Everyday people battle to maintain safe boundaries in their lives and relationships. Boundaries are used to protect ourselves and others, especially when people are acting in ways that are unacceptable (crossing a boundary). It is important to realize that we have a right to protect and defend ourselves, as well as a duty to take responsibility for how we allow others to treat us.
Verbally Defining Boundaries
It is important to state our feelings out loud. A good example of a statement to help establish a boundary is; “when you do ______, I feel _____”. When we say, “I am angry, I am hurt, etc”. We are saying that feeling is who we are. By using the statement, “when you do _____, I feel ________”this conveys our feelings only and does not allow them to say that is who we always are. It is important to acknowledge that emotions do not define us, they are a form of internal communication that helps us to understand ourselves. They are a vital part of our being, and we need to own our feelings. By stating feelings out loud we are affirming that we have a right to our feelings. We are affirming it to ourselves and taking responsibility for ourselves.
Focus on You
Rather than putting the emphasis on the other person hearing and understanding us, it is more important that we hear ourselves and understand and accept that we have a right to our feelings. It is vitally important to own our own voice and speak up for ourselves. As well, it is impossible to have a healthy relationship with someone who has no boundaries, or cannot communicate directly and honestly. Learning how to set boundaries is a necessary step in learning to be a friend to ourselves and others.
Defining your Boundaries
Boundaries can be physical or emotional. Physical boundaries define who can touch us, how someone can touch us and how physically close another person may be. Emotional boundaries define where our feelings end and another’s begin. For example; do we take responsibility for our feelings and needs, and allow others to do the same? Or do we feel overly responsible for the feelings and needs of others and neglect our own? Are we able to say “no”? Can we ask for what we need? Answering these questions can help us define the “lines” of our emotional boundaries. Together our physical and emotional boundaries define how we interact with others, and how we allow others to interact with us. Without boundaries others could touch us in any way they wanted, do whatever they wished with our possessions, and treat us in any way they desired. We would believe everyone else’s bad behaviours are our fault, take on everyone else’s problems as our own and feel like we have no right to any rights. In short, our lives would be chaotic and out of our control. Growing up we received a number of messages that present obstacles when we attempt to take care of ourselves in relationships with others. These messages connect our worth and loveableness to our ability to please others. If most of the people in our lives operated on some form of win-lose method of conflict resolution, either by violating and disempowering (like a bulldozer) or by self-abandoning (as a doormat), it can be hard to imagine win-win solutions that consider the needs of all parties involved. Doormats are people who function without boundaries. They are agreeable, nice and everything is always fine. They are terribly accommodating, but do so at the expense of their own needs. Doormats are usually on the losing end of most conflicts. They do not stand up for themselves and as a result they avoid conflict and often will play the role of victim. They have no boundaries and expect others to figure out what they need and accommodate those needs. Bulldozers take care of themselves. They never take other people’s feelings or needs into consideration. Bulldozers need to win at all cost and this satisfies their needs sometimes at someone else’s expense. This is not boundary setting this basically saying you do it my way or get lost. Both of these patterns have nothing to do with boundary-setting. Boundary setting is about taking into account one’s own needs and relies on direct and honest communication. But learning to set healthy boundaries can feel uncomfortable or even scary. Boundary setting can go against the survival skills learned when we were children. This can be especially difficult if our parents/guardians were physically, sexually or emotionally abusive. For example, we may have learned to repress our anger or other painful emotions because we would have been attacked and blamed for expressing the very pain the abuse had caused. Therefore, attempting to set a healthy boundary as an adult may initially be accompanied by some anxiety. But in order to have healthy relationships we need to learn to set boundaries and this can take time. Progress is important, not perfection.
When setting healthy boundaries the following tips from the book, Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin, by Anne Katherine might be helpful:
- When you identify the need to set a boundary, do it clearly, preferably without anger, and in as few words as possible.
- Do not justify, apologize for, or rationalize the boundary you are setting.
- Do not argue with the person you are trying to set the boundary with.
- Set the boundary calmly, firmly, clearly and respectfully.
- You can’t set a boundary and take care of someone else’s feelings at the same time.
- You are not responsible for the other person’s reaction the boundary you are setting.
- You are only responsible for communicating the boundary in a respectful manner.
- If others get upset with you, that is their problem.
- If they no longer want your friendship, then you are probably better off without them.
- You do not need “friends” who disrespect your boundaries.
- At first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty or embarrassed when you set a boundary.
- Do it anyway, and tell yourself you have a right to take care of yourself.
- Setting boundaries takes practice and determination.
- Don’t let anxiety or low self-esteem prevent you from taking care of yourself.
- When you feel anger or resentment, or find yourself whiling or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary.
- Listen to yourself and determine what you need to do or say.
- Communicate your boundary assertively.
- When you are confident you can set healthy boundaries with others, you will have less need to put up walls.
- When you set up boundaries, you might be tested, especially by those accustomed to controlling you, abusing or manipulating you.
- Plan on it.
- Expect it.
- Be firm with them.
- Remember, you behaviour must match the boundaries you are setting.
- You cannot establish a clear boundary successfully if you send a mixed message for example apologizing when you set the boundary.
- Be clear.
- Be respectful.
- Most people are willing to respect our boundaries.
- Unfortunately some are not.
- Be prepared to be firm about your boundaries when that person is not being respectful.
- If necessary, put up a wall by ending the relationship.
- In extreme cases, you might have to involve the police or judicial system by sending a no-contact letter or obtaining a restraining order.
- Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time.
- It is a process.
- You will set boundaries when you are ready.
- It has to be in your time frame, not when someone else tells you it is time to set a boundary.
- Develop a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries.
- Eliminate toxic people from your life – those who want to manipulate you, abuse you and control you.
- Set healthy boundaries allows your true self to emerge.