Boundaries are essential to healthy relationships. Your personal boundaries are the limits or guidelines you create, which determine what you consider to be acceptable in terms of how other people behave around you, speak to you and what they can expect from you. If you have problems creating or maintaining boundaries, you may find yourself feeling put upon, saying yes when you mean no, being upset by other people’s treatment of you (but not knowing how to express your feelings), or being passive rather than taking a stand for what matters to you.
Boundaries benefit you and the people around you. They remove ambiguity and let people know clearly what is acceptable or not in your relationship. Ideally, your personal boundaries should be neither too soft nor too rigid and have some capacity for flexibility. We all know it’s important to be clear about our boundaries but knowing where that line should be drawn – and then how to hold firm to it – can be tricky territory if you’ve not been great at setting boundaries in the past.
If you struggle with maintaining healthy boundaries, you might use the following tips to help you determine your limits.
1. Go with your gut
When someone has crossed a line with you, you will usually have an internal reaction to it. How do you feel when people expect you to drop everything and be available for them at a moment’s notice? When your boss or colleague calls you on your scheduled day off just to ask one super quick question? When you’re always the one covering the upfront cost of outings with friends and then having to chase them up to be recouped?
Often I notice people will try to talk themselves out of those feelings of irritation or resentment rather than honouring what their gut is telling them. If you don’t listen to that inner alarm, over time those small impositions can erode the quality of your relationship.
2. Get clear on your values
What you consider to be acceptable or unacceptable in your relationship can often be a reflection of your values. If you value quality time with family, you might have boundaries around how much you allow work to encroach on that time. If you value honesty and direct communication, you may feel uncomfortable when people involve you in gossip. If equality and respect matter to you, you’ll feel ill at ease when someone disrespects you and perhaps uncomfortable in the presence of someone making homophobic or racist jokes. When it comes to values, it might also help to think about what kind of example you’re setting and behaviour you’re modelling to others – whether in the workplace or at home with your kids.
By getting clear on your values, you also get clear on your boundaries. In this way, you hopefully feel more comfortable expressing and maintaining those boundaries because they are less about judging other people’s behaviour and more about honouring what matters most to you.
3. Speak up
If something causes you to feel annoyed or imposed upon, it is in the best interests of your relationships to speak up even if it feels uncomfortable or impolite. We often assume that other people will naturally share the same ideals when it comes to boundaries or that they ‘should know’ what’s acceptable and what’s not. Remember the old saying, “You teach people how to treat you”.
Practise being assertive so there is no confusion or misunderstanding. A reasonable person will appreciate knowing where they stand with you and if someone doesn’t appreciate your newfound assertiveness, it’s because they’ve benefited from your lack of boundaries in the past.
4. Tolerate a little discomfort
Pushing back when someone encroaches on your boundaries can feel uncomfortable. You might fear you’ll create a confrontation or conflict. You might feel guilty for letting someone down. You may have a fairly entrenched pattern of saying yes and people pleasing. Remember that it’s ok to have those feelings but those feelings are not reasons to continue allowing your boundaries to be violated. It’s much more important to acknowledge your discomfort, and learn to manage it while you continue to do the work of prioritising your own needs. Perhaps ask yourself why someone else’s comfort is more important than your own?
5. Start small if you have to
Before you start setting limits with your boss, you might have a conversation with your sister or a friend. If your boundaries have been fairly soft or spongy, it’s going to take some practice to flex those assertiveness muscles and start protecting your personal space, but practice makes progress. You might need to be prepared for some resistance when you first start redefining what you’re prepared to tolerate, especially if your lack of clear boundaries has been of benefit to someone else, but soon enough, people will know what your limits are and if you lose a relationship over it, perhaps it wasn’t the kind of relationship you really need.
Remember that every time you say no to someone else, you’re saying yes to what matters most to you.
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