Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries seems to be the theme of my life, and the lives of many of my friends, family and clients.
The first time I was asked about boundaries in a therapy session, I wasn’t entirely sure what was being referred to. The reference I had to boundaries was that it made people difficult, stubborn or uncompromising – none of which I wanted to be or seem to be by those I interacted with.
What I didn’t realise though, was that by not having boundaries, I was involved in friendships that were very one-sided, I had no work-life balance with my business and my romantic relationships were physically, emotionally and mentally draining – and don’t let me even start on family dynamics…
So what are boundaries and why are they important for us?
We teach people how to treat us and the primary way in which we do this, is by setting and maintaining boundaries.
There is a misunderstanding that a boundary is to keep others out, but they are actually to keep us from engaging in or with people, behaviours or things that cause us pain or affect us negatively.
Boundaries are more about the relationship you have with yourself and your values, than anything to do with other people.
The thing is, I was taught or learned through social conditioning that being pliable – especially as a woman – was attractive and what nice girls did. However the truth is that poor or no boundaries point more towards low self-esteem than being easy to be around.
Boundaries (or the lack thereof) are a function of how much you value and respect yourself!
How do you go about setting boundaries?
Step 1: Values and Limits
Figure out your core values are and where your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual limits lie. This can be a bit of a process and coaching can really help you uncover these things, but without knowing what you value and what your limits are, it’s hard to set a decent boundary and maintain it.
A good place to start is to become aware of when you feel like you’ve been disrespected, devalued or just yukky. Often when a limit has been overstepped we feel it emotionally.
A big one for me is respect regarding time. If you’re late (or if I’m late) I equate it directly to disrespect. This is not just about people being late, it includes friends or family phoning during work-hours, or going out with a girl-friend who keeps looking at her phone.
I am also really sensitive to visual content, so I’ve got to be quite strict with what I open online or click on when I’m browsing Facebook – this also means that if I’m having a bad day, I need to make sure I don’t go onto social media…
Paying attention to how you feel is a great way to figure out where your boundary needs to be.
Step 2: Communicate!
It’s up to you to communicate where your boundary is, and to maintain it. This can get tiresome with long-term relationships like with family or a partner – sometimes you have to state more than once what has made you feel uncomfortable or what is not acceptable.
The best way to do this is to use “I” statements – this is to own your feelings and not blame anyone for making you feel a certain way.
In order to use “I” statements, you’ll also need to start becoming aware of what emotions come up when a boundary is crossed.
Often our emotional spectrum goes between angry, sad and resentful but it reality we have a much wider range of emotions – the better we get at identifying them, the easier it will be to communicate a boundary.
Some examples of “I” statements include:
- “I feel uncomfortable when we speak on this topic, please can we speak about something else?”
- “I get easily overwhelmed when I take personal calls during work-hours, so I won’t be answering my phone between 8am and 5pm”.
- “I feel anxious when you drive so fast, please can you slow down or let me get out”.
Step 3: Get comfortable with guilt.
For those of us who have been conditioned to be ‘nice’, guilt will come up a lot when we start setting boundaries. I felt extreme guilt asking my mom to stop calling during my working day, I felt like I was punishing my partner when I had to set down boundaries around intimacy, and telling friends how I felt when they addressed me in a certain way made me extremely uncomfortable.
One of my therapists told me that the first time she set a boundary with her family, she literally felt like she’d die from the shame and guilt and she was convinced that she’d be ostracized. The opposite was true, her family weathered the change barely blinking an eye-lid – and the benefits for her were profound.
We also need to become comfortable with saying goodbye to the relationships that don’t weather the changes. When we change, some people adapt and change with us, others will move on and we need to let them go.
In my own experience I’ve had to let very dear friends go – they just couldn’t or wouldn’t accept that I was no longer a certain way. One of the biggest relationships I had to say goodbye to was with my business that I’d been growing for 8 years. My new boundaries just didn’t fit with the expectations I’d set and with the way the business was running – and changing it would have taken too much time and energy. So boundaries are not just for our human relationships….
Step 4: Really feel into what it feels like when you set and maintain healthy boundaries.
One of the results of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is feelings of empowerment. By allowing ourselves to live authentically and to communicate how we truly feel is immensely powerful, motivating us to continue.
Other benefits include better self-esteem, confidence and healthier relationships with those in our lives.
Becoming aware of the positive feelings around setting boundaries and maintaining them will help us to keep doing it – it’s very easy to slip back into old patterns, especially once again with family and friends we’ve had for a long time.
So what boundaries do you struggle with? If you’d like to work on improving your boundaries or if you know you need to have them but aren’t sure where to start, then get in touch!