Would you ever leave your house without securing the doors and windows? Or, leave your car unattended, unlocked, with the windows down?
I’m sure you wouldn’t. No one wants their property ransacked, stolen or tampered with.
I find it interesting that we all invest a considerable amount of time and energy in keeping our belongings safe, yet when it comes to keeping ourselves safe, psychologically and energetically, we pay far less attention.
I’m talking here about personal boundaries.
Personal boundaries are the imaginary lines we draw around ourselves in order to protect our bodies, minds, emotions and personal resources, such as time and energy, from other’s people’s behaviour or demands, so that we can maintain our inner balance.
They are the guidelines, rules or limits that we create to identify how we want other people to behave towards us, and what we consider to be reasonable, safe and permissible.
Our personal boundaries also determine how we respond when someone crosses these lines.
Some people are born into families that model good boundaries: adults show respect for each other, are able to read each other’s emotions, and care about other people’s needs and feelings.
Some people aren’t so fortunate. They grow up in homes where parents and primary caregivers don’t have healthy boundaries. Either people don’t attend to, respect or care about each other’s needs or they place more emphasis on fulfilling other’s needs and wishes while ignoring or neglecting themselves.
Good personal boundaries are truly invaluable.
They keep you safe and prevent people from hurting you. They counteract stress and overwhelm. They allow you to exercise high levels of personal power, and to honour your natural instinct for self-preservation.
As one of the essential habits of happy people, strong boundaries are a sign that you value and respect yourself.
Whatever your upbringing, it’s never too late to set healthy boundaries for yourself. Here are some ways you can do this.
1. Identify your limits
You can’t set good boundaries if you’re not clear what your personal limits are. We’re all different, and the levels of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual stress we’re able to tolerate depend on many factors that are unique to us.
For example, while some people may be perfectly happy to spend most of their time in company, others may regularly need time alone to recharge. For the latter, their personal limits will be determined by the amount of time they’re comfortable spending with other people.
Where do you draw the line between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in different areas of your life?
Start by reflecting on this if you’re unsure what boundaries you need to put in place.
2. Tune into your feelings and become more self-aware
How do you know when your boundaries are being violated? The clue lies in your feelings. There are two emotions that act as red flags: discomfort and resentment.
If someone is making you feel uncomfortable then they are dishonouring you in some way. It’s a good idea to think about the interaction and ask yourself what exactly is causing the discomfort. What is it about this situation or this person that is bothering you? And why is it bothering you? Is it because the other person has unrealistic expectations of you, isn’t treating you the way you want to be treated, or is intruding on your personal space in some way?
The second feeling to look out for is resentment. Resentment usually comes when you’re being taken advantage of or are not being appreciated. It can also arise when you’re either pushing yourself beyond your limits (for example, you may be responding to others’ expectations of you) or when someone else is imposing on you their expectations, views or values.
3. Make yourself a priority
Setting and maintaining boundaries involves making a decision to put yourself first.
This can be challenging if you were raised to focus solely on others’ needs to the extent that, now, ignoring your own has become your norm. If that’s the case, then you will need to make a major shift in your relationship with yourself and start to prioritise self-care.
Some people falsely believe that self-care means being selfish. I would argue it’s the total opposite. It takes a mature, balanced person to recognise that if they want to be there for others, they have to first look after themselves. If you have people relying on you, then self-care is not a selfish thing to do but a selfless thing to do. It shows that you are putting your loved ones first by doing all you can to be as healthy, energised and motivated as you can be.
If you want to live a happy, healthy, balanced life, one where you are filled with vitality, vibrancy and enthusiasm, self-care is not an option, it is a vital necessity. (For more guidance and tips on self-care see my blog: The one habit that could keep you out of therapy)
4. Give yourself permission to set limits
When it comes to establishing boundaries, fear, guilt and self-doubt are big potential pitfalls. You might be fearful of the other person’s response if you set and enforce your boundaries. You might feel guilty about speaking up or saying ‘no’ to a family member. You may believe that you should be able to deal with everything life throws at you and say ‘yes’ to all that is demanded of you because you’re a good person, even though you feel drained or taken advantage of. You may wonder if you even deserve to have boundaries in the first place.
Well, you do.
And it’s down to you to enforce them. You, and you alone, can give yourself permission to do that.
5. Reflect on and plan how to handle each situation
The best way to figure out your own boundaries and what you will do when people cross them is to sit quietly and think about each situation individually. It’s important to make the reflection all about you because boundaries are about honouring your own needs; it’s not about judging other people’s choices.
Here are a few questions that will help you do this.
Take one situation that occurred recently where you felt uncomfortable, upset or resentful. Write down what happened, where and when. Who was involved and what did they do? What did they say?
How did you react? Think about how you felt and behaved.
What would you have liked the other person/people to say or do?
What could you have said or done differently?
What do you need to do now (if anything) to regain your personal power or stand up for yourself?
- Think of a specific phrase that will ensure you clearly communicate the boundary you want to put in place.
Here are some examples:
“It’s not okay with me that you comment on my weight. I’d like you to stop.”
“I’ve decided to take all personal calls in the evening in order to get my work done. I will call you later.”
“I’ll have to sleep on it, as I have a policy of not making decisions right away.”
“I can’t do that right now; I’ll get to it in due course.”
6. Muster up the courage to be direct
Some people are considerate and/or intuitive, and they’ll naturally work out when they’ve upset you or crossed a line and adjust their behaviour accordingly.
Others, however, may need to be explicitly told. You will have to learn to be clear and direct with them.
Establishing boundaries requires good assertiveness skills. Since other people can’t read your mind, you will have to firmly and unambiguously communicate your boundaries to them.
Once you are clear with yourself what each boundary looks like, respectfully let the other person know what in particular is bothersome to you and how you would like to be treated in the future.
And remember to say what you mean and mean what you say. We can easily become frightened and hide our true feelings when we’re afraid of other people’s reactions, but the clearer and more authentic you are the more seriously they will take you.
Take a look at the following examples, which are succinct and to the point:
“I won’t be lending you money any more. I love you, and you need to take responsibility for yourself.”
“Please do not yell at me. If you continue, I’ll have to leave the room.”
“If you’re going to keep complaining about how I drive, then I’m going to stop the car and won’t drive any further until you get out or be quiet.”
“If you keep shouting at me, I’m going to put the phone down.”
7. Let your behaviour speak for you
There may be situations where your actions can speak louder than your words in establishing your boundaries.
For example, if you’ve decided you don’t wish to take personal calls during work hours, then simply stop answering those calls during the time you’re working. People will soon work out that you’re unavailable and stop ringing you. Or if you feel someone is taking advantage of you, emotionally or otherwise, then limit the amount of time you spend with them or stop seeing them altogether.
8. Decide the consequences ahead of time
Once you’ve decided what your boundaries are and have put them into place, you have to ensure you maintain them. People will always inadvertently test your boundaries. So it’s a good idea to be prepared and know what the consequences will be if someone violates them.
For example, if you’re in a monogamous relationship and find that your partner has been cheating on you what would you do? Leave immediately? Ask your partner to leave?
If you lend your friend money and find that she keeps forgetting to repay you, what would you do? Stop giving her money?’ Ask her to pay for you when you next go out together?
9. Start small
Like any new skill, assertively communicating your boundaries takes practice. It’s best to start by laying down a small boundary with someone who doesn’t intimidate you so that you don’t get overwhelmed. You can then build on your success and incrementally move towards establishing boundaries with more challenging people and situations.
For instance, if you have a good-natured friend who takes up more of your time than you’re comfortable with, practise politely letting her know how long you are available for and firmly ending the conversation or meeting when the time is up.
Ultimately, having strong personal boundaries allows you to take responsibility for yourself, your choices and your well-being, while leaving others to do the same. You may find that some people react less than positively when you firmly tell them what you’re no longer willing to tolerate. Expect this, but don’t allow it to deter you, because as Brene Brown says, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others”.
And, remember, the only people who will get upset about you setting boundaries are the ones who benefit from you not having any.