I think I say the word “boundaries” about 100 times a day. That’s because knowing how to identify and respect both your own boundaries and others’ boundaries is THAT important. This is key to having high self-esteem, taking care of yourself, and having healthy relationships with others.
What are Boundaries?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a “boundary” as “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent”. A very simple visualization of this would be the lines that surround any kind of sports field. These lines indicate what areas are and are not acceptable in which to play. Imagine that you have these same lines around you that indicate what is and is not acceptable behavior, both by you and others. I once heard it described as “what I am willing to do to and for you, and what I am willing to allow you to do to and for me”. Personal boundaries are about managing my own behaviors, but also communicating to others how I would like to be treated.
Now, this does not mean that we use boundaries to control other people. We ultimately have no control over how others behave. What we do have control over is whether to engage with people who mistreat us. If a person in your life continually takes advantage of you or treats you poorly, you have the power to walk away from this relationship. So, I repeat: boundaries are NOT about controlling other people; boundaries are about protecting ourselves.
How Do I Know If I Have Unhealthy Boundaries?
Do you have difficulty telling other people “no”? Do you struggle to tell others how you feel? Is it difficult for you to voice your opinion or disagree with others? Do you often find yourself being taken advantage of by others? Do you feel burnt out or emotionally drained in your relationships? Do you sacrifice your own needs so that others are happy? Do you allow the same people to mistreat you time and time again?
If you answered “yes” to most or all of these questions, you are most likely lacking healthy boundaries. When we are unable to communicate our needs to others, it will inevitably leave us feeling used and drained.
What Boundaries Should I Set?
I’ll say it one last time: boundaries are about protecting ourselves. So, you can set healthy boundaries by first identifying the things that are important to you: Time, money, personal space, opinions, beliefs, emotions, relationships, etc. Ask yourself what you are and are not comfortable with in each of these areas. For example: Are you willing to give someone money repeatedly? Are you okay with your boss asking you to come in on your day off? Who is allowed to physically touch you and how? Are you okay with someone yelling and/or cursing at you? Are you willing to share personal information with others?
Notice that your answers to these questions may vary depending on the “who, what, when, where, and why” in the situation. For example, you may be willing to allow a partner, a friend, or a medical professional to physically touch you, but you may not be willing to allow your boss or a stranger on the street to do so. Healthy boundaries should be flexible, but clear.
How Do I Set Boundaries?
After you’ve identified the boundaries you would like to set, the next step is to communicate them clearly and effectively. Many of us often use either “passive” or “aggressive” communication styles. Passive communication usually looks like: being soft-spoken and shy, fear of offending others, over-apologizing, etc. Aggressive communication is the opposite: loud, forceful, angry, harsh, etc. The most effective form of communication to use is the happy medium between passive and aggressive, which we call “assertive”. Assertive communication is calm, clear, and firm.
Example: A coworker is shouting at you and you would like for them to stop.
Passive Communication: “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! You’re right, I’m sorry!” (Does nothing to set the boundary, just makes you a doormat!)
Aggressive Communication: “YOU BETTER BACK UP OUT OF MY FACE!” (Might be effective, but might also make the situation worse.)
Assertive Communication: “I’m happy to discuss this with you, but do not speak to me that way.” (Calmly explains that you are not willing to accept being yelled at.)
Finally, boundaries are nothing without consequences. Going back to our earlier sports metaphor: What would happen if referees did not enforce penalties for players stepping out-of-bounds? They would all do it! So what happens if you attempt to set boundaries but do not enforce those boundaries? Nobody would respect them. Consequences are what you decide will happen if a person continues to cross your boundary after you have communicated it.
Example: “I’m happy to discuss this with you, but do not speak to me that way. If you continue to yell, this conversation is over and I will ask you to leave.”
If they continue to scream and holler, you simply follow through by ending the conversation and asking them to leave, or leaving the room yourself. Consequences should be appropriate for the situation (as in, don’t resort to violence as your consequence!) and reinforce your boundary. Sometimes, the best consequence is choosing to end an unhealthy relationship altogether.
Boundaries are what keep us happy and sane, people! When I have a clear view of what is and is not acceptable, I will be able to communicate this to others, have healthy relationships, and take better care of myself. What boundaries might you need to set today?