as such. So why is it that we struggle with enforcing our own personal emotional and physical boundaries? The truth is that it’s because human experiences and relationships are nuanced and complex.
If you are someone who grew up in a household where your privacy wasn’t respected, it might be difficult to set boundaries with roommates or partners. If you had a partner who used to disregard your feelings about certain behaviors, you may struggle to believe that a future partner won’t behave in the same way. If your boundaries have changed with your life experiences, you may struggle to communicate them to people who have known you for a long time. If you are having a hard time identifying what your boundaries are, the idea of establishing them might seem impossible. There are all sorts of anxiety related to the setting and maintaining of boundaries, and that is understandable! You are not the only one.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are individually determined guidelines, limits, or rules; we identify them in order to establish how we need and wish to be treated by others,and what the repercussions will be if our boundaries are not respected. Boundaries have to operate within reason, of course and are determined to create feelings of reasonable safety and respect.We often think of boundaries as healthy vs unhealthy. Healthy boundaries are reasonable, create safety, and can/may evolve as we do. Unhealthy boundaries typically fall into two categories: enmeshed and rigid.Enmeshed boundaries exist between two people where the boundaries are unclear or too permeable, which often leads to codependency and people-pleasing(always saying yes). Rigid boundaries tend to be less passive and more aggressive: never trusting others; always having your guard up; never letting anyone in; cutting people out of your life too quickly; difficulty with forgiving and flexibility.
Why are they important?
Boundaries are important because they are necessary for every interpersonal relationship we have. They apply to any relationship, from personal to professional, from romantic to friendships. Without healthy boundaries, others may run roughshod over us, creating feelings of resentment. Or we may feel too vulnerable to create meaningful connections, instead choosing to take action that pushes people away so “before we can be hurt”. Healthy boundaries equate to healthy relationships! But despite their importance, many of us struggle to set and/or enforce them.
Barriers to setting boundaries:
- You worry about hurting the other person’s feelings:
We have all been in a position of having to tell someone”no” when we know they want us to say”yes”. Of course, it doesn’t feel good. Of course,we always wish to be agreeable and get along.While it is natural to want to create harmony, we are actually doing a disservice to our loved ones by not communicating our needs. It can be difficult to set a boundary that we know the other person has crossed without incident; we may worry that that person will feel bad about all the times they/she/he behaved that way in the past.We are also sometimes in a position of having been socialized to feel bad about setting boundaries.Letting go of people-pleasingcanbe tricky, but is an essential step in determining and respecting your own boundaries.
- You have been made to feel bad about setting boundaries
At times, we may be in relationships –especially with family members – who tend to question our boundaries. This may have started when we were small, and been reinforced as we grew up. This means that we did not have healthy boundaries modeled for us, or reinforced and supported. When certain people feel inconvenienced by our boundaries,they make us doubt them. In a family situation,
we might experience a family member guilt-tripping us by saying, “You need to be loyal to your family and always help.” The same can be said with friends or romantic partners; “You said you had my back”, or “I thought you loved me”. These comments are meant to shame us into denying our boundaries; some of us may have to unlearn an entire lifetime’s worth of boundary-pushing.
- You lack insight and awareness of your boundaries:
Sometimes, we don’t know how to set boundaries because we don’t know what they are, or where to begin when determining them. We feel unsure of our needs, wants, and preferences orwe feel that previous boundaries have shifted, and we’re not sure why and/or what that means.Determining your boundaries requires taking the time to look inside yourself, as well as being present in your interactions with people so that you can take note of the emotional or physical discomfort you may feel.
There might be someone who immediately comes to mind when you think of your boundaries being crossed. Or there may be a situation that you know makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps you haven’t addressed your issues with this person or with the behavior you know is disconcerting. You may have realized this about yourself,but feel overwhelmed about how to go about setting boundaries. “Where do I begin?” is a common question when adjusting any sort of way of thinking, or established behavior.
If you know you have a hard time setting boundaries, and perhaps have made attempts in the past to set them in various relationships, you might wonder if it’s just not in your nature to assert them. But if you are patient and gentle with yourself,you can utilize tools to set and maintain boundaries; anyone can do it with practice and time! There is no reason why you cannot.
Steps to setting healthy boundaries:
- Identify what your needs and boundaries are:
This is a process that focuses on figuring out solely what your boundaries are,regardless of who in your life may want to cross them. It is important to set boundaries not for other people, but for yourself. Your boundaries are supposed to be advocating for your needs and protecting you.While it is important to have mutual validation, start with yourself. Start by focusing on what your needs are, especially if you have a history of putting others’ needs before yours.
Be mindful and intentional. Don’t pressure your self to sit down in one day and come up with every possible limit or boundary. The “big ones” will come to you quite naturally when you think about them, but it may take time and mindfulness to identify more, and that’s okay. If you are present in your interactions with people, it will go a long way toward identifying your comfort zones. Being mindful is also a great way to acknowledge discomfort;often, we are tempted to move past those feelings as quickly as possible, so we don’t acknowledge them. This can be a block in identifying our boundaries.
Journal about your needs. Journal about any past relationship to explore how those past interactions modeled and reinforced boundaries. Look back into your family of origin and explore the norms in your family growing up that reinforced healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries.
- Communicate your boundaries:
As you establish what your boundaries are, make a point of communicating them to those around you. This can be done in a neutral time; for example, when you are having coffee with a friend, you might say, “I am putting my phone on Do Not Disturb for a couple of hours in the mornings, and after eight p.m. It’s making a big difference in getting all my work done in the morning and decompressing at night!” This friend might be someone who will send follow-up texts or call multiple times to get a hold of you and might be distressed to hear this boundary from you.But bringing up this boundary in a neutral way, at a neutral time, gives plenty of space for this person to ask questions and to not take this boundary personally.
Not only is it important to assert yourself, but you should also engage in active listening by understanding how the other person feels and what that person needs. Engage in negotiation and healthy accommodation that leads to a win-win situation. This friend, for example, may have an anxious attachment style, or worry about being able to get a hold of you in an emergency. It may take some negotiations about contact settings on both your parts to come to a place where you feel respected and the other person feels less anxious. It is up to you how far you’re willing to go to accommodate each person’s response to your boundaries. You may also try a compromise with the premise that the agreement will change if limits are being pushed.
- Practice it often:
What is often difficult about setting boundaries is having to repeat yourself every time one is crossed. Because it feels uncomfortable and can be challenging, we often regress and let go of setting and/or enforcing our boundaries consistently. The feeling of boundaries being an uphill battle is valid, but we can lessen the grade of the hill by continuing to practice. This might mean that we pick one core boundary and focus on enforcing it as often as we can, or we choose a handful of smaller boundaries that might come up frequently but have lower emotional stakes. Each individual person will feel more comfortable practicing higher-stakes or lower-stakes boundaries; it is up to you how you begin and how you prioritize, so long as you make it a point to keep working!
- Tolerate the emotions involved in setting boundaries:
A big part of keeping your boundary practice consistent relies on having a tolerance of your emotions. Specifically, if setting boundaries makes you feel anxious or uncomfortable, learning to tolerate these emotions is a necessary part of the journey. Just because you feel guilty does not mean you are doing something wrong. Especially when those around you want to manipulate you and get you to loosen up your boundaries; you will need to be resilient to withstand those guilt trips. Preparing yourself mentally for the challenge of emotional dis comfort is a great way to set yourself up for success. If you need to come up with an affirmation to say to yourself in these times, such as, “This discomfort now will make me more comfortable later”, take the time to do so. Brainstorm ways that you can process the tough parts of setting and sticking to your boundaries when you are in a quiet, safe space. Be gentle with yourself when your emotions feel more heightened than you’d like sometimes.
- Engage in self-care:
Setting boundaries can feel exhausting. Take time to take care of yourself and go at your own pace. When needed, make space to decompress from a tough day of boundary enforcement; take a bath, color, go for a walk,read, watch your favorite movie. When you are discovering and exploring your boundaries, make sure that you are creating a list of ways you can provide yourself with care as well. This will make it simpler to do so when you need to, rather than finding yourself
in a position where you need self-care but don’t have any idea what that means for you. You may find that you are being hard on yourself about what your boundaries are, or how you’re enforcing them. Cheer yourself on instead.
It is helpful to remember that some of our boundaries can change throughout our lives and give ourselves permission to be constantly curious about ourselves. Holding judgment about what our boundaries are or why they might be changing isn’t as helpful as exploring our emotions and experiences. We may want to seek the support of a therapist as we process our boundaries and work on setting and upholding them. Having a support network is always beneficial; we as humans weren’t meant to go it alone. Beginning a new behavior is always tricky. Sticking with a change takes work. Don’t be hard on yourself; revisit your motivation and the tools you have at your disposal regularly, and strive for progress, even if it’s slow. Remember that boundaries are necessary and that you are not asking too much of anyone to respect them.
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Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.