Most of us have heard the term ‘boundaries’ and know what the term means, but we don’t really know what boundaries really are. The term is usually looked at as something like a brick wall or fence to keep others out, but boundaries in a Mental Health sense are not rigid lines or walls which everyone can see. Boundaries are in fact our emotional borders and fences which help us look after ourselves.
Knowing how to set healthy personal boundaries is imperative towards building and maintaining healthy relationships with others and ourselves. When we begin to do this, we can steer away from resentment, disappointment, hurt and anger which can come up when our limits are pushed. Having precise boundaries which we might need to repeat often can ensure that our boundaries are respected. We can look at our boundaries as an invisible fence which can help establish where our space ends and someone else’s begins. In this piece we will briefly look at why we need to have boundaries, but more importantly around the idea of how we can set our boundaries.
Let’s try and imagine a life where we are not taken advantage of, not sucked into other people’s problems (unless we want to help), spared from pointless arguments (especially over the same thing, again and again!), not rattled by the little things others do and can look on while others get caught up in dramas. Doesn’t that sound ideal? – But that’s something we can achieve from having boundaries in place. Having healthy boundaries in place can be really helpful and serve us well. It can help us to place limits around our time, emotions, body, and mental health to stay resilient, solid, and content to protect us from being used, drained, or manipulated by others. While boundaries may not be as visible or blatant as a fence or a “no trespassing” sign, they can still be helpful in communicating to others what we will and will not tolerate. They help us take charge of our lives, define our limits, protect our space, look after our mental health, set the standards of behaviour that we will tolerate and allow us to say ‘no’. By having boundaries we are essentially telling others what we are ok with and what we are not ok with. Also, when we have boundaries, we can also learn to better respect those set by others as we see the value that they hold.
We hear a lot about boundaries and now that we’ve even explored why they are important, let’s look at how we can go about putting them in place.
Do some self-reflection & introspect on your values
When it comes to building boundaries, it can help to deep dive into our own psychology and looking at our own emotions. When we don’t know what parts of our lives need boundaries, we can reflect on situations which make us feel uncomfortable, emotionally dysregulated, stressed and exhausted as opposed to the ones which make us feel energised, supported, safe and valued and see what we needed and what was common in those situations. We can also draw boundaries centering around our personal values because that shows us what matters to us and what aspects of our lives we wont be willing to compromise upon as those are the aspects which bring us a sense of contentment and fulfilment as well. While reflecting, it can also help to reflect on the various relationships in our lives as it is likely that different relationships in our lives will call for different boundaries. During this time, it can also help if we write down our boundaries or make what some call a boundary circle. A boundary circle is one where within the circle you mention what serves you and makes you feel safe inside the circle and keep the rest outside the circle. This step can be a bit hard and daunting as we aren’t always raised to know what healthy boundaries are but it is important to engage in this introspection and be honest with ourselves about our needs as this Is an important step in taking informed decisions around the boundaries we need to thrive.
Take baby steps & start small if required
If we’ve not had boundaries before, it can seem overwhelming and daunting to introduce them. In this regard, it can help to start small and build them up slowly as this gives us the control of the pace at which we want to take things while also giving us time to reflect on the direction in which things are heading. Know that Rome wasn’t built in one day – it’s ok to lay the first brick and build on it over time. This can also provide us the opportunity to check-in on our boundaries and tweak them as we go along if we need it as per changing circumstances.
Set boundaries out early on
It can be hard to start putting boundaries in place, especially in pre-existing relationships, but if we communicate them at the earliest, it can be a lot easier to work with. By having these boundaries communicated early on, everyone knows their status-quo and this can reduce the feelings of disappointment, hurt and confusion which can arise down the road.
Be prepared for consequences
When we think of setting boundaries (especially if we haven’t had them before), it can help to think ahead of time what might happen as a result. It can take some strength to plan for this, but it can help to be prepared while also knowing that we are doing what is best for us. Another thing which is worth keeping in mind is that more often than not, the only ones who will be offended or take to our boundaries badly are going to be those who have always benefited from us having none. Those who have been used to us being a doormat might be the ones who will be irritated and upset. There might also be those who will continue to disrespect our boundaries while there may be some who will also be very supportive and respectful of our boundaries. Sometimes, the wisest thing we can do is to distance ourselves from those who won’t respect out boundaries, because there is nothing wrong in what we are doing by prioritising ourselves. Our responsibility isn't to keep others happy with our boundaries – we need to be aware of this because if we don’t and make people-pleasing the heart of our boundaries, we aren’t really setting boundaries, we are just trying to compromise. It can also help to remind ourselves of the benefits of our boundaries such as how they allow us to love ourselves, protect us from bitterness, give us better relationships and that we are allowed to have our limits.
Focus on open & clear Communication
When we set boundaries, one of the biggest mistakes we make is that just because we have set the boundary in our mind we assume that everyone would know and respect them. But the reality is that if we don’t explicitly draw the line, how will others know that they are overstepping it? Communicating our boundaries is imperative. With regards to making our boundaries work, having ‘I statements’ can be empowering for us and the others concerned as we are not making accusatory statement but communicating our boundaries and feelings. When communicating our boundaries, we should also know that we don’t need to excessively apologise or take the approval of others on our boundaries.
Be consistent & reinforce boundaries if needed
Letting boundaries slide can lead to confusion and encourage new expectations and demands among those around us which is why we need to focus on being consistent and reinforce our boundaries from time to time if needed. Not everyone will understand or respect our boundaries the first time but it is important to stay firm on our boundaries and remind them if needed from time to time as it helps to reinforce our original thresholds and ensure those lines are clearly drawn. By enforcing our boundaries, we let others know that we are serious about them and won’t just give in to their demands.
Know that building boundaries and communicating them alone isn't always enough – we need others to know the consequences if they don’t respect our boundaries and be prepared on what we will have to do if others can’t live with our boundaries. It does help to reassure others that we’re not being vengeful or cruel or trying to punish them for no reason but that we’re not going to tolerate a specific behaviour.
Know our power
When it comes to boundaries, stemming from the idea of building in consequences, it is important to know that we are in charge and can choose to walk away when we want to if we find ourselves feeling threatened or vulnerable in a situation. If our boundaries aren’t being respected despite us talking things through, we have a right to step away, guilt free. A big part of setting boundaries lies in reminding ourselves that we have the power and strength to set and reinforce our boundaries. When it comes to boundaries, not only should we reflect on them from time to time and be flexible to modify them if required, but we also need to show ourselves some love. We need to encourage ourselves and not pull ourselves down for having boundaries or for the adverse reaction of others in this process. Being our own champions and knowing our power can help give our boundaries a strong foundation.
All in all, we can see that our boundaries are important for various reasons and that boundaries can look different for different people. We might be concerned that our boundaries make us unfriendly, uptight, rigid or harsh, but we need to remind ourselves that we need these for looking after our emotional, physical and mental health while also ensuring that we are in spaces where we feel safe, respected, valued and supported.
We don’t need to feel guilty for our boundaries because they are essential forms of self-care – just as eating healthy or sleeping well!
Written by: Vedica Podar