For most, it goes without saying that the ability to set boundaries is crucial when it comes to establishing one’s identity and wellbeing. With that said, boundaries often look completely different to each and every individual. What might be a clear boundary for one person may be completely overlooked by another. This makes the art of putting boundaries into practice pretty tricky, and entirely easier said than done.
There are a number of different types of boundaries, from physical to emotional and everything in between. Additionally, there are also different levels of boundaries; from relaxed to rigid, with healthy boundaries typically falling somewhere in the middle. Sounds simple, right? Err, yeah right.
So, why are boundaries so important anyway? To put it simply, your boundaries are your relationship with yourself. In the wise words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.”
Your boundaries come in two main categories: Physical and Emotional.
Your physical boundaries need to be strong and assertive in order to keep you safe from danger and discomfort. Physical boundaries may relate to your body, your personal space and your privacy.
One example of setting a physical boundary is that dreaded moment when somebody gets a little too close when trying to talk to you. Your immediate and automatic reaction will probably be to quickly take a step back to prevent your personal bubble from bursting. By taking that step back, you are protecting yourself by setting a personal boundary.
Emotional boundaries, on the other hand, are just as important. Emotional and intellectual boundaries protect your self-esteem and self-respect, as well as your ability to separate your feelings and mindset from those around you. When you don’t have strong emotional boundaries in place, you risk exposing yourself to the negative associations of everyone around you. This is likely to leave you feeling bruised, battered and completely mentally drained.
Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to detect those moments when we aren’t honouring our emotional boundaries. Examples of this may include taking responsibility for another’s feelings, sacrificing your plans and goals in order to make others happy or even blaming other people for your problems/hardships.
As I mentioned, boundaries are absolutely essential in order to be both physically and mentally healthy. Strong boundaries help us to maintain balance and self-respect, and also allow us to effectively tune into our mental wellbeing. As an added bonus, healthy boundaries also encourage us to preserve personal relationships, whether these are friendly, professional or intimate.
When you lack personal boundaries, you are essentially leaving your front door unlocked and open for unwelcome guests to stroll on in as they please. Psychological studies have proven that rigid personal boundaries lead to loneliness, isolation, depression and anxiety. As sad as those results are, it makes total sense. It’s just like living in a closed capsule with no opening or fresh air in sight. You are trapped within your own insecurities and forced to live your life for others, rather than yourself.
Have a look at the following checklist of healthy/unhealthy boundaries. Take a moment to think about whether any of these points resonate with you. Which side of the fence would you say you’re sitting on at the moment?
Healthy Boundaries encourage us to:
Practice assertiveness by feeling confident to state our opinions, thoughts and ideas in a respectful manner.
Allow us to say no, and feel okay in doing so.
Separate thoughts, feelings and needs from those around us.
Make healthy choices and take responsibility for our actions.
Enjoy high levels of self-esteem and self-respect.
Have equal partnerships in which responsibilities and powers are shared and respected.
Unhealthy Boundaries may appear through:
Recurring fears of rejection, abandonment or humiliation.
Inability to say no.
A weakened sense of personal identity, morals and values.
Inability to make important decisions for yourself.
Feeling responsible for other’s emotions – Whether this may be happiness, sadness, frustration or satisfaction.
By no means are those checklists aimed to make you feel insecure about any habits you may have identified, but rather a tool to help you reflect on your behaviours, values and tendencies. Regardless of which checklist you may have found the most similarities within, there will always be a number of ways to improve not only your boundary-setting skillset, but also your confidence to practice this. Take a peek at the list below for a few pointers to get you started:
1. Own it
As another old saying goes, the first step to change is admitting to your issue/s. Despite being the initial step, this in itself is not easy to do.
Sure, we would all like to think that we have our boundaries in check and that we excel at absolutely everything we put our mind to, but very rarely is this actually the case. So pause for a moment and just think – Are you happy with your personal boundaries, whether they be physical, emotional, professional or intellectual? Would you like to see change within these aspects of your life? If so, yay! You’re on the right track already. After all, where’s the point in saying that we want to grow if we aren’t going to be honest with ourselves about where we are now?
Your boundaries are your friend. Trust yourself with this process.
2. Think about your Core Values
Who the heck are you? What’s important to you? What do you value most in life?
Don’t stress just yet, this isn’t some kind of dreaded icebreaker activity. An easier way to tackle your core values is to think about what you are and aren’t comfortable with. Think about this from a personal, professional, emotional and social level.
Once you develop a clear understanding of what matters most to you and what your expectations of other people are, you can then take the bigger step of communicating this to others. When your values have been made clear to other people, you can pat yourself on the back knowing you have taken a huge step towards both setting and respecting your personal boundaries.
With that in mind, it’s important to remember that other people may have very different values to you. We all prioritise different things in life and being both aware and respectful of this will certainly help you to avoid any conflicts, frustration and distrust. We’re all different in our own ways and this is what helps to make the world such a great place.
3. Reflect on your past and present
Both how we were raised and the typical “role” we played within our families when we were growing up can often be a barrier when it comes to setting and preserving effective boundaries.
As an example, if you held the role of caretaker or the “fixer” within your family, you probably learned to focus on others before prioritising yourself. This likely caused you to feel drained in both a physical and emotional sense and it’s quite possible that ignoring your own needs may have become the simple norm for you.
In terms of the present, take a moment to think about the people you surround yourself with. Are your relationships reciprocal? Is there a healthy balance of give and take?
There’s also a good chance that your personal environment/s may be unhealthy too. Work tends to be the biggest culprit here, as most people tend to feel as though there is an expectation to go above and beyond what is considered reasonable. If you work within an environment where there are only a few of you (or perhaps you’re the only one!) trying to maintain healthy boundaries, it certainly isn’t going to be easy. This is why it is so critical to tune into your feelings and to honour your personal needs before extending your hand to others. This does not make you selfish.
4. Practice what you preach
When it comes to boundaries, the most important thing is HOW you communicate them. You might have the most effective and A++ boundaries in the entire world, but if you don’t make this clear to others, you’re essentially setting yourself up for some extremely confusing relationships and situations. Not just for yourself, but for everyone else involved too.
The quickest way to have someone question your integrity and authenticity is to say one thing and do another. There’s no denying that it’s quite difficult to confront other people when we aren’t happy about particular things, but the sooner you communicate your concerns, the sooner you can work towards a positive resolution. Rather than forcing yourself through an awful date or swamping yourself with a completely unachievable deadline, think about whether you are practicing what you preach to others when it comes to self-respect and self-care. The more you ground yourself with your boundaries and values, the more confident you will become to uphold these on a daily basis.
5. Check your engine light
Think about the way you feel when you surround yourself with people who upset, drain and frustrate you. How does this feel in your body? How does this feel in your mind? How does this affect you on an overall basis?
When you put all of these feelings together, you’re probably left feeling a bit overwhelmed, run-down and likely a little confused and unsure of what to do next. This is where your “check engine light” alarm starts flashing away, trying to bring attention to your personal boundary system. This warning is a way to let you know that your energies, boundaries and values have been compromised and that you’re allowing unnecessary stuff to butt in – Things that shouldn’t even be yours to deal with in the first place.
This is important to take note of.
When you improve your awareness of these instances, you’re noticing a leak within your own personal energy. You’re understanding that some work needs to be done to get that engine light to flick back off and return to normal.
Once that light has disappeared, think about how you can safely maintain your personal energy again to avoid any future hiccups.
When thinking about how to improve your boundary-setting skills, it’s okay to note that you will likely be weighing your own feelings more heavily than the feelings of others around you. This is expected since you are the one who will have to live with the consequences of these choices and decisions. As I said earlier, this does not make you selfish and this does not make you a “bad” friend, partner, colleague or daughter. This simply makes you human, and one that is prepared to put her needs first for a healthier, happier life.
That in itself is a success – Own it.
Cassie is The Real Her Project’s resident Counsellor and each month will be providing you all a personalised blog dedicated to you overcoming some deeper mindset struggles. Cassie is passionate about helping the next generation reach their potential and has all the skills to assist you in overcoming some of the tougher situations in life that hold us back from chasing our dreams.