What are boundaries?
Our boundaries help to define us as individuals. By clearly asserting our limits, we are teaching others what our boundaries are, whether they be physical, emotional, social, mental and/or spiritual. Having clear boundaries enables us to feel separate from, but still engaged in relationships with other people. We define and develop our sense of personal boundaries through our experiences. They often become more clear to us in negative situations where we felt uncomfortable or felt taken advantage of. This helps us to understand where we need to draw the line in order to feel respected and valued in relationships.
If you aren’t entirely sure what your boundaries are and you want to learn how to develop healthy boundaries here are some tips:
Work on self-awareness. The more you get to know yourself, the more clearly you will be able to define your boundaries. Take some time to reflect on some questions to increase your self-awareness like:
What are your personal strengths and what parts of yourself do you accept that you cannot change?
What parts of your family of origin were dysfunctional and how did these experiences affect you?
What are your successes in your life?
Reward those successes and participate in activities that promote self-esteem.
Focus on yourself rather than others. Identify behaviours you would like to change in yourself rather than looking toward changing others. Identify your personal needs and take action towards meeting them. Remember, it is up to you not anyone else, to make sure that your needs are being met. Develop the habit of listening to your feelings. Your feelings will serve as a guide to help you make decisions and figure out what feels right for you. Identify self-caring behaviours or ways of nurturing yourself. It is important to find strategies to help you get through difficult times. Develop a support network of people are positive and support you.
Learn to trust and respect others. Be aware of your enabling and controlling behaviours, stop trying to control, change, or help others. Respect others’ opinions and ways of behaving, even if it is different from you. It is equally important to be aware of the boundaries of others.
Develop an attitude of self-responsibility. Put focus on your own problems and how you can change them. What are your personal goals? Start taking initiative to achieve them. Learn to ask for what you want. Identify anxiety producing situations and learn healthy ways to cope with anxiety.
Make your boundaries clear. Once you have identified your boundaries, it is important to learn how to communicate these to others. Express your opinions, feelings, preferences and disagreements. Set appropriate limits with others about what you can do and what you expect from them. Remember, it is okay to say no! Identify what gets in your way of setting clear limits. Need help asserting yourself? Take an assertiveness training course.
How to set boundaries with others
To have healthy relationships with others that are built on mutual respect, setting boundaries is important. The purpose of setting boundaries is to take care of yourself and setting limits that you are willing to do. It is not about manipulating others, which creates power struggles. Not all boundaries are the same. Some will be more flexible than others. For example, physical and verbal abuse should be strict boundaries that you will not allow others to cross. Don’t be afraid to set these boundaries to take care of yourself.
Boundaries need to be…
“If you”… behaviour.
“I will”… confront that behaviour and share feelings.
“If you”… continue that behaviour, “I will”..take care of myself by… action.
Think about what you want to say and how you want to say it before doing so. Be clear and direct, avoiding long explanations.
Some general examples:
If you call me names like stupid or jerk, I will confront you with that behaviour and tell you how I feel. If you continue with that behaviour, I will take care of myself by leaving the room.
If you break your plans with me by not showing up or by calling me at the last minute to tell me that you had something else come up, I will confront you with that behaviour and tell you how I feel about it. If you continue that behaviour, I will take care of myself by having no contact with you for a month.
If you drink alcohol or use drugs in my presence, I will confront you with that behaviour and tell you how I feel about it. If you continue to use, I will take care of myself by leaving or asking you to leave.
Some specific examples:
“I want to hear all about your day. I will be able to give you my full attention in 15 minutes.”
“I will be happy to talk with you when your voice is as calm as mine.”
“You can borrow my book as soon as you replace the one you lost.”
Signs of unhealthy boundaries
Telling everything to anyone and everyone (this includes on social media).
Talking on an intimate level on the first meeting.
Falling in love with anyone who reaches out.
Being overwhelmed by a person – preoccupied.
Acting on the first sexual impulse.
Being sexual for your partner only and not for yourself.
Going against personal values or rights to please the other.
Touching a person without asking.
Allowing someone to take as much as they can from you.
Letting others direct your life.
Letting others define you.
Accepting anger or rageful behaviour from another person.
Venting your anger on an innocent bystander.
Believing others can anticipate your needs.
Believing others should read your mind.
Believing you can read another person’s mind.
Expecting others to fill your needs automatically.
Falling apart so someone will take care of you.
Abusing yourself (sexually, physically, emotionally or spiritually).
Not noticing when someone else invades your boundaries.
If fear of abandonment is a reason for your inability to set limits on others, keep in mind that healthy relationships are about MUTUAL respect. You do not need to engage in relationships with people that do not respect you. If you find yourself having difficulty in setting these type of important boundaries, you can always consult with a professional to help you first identify your boundaries and then practice communicating them to others.
Written by Mayte Parada, PhD