“Boundaries are the lines we draw that mark off our autonomy and that of other people that protect our privacy and that of others. Boundaries allow for intimate connection without dissolving or losing one’s sense of self.” – Amy Bloom
Healthy relationships are such an important part of life, especially during crazy times like these, and I’ve written a fair bit over recent months on topics such as maintaining friendships, having meaningful conversations, creating connection and much more besides.
Every so often, relationships of varying kinds fall apart leaving us heart broken, lonely, and confused.
One important ingredient of having successful relationships is also having healthy boundaries. When we set and keep clear boundaries, our relationships, and our own self, have a much better chance of thriving.
What does it mean to have better boundaries?
Being “cold” or aloof is not the same thing as having healthy boundaries yet gets mistaken for it. You can be warm, outgoing, and engaging and still have good boundaries in life. You can be cold, distant, and alienated and have terrible boundaries.
Having poor boundaries sometimes comes from having poor self-esteem or having aversion to conflict (and thus avoid it at all costs), than from being healthily assertive. If you have poor self-esteem, you may not feel that you deserve to be treated well. If you are conflict-averse, then asserting a boundary can feel like you’re creating conflict.
Having better boundaries means you won’t put up with being treated poorly. Research has also shown that people with more effective boundaries are less likely to violate the boundaries of others, as well. As Martin Heidegger puts it,
“A boundary is not that at which something stops, but that from which something begins.”
There are many different types of boundaries available at our disposal. These three boundaries are most common and equally important:
- Physical Boundaries
- Mental Boundaries
- Social Boundaries
Physical boundaries are for the most part self-explanatory. Things we may consider to fall under the scope of personal boundaries may include personal space, our right to dignity, as well as the issue of property.
No-one has the right to enter your personal space without permission, or to touch/stare at you in ways which breach your dignity.
If a friend or co-worker puts their hand near your face during a heated-discussion, we typically tend to let them know that that kind of behaviour is not acceptable. Likewise, in terms of property, we tend to raise the matter if anyone touches your belongings without permission or enters your assigned work area uninvited, for example. These are ways we can and tend to maintain physical boundaries.
Mental boundaries are a bit more abstract but nonetheless just as important. Such boundaries may include being very protective of your time. For example, you may make it a point of refusing to answer work calls while you are off the clock or refusing to discuss work matters and office gossip while you are having your lunch.
The same set of boundaries may also be applied in the context of our inner-social circles. An example of this in the context of interpersonal communication may include limiting the amount of time you spend around certain people. If an acquaintance’s negative behaviour is a bit off putting to you, or results in you feeling unhappy in some way, make an effort to avoid them where possible or kindly let them know that you aren’t able to talk at that time.
By shielding ourselves from both negativity and emotionally draining people, we protect our mental health and ensure that outside influences don’t chip away at our focus. Research also suggests we should take time to tune out. As one study points out that being available to answer work-email during non-work time frames can decrease our well-being and create conflict in our relationships (Becker, Belkin and Tuskey, 2018).
Social boundaries are extremely significant in the context of determining your well-being. Things which could fall under the concept of social boundaries include decisions pertaining to who we surround ourselves with and what kind of behaviour we will tolerate.
An example of a firm social boundary may include making it a point that those closest to you treat you with respect.
If a friend, family member, or significant other talks to you in a way that is demeaning or disrespectful, let them know such behaviour won’t be tolerated. If a co-worker makes a habit out of trying to pry into your personal life, let them know that your life is none of their business, for example.
If you want to keep your boundaries intact, take some time to reflect on what boundaries are the most important to you, and what rules may be necessary in order to make your social life a bit more manageable.
Setting Better Boundaries in Life
In the age of social media and the “always on” mentality, boundaries have become more important than ever.
Boundaries create an environment where you are protecting the relationship by caring about its quality. You stand up and care for others when you explain how they can take care of you. Almost everyone wants to be a good person to others. By developing healthy boundaries, you give them that gift of knowing how to care for you and feel secure in their relationship with you. It is reciprocal of course.
The ability to set healthy boundaries shows self-love and compassion because you are cutting out the things that harm you. It’s important to take a break from certain people or commitments if the need arises. Doing so gives you time to evaluate whether or not you want to invite these people or things back into your life later on.
Recognise your self-worth
The first step to developing better boundaries is recognising your self-worth and how much power you give to the other person. This is different in intensity for the people who you allow to influence your life. For one’s peace of mind, a certain amount of selfishness is ok.
“Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.” – Gerard Manley Hopkins
So for example, you may choose to cut out the people/interactions that detrimentally affect your peace of mind. Choose to take your self-respect back if need be. Perhaps stop letting others determine your worth. Respect yourself more than you respect their opinions. Caring about eliciting the good opinion of selfish people may come at the cost of your own happiness. What is more important to you? Pleasing them or being happy within yourself? Please yourself, be happy. You’ll likely find yourself able to serve others far more effectively when you yourself are happy within yourself in the first instance.
Learn to say No
Setting healthy boundaries can be challenging if you don’t have the right support system. Whatever it is that you’re trying to do requires a support system. Whether it’s your partner, kids, career, or loved ones, you will need to have the discipline just to say No! This is because if we always say “yes” people around you will get used to that and from that moment on you will end up having “no life”. We do not have to become “no sayers”, we should just learn to say no when the situation requires it. After all, you cannot be there for everybody, all of the time!
“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” – Brené Brown
Now this is hard at first if you’ve been so used to always saying Yes. Being a people pleaser can hold us back in a variety of ways. It can create a sense of being last priority. Feeling guilty is the first emotion you’ll perhaps get when you start saying no. Don’t worry; this is normal because you’re a kind-hearted person. Saying no consistently will build an authority with who you are. You’ll get more comfortable with it and you’ll recognise how much good it is doing you. Building an authority means you are taking a stand! Taking a stand for YOU! Remember, you are the master to your fate and captain of your ship!
Do not give up believing in your own best judgment. And don’t think that by pleasing someone else they will love you or protect you. You are building up their strength when you work at pleasing them at your own expense. Respect and cultivate your own judgment. Bring it to the fore.
“Boundaries protect the things that are of value to you. They keep you in alignment with what you have decided you want in life. That means the key to good boundaries is knowing what you want. – Adelyn Birch
You may think you need to please them because you doubt your own ability to respond to life’s challenges without them; but the truth is that attempting to please them will lessen your ability to respond to life’s challenges for yourself. Mentally unhealthy people will try to disparage you, avoid them if it helps. They will rob you if you let them take your confidence from you – you can handle life without them. Once you start to doubt yourself, you open the door for their disrespect. Do not let fear cloud your judgment into thinking you need their protection. Stand up for and protect yourself.
Take care of yourself
No matter who you are your needs to take care of yourself. But not just basic human needs, a little extra. Going to the spa, enrol in a yoga class, take time to read a book that is not about your career. It doesn’t have to cost money you just have to acknowledge yourself and your spirit in order to understand what you need in life and relationships. Self-care also means recognising the importance of your feelings and honouring them.
Setting boundaries is a way of caring for myself. It doesn’t make me mean, selfish, or uncaring (just) because I don’t do things your way. I care about me, too. – Christine Morgan
Also, don’t be afraid to lose someone who is taking advantage of you, you will always find you are better off without them. Learn to stand alone, it’s not only responsible it’s essential. Cultivate your own strength instead of depending on others. If you can take care of yourself, you don’t need to please others.
Ask yourself the right questions
Ask yourself and understand why you need certain boundaries in your life to be happy. Asking yourself important questions about why you feel the way you do about someone. For example; How did you end up creating such a barrier when it comes to love? Talking about your feelings and your past with a therapist or friends can help open up some answers as to why you are the way you are and why you want boundaries of such a high or low standard in your relationships.
When you set boundaries, you affirm your own needs. You establish guidelines for how you want to be treated – what you will allow and what you won’t- from others as well as yourself.
Developing better boundaries is selfish… and healthy. Boundaries allow you to take better care of yourself and not let other people define who you are. Boundaries also allow us to focus on what we need to accomplish, rather than getting pulled into distractions that take us off task.
When you learn to set boundaries and honour them, you won’t feel like you need to give too much to one area or take from another. You will learn to say “no” without guilt because you know that protecting your time and energy makes you a better employee, partner, parent.
You will learn to take time for self-care because you know that you have to fill your own cup before attending to anyone else.
Scared of what people will say? Don’t be – you set the example for how others treat you. Affirm your boundaries and others will respectfully do the same.
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