Boundaries may be seen as imaginary lines which represent guidelines or limits over which you don’t want others to cross. These lines define what we find acceptable or unacceptable and keep us safe, both physically and emotionally. A boundary crossing is often immediately felt. For instance, you may remember a time you instinctively moved back from a close-talker, and when you withdrew emotionally from someone asking very personal questions. The purpose of such responses is to reset your personal space and protect you from intrusion.
Physical boundaries provide a protective barrier between you and external entities and include your sense of personal space, your body, sexuality and privacy. Examples of physical boundary violations include unwanted sexual advances, inappropriate touching, someone looking through your personal belongings or people not respecting your personal space (e.g. not knocking when entering a room; playing loud music without checking if okay for you, etc).
Emotional and intellectual boundaries relate to limits surrounding your feelings, thoughts and ideas. They include respect for your ideas and opinions, privacy and feelings. Examples of emotional and intellectual boundary crossings include someone belittling or dismissing your feelings or thoughts, people expecting you to take responsibility for their feelings or choices, or someone asking very personal and intrusive questions.
Boundaries exist on a continuum, with very rigid boundaries on one end to very loose boundaries on the other. Very rigid boundaries, can be seen when people avoid close relationships or intimacy, are unable to ask for help or express their needs, and keep a distance from others. Loose boundaries, on the other hand, can be seen in those who over-share, become attached too quickly, find it hard to say ‘no’ and accept abusive or disrespectful behaviour. Healthy boundaries would exist somewhere in the middle, where we allow ourselves to connect with others, form bonds and interact, without losing ourselves or compromising our values and needs in the process.
Despite how unpleasant it feels to have our boundaries disrespected or violated, many people find it difficult to maintain healthy boundaries or uphold their own. One of the reasons for this is that, growing up, we usually aren’t taught what boundaries are and may not have witnessed particularly healthy models of boundary-setting from significant adults or society in general. As a result, we learn about boundaries through personal experience as we grow up, continuously adjusting these based on social, cultural and personal factors. However, our boundaries are closely linked with our fears, negative life experiences and self-worth. For instance, those who fear confrontation may find it hard to uphold a boundary. Likewise, people may find it hard to stand up for themselves out of fear of being rejected or losing an important relationship.
Clients often tell me that creating boundaries feels selfish or ungenerous, causing them to feel guilty or ashamed. However, creating boundaries is an important way to take care of yourself, others and your relationships. If you think about relationships, for instance, communicating your boundaries allows other people to understand your needs and wishes, thus preventing you from eventually feeling resentful, overwhelmed and angry if they’re continuously over-stepped. Healthy boundaries allow you to maintain a sense of self-respect, feel a sense of safety within relationships and not compromise your values and needs for others.
So, now that we know what boundaries are, here are some guidelines for understanding what boundaries need to be in place and setting them:
Recognise and acknowledge your own feelings
Try to get in touch with how a situation or person’s behaviour makes you feel. Take some time to sit alone and reflect on what’s happening. If possible, take time away from the person involved so you can gain some much-needed perspective.
Identify how your boundaries have been crossed
What is it exactly about the situation or person which is causing you unpleasant emotions? For instance, does a colleague message you about work matters in the evening, causing you to feel stressed and have difficulty sleeping? Is a friend constantly talking to you about her problems without giving you time to open up, causing you to feel drained and used?
Decide what boundary needs to be set and how you’ll do this
What limit needs to be set in order to re-create a sense of balance and serenity? Decide what you’ll say to this person, and how. For instance, you could ask your colleague to avoid messaging you after 5pm unless it’s an emergency, explaining to her how her late-night messages are impacting you.
When setting a boundary, keep both feet flat on the floor, breathe and remember that your feelings are valid and that you have a right to take care of yourself. You may feel guilty. You may even get a negative response from the other person. Regardless, stand your ground and deliver your message clearly and confidently.
Reinforce your boundary
Not everyone will appreciate, understand or respect your boundaries. Therefore, be prepared that some people may wish to continue to test you, express anger towards you or try to induce guilt. You may be tempted to back down. However, such responses are actually reinforcing why a boundary was needed in the first place. Re-state the boundary firmly and clearly.
Setting and maintaining boundaries may be very difficult at first but, with practice and experience, observing and respecting your own needs and limits will grow increasingly easier. By doing so, you will be setting a very clear standard for how you expect to be treated and what you will and will not tolerate, thus setting the scene for a healthier self and more balanced, healthy relationships.