Setting boundaries to protect our emotional well-being is very important.
An area that many of the people I meet in my counselling work struggle is with setting boundaries, and with maintaining those boundaries in their relationships, day to day.
Sometimes this is because we don’t feel strong enough to stand by our boundaries when faced with someone else’s wants or needs, and we back down to give what someone else needs above what we need ourselves. Sometimes this is because our boundaries are compromised by someone else’s behaviour – either deliberately or without our even noticing it’s happening, gradually.
When someone crosses or compromises our boundaries it may be a deliberate and blatant act, it may be that those boundaries have gradually and slowly been broken down, or it might even be that we simply never put any real boundaries in place.
If you have no boundaries in place, it could stem from never having learned how, never being enabled to, or being afraid to. It could be because your self-worth has been eroded through neglect, control or abuse, or that you never had the emotional support needed to value your needs.
How does losing – or not having – boundaries impact us?
First and foremost – it’s painful. It’s painful, because we are always giving too much of ourselves away, with no regard for our limits, and people take without giving in return.
It is also exhausting, draining – emotionally, mentally and – as a result – often physically too. All of the energy and drive we have is poured from us into others, or taken from us by others, and we have nothing left in reserve for caring for ourselves or meeting our own needs.
If you keep finding that an environment is leaving you feeling drained, emotionally bruised and demotivated, it’s likely that it’s because your boundaries aren’t in place in that environment, so your energy and emotional health are being harmed.
Do you resent the people you interact with?
If you feel yourself reacting with irritation, anger or resentment to just one person then it’s possible that it’s as a result of their actions…but if you find that you feel that way more often, or towards more people, then it may be because you haven’t been able, for whatever reason, to put healthy boundaries in place; without them, people are taking more from you than you can give, and your own growth is restricted, leading to those feelings of resentment.
It may be that people don’t realise that they are taking more from you than you can give – it may even be consciously done – but if you don’t set boundaries, and voice them with people, they can’t entirely be blamed for this; you have to be able to set a boundary in order to enforce a boundary – and only then will your engagements and interactions with others be healthy and secure.
Trust your gut instinct
This can be a really hard one to learn – particularly if we didn’t have the opportunity or support in our youth to do so – but often, our instinctive, gut response – the first feeling we have – is right. Then, because of learned patterns or enforced behaviour, or because we place the needs of others above our own, we talk ourselves out of that emotional response, and either go forward with something we don’t want to, or don’t do something we do want to – and our self worth and happiness are bruised even more as a result.
Learning to listen to our ‘gut’ – to that instinctive, first response to any stimulus, is hard – and it takes time to re-learn, and to listen to that instinct – but the feeling is there for a reason. It’s telling us something important, and fighting to keep us safe. When you are faced with a situation in which you need to make a choice, or are meeting someone new, take a moment to really feel that instinctive feeling, to listen to that niggling voice in the back of your mind, and hear what it’s saying. If it’s saying no, believe it!
Hearing it is the first step – and then we can use it to guide the boundaries we want to position, in order to protect ourselves.
Yes, no, maybe – how to say what you mean, and mean what you say
If you find that you can’t say no, that you say yes to things you don’t want to, that you agree to things against your instincts, and that people seem to expect that of you, then this is one of the boundaries that you need to work on building and enforcing.
No is not a bad word, a selfish word, a cruel word or even a negative word. More difficult still, when you do begin to feel able to say it, you don’t always need to follow it with an explanation or defence; simply “no, thank you” or a firm “No!” is enough. You don’t owe people more than that.
You find conflict daunting – so you avoid it altogether.
Conflict isn’t always on a grand scale, it isn’t always a war, a battle, a row; sometimes it’s simply saying no to something, or stepping back from an activity or environment that you aren’t comfortable in – and worrying that your doing so will upset or offend another.
If you worry more about offending or upsetting others, and find yourself in situations you dislike or are very uncomfortable in because you felt unable to say no, then you have again crossed your own boundaries or compromised them – or left a space for someone else to do so.
But conflict isn’t just your responsibility to avoid or resolve – and there is no such thing as a life without it; conflict doesn’t have to be something to fear or avoid, it can be a very healthy way to communicate your needs, your boundaries and your values.
Your boundaries are personal to you – and they may change or move over time
What is also normal and healthy is to have views, values and emotional responses which determine our personal boundaries, and what we are and are not comfortable doing.
If you have been subjected to any kind of controlling behaviour, oppression or abuse then it can be even more challenging to identify your own boundaries, outside of that environment – and all the more difficult to enforce them with the people within that environment. Even once you have left those situations or environments behind, establishing and maintaining your boundaries is difficult, because you’ve not had an opportunity to build and live with them before – so you are unsure even how to start.
Your feelings are valid, genuine and valuable
The first step in creating any boundaries is to trust that you have your own best interests and needs at heart; that you know, better than anyone else ever could, what you are and aren’t happy, safe and comfortable doing, experiencing and living with.
So whenever you are faced with a decision, a choice, an experience or a request, pause.
Ask yourself “is this something I want?” – and close your eyes, breathe deeply, and let your body feel that instinctive, gut response. Quiet the debate in your mind, which might be talking you into (or out of!) whatever the scenario is, and using the needs, desires and voices of others to do so – and let your own voice rise to the forefront of your mind.
Usually, your instinctive response is a simple “yes” or “no” – and sometimes there comes a following “but only if…” – so hear those thoughts.
And when you’ve heard those thoughts, you’ve established what that boundary is – where the line is. Where you are comfortable – and what comes outside of that comfort.
Don’t build your boundaries in line with anyone else; don’t compare your thoughts and feelings to those of someone else – because they have their own boundaries and reasons for forming them.
Believe that your boundaries – and the ‘you’ that is protected by them – is just as valuable as those others you have been putting before yourself previously.
It can be challenging and daunting enforcing those boundaries to begin with. Saying no to someone who is used to only hearing yes from you, and standing firm despite their reaction, is hard – and they may push back and be angry.
If they are, this is just further evidence that they have been taking advantage of you, and that they are willing to override your well-being for their own benefit – and that the imbalance of the relationship isn’t healthy (for either of you!)
Sometimes when we begin to enforce our boundaries we find that some relationships may be lost – and that can be terribly sad. Unfortunately, some relationships have to be a learning experience for us, and be left behind as we build on our own self worth and growth – and if someone can’t learn to respect and value your boundaries, and grow with you, then you may need to let them go in order to protect yourself.
In time, as you find yourself more comfortable with building and enforcing boundaries, you will find that you attract a different kind of person into your life – those who value your boundaries, and their own, and aren’t offended or affronted by you standing by yours. Who respect your choices and values, even if they are different to their own, and can still care for you, enjoy your company and share your world.
As you begin to see those kinds of relationships, you will be able to further believe and embed your boundaries and beliefs, because you will have reinforcement from others who value you – precisely as you are, whole and strong.
If you would like some support in the journey to identifying your personal boundaries, creating some firm boundaries in your relationships, and building some resilience in order to stand firm when people try to push past those boundaries, I can help.
Helpful resources for identifying and maintaining your personal boundaries