Creating clear and healthy boundaries may well be one of the most crucial aspects of self-care. Some people argue that boundaries are even more important. I believe they go hand in hand, and that it’s not possible to address one without the other.
Boundaries are defined within multiple layers and meanings; and like every other aspect of self-care, they are completely unique to you. The key to working with boundaries involves defining these layers as clearly as possible for yourself and others. It is the act of defining that creates a boundary, and makes it crystal clear what you want to remove or keep in your life.
“Boundaries are a life enhancing system of ‘yes’’ and ‘no’s.’ They are stop signs and borders you install to protect yourself so that it is clear you own your life, make good choices, and pursue the authentic expression of who you are in the way you live, love, give and relate.” (3)
Personal boundaries are the emotional, mental, physical limits we set up to protect our sanity, and assert our individualism, while honoring the same in others. Some boundaries may be difficult to define at first, but the more you work with them the more solid they become.
Having a strong sense of boundaries is the same as having a strong sense of self. This is what makes it possible to identify who you are, what you need, your likes and dislikes, and what you will or won’t tolerate. Without these types of definition, it’s easy to derive your sense of worth from others’ opinions. And it is too easy to allow others to treat you how they want to, based on their own needs instead of yours.
Remember the saying, “We teach people how to treat us!”
If you can’t seem to say ‘No’ to others, feel constantly overwhelmed, and get sick more than most people... then chances are you’re not setting up boundaries very well. Those who haven’t set up strong personal boundaries often suffer from fear of rejection, or of being not good enough. And they usually attract people who disrespect and take advantage of them.
It takes practice to turn these patterns around, but it definitely can be done. It also takes time to learn to trust your instincts and respect your strengths, abilities and individuality. In fact, it is difficult to maintain boundaries without trust and faith in yourself.
It takes strength to stand up for what you want, but it’s a crucial part of enjoying wellness. When you learn to stand up for yourself, you feel a strong sense of empowerment and confidence.
In her book, The Art of Extreme Self-Care, Cheryl Richardson explains some reasons we have a hard time saying No…
“We don't want to feel guilty.
We don't want to disappoint others because we know how bad it feels.
We don't have the language to let someone down with grace and love.
Our fear of conflict and our desire to keep the peace, keeps us from telling the truth.
We want people to like us and are uncomfortable when they don't.”
Richardson further explains that in order to become healthy we must at times say no, and this means...
“You must learn to manage the anxiety that arises when other people are disappointed, angry, or hurt. And they will be. When you decide to break your pattern of self-sacrifice and deprivation, you'll need to start saying no, setting limits, and putting boundaries in place to protect your time, energy, and emotional needs.”
This may be an uncomfortable change to make but one that is necessary, to avoid the overload that occurs as a result of never saying no - and especially saying yes, when it will have a negative effect on you.
For some, it never even occurs to us to say no. We just agree to every request, and then realize that we really are already so overextended we feel regret, anxiety, resentment and maybe even some guilt at letting our own selves down. Worse yet, is when we are okay with sacrificing our needs to help someone else.
This habit is perpetually self-destructive, as it slowly eats away at our own reserves. Start saying No by not agreeing to requests right away, and instead tell the person you need to make sure that you are not already booked; then consider your answer more carefully before getting back to them.
Remember that we are not responsible for other people’s reactions, we are only responsible for ourselves, so while some may get upset and try to make you feel guilty, let it go and stay true to your conviction.
The truth is that the people who cannot respect your boundaries are not real friends, and doing things out of guilt is not the foundation for a healthy relationship. Instead that breeds resentment, which will harm you more in the long run.
Saying No maybe a difficult change to make, but it offers a huge opportunity for growth. Most importantly it is being done with your self-care needs in mind, and that is the best reason to stand by it. Your real friends and loved ones will understand because they care about you and want to support your efforts.
Some people tend to lean towards pleasing others because they want others’ approval. They may feel a huge sense of obligation, guilt, and responsibility for other people’s needs.
This is a form of codependency, and the roots to this type of pattern can run deep into genetic heritage. There may even be a long line of role models who shamed self-expression, and discouraged any type of self-help.
In such cultures, it was common for someone (usually a woman, the oldest, or even the youngest) to assume the role of family caregiver; and forego common life events like schooling, career, or marriage in favor of caring for the elderly and children in the household. At least one family member was expected to sacrifice these aspects of their personal life at the expense of caring for everyone else around them.
Customs and traditions can offer wisdom, but what this custom has failed to teach is this: when the main caregiver of a household is drained to the point of no revival - everyone in the tribe suffers!
When the prime caregiver has more energy, clarity of thought, and is in good mental and physical health - then everyone will be happier and better cared for!
But tradition can also carry with it a set of rigid beliefs passed down the line, that were possibly not even meant to be so rigid.
Whether you are a caregiver of any kind, or just struggling to keep up with self-care in a demanding world, the answer is the same. When you take good care of yourself, it will affect every single area of your life in a positive way.
Your kids, spouse, friends, clients will reap the benefits; and you will be able to function more fully in general. The clarity of mind will also allow you to ‘work smarter, not harder’ instead of working yourself to the bone without anything to show for it.
And it goes without saying that it helps prevent burnout, chronic stress, and many other dysfunctions.
In the Beginning
If you are new to working with boundaries, the process can feel clumsy and down right uncomfortable at first!
Some people in your life receive your new boundaries with respect and support, while others will challenge them repeatedly - or worse completely ignore them. Some people might throw a fit, try to guilt-trip or threaten you, or even leave your life for awhile.
Don’t lose heart! Those who are worth keeping in your life will not only adjust to your new limits but also honor them.
No matter how big of a tantrum some people throw, and no matter how long they abandon you for, these same people often come back later to treat you with ten times more respect. And the ones who don’t return, you may actually find relief they are gone.
If the prospect of this is too much to bear, it can be helpful to seek a personal coach or counselor to help you weather the ups and downs and process heavy feelings, the grief of releasing old patterns, and the journey of discovery along the way.
As mentioned, at first you may find very little support for these changes in your environment. If that is the case, any extra help in your corner can make a huge difference.
**If you are in ANY kind of abusive relationship, whether it’s a partner or family member, please call one of the national hotline numbers to connect you with free services in your local area. That could be the most important personal boundary of your life!**
In the beginning, it is also common to go back and forth between ‘too rigid’ and ‘too flexible’ but if you stick with the work of boundary definition over time, you will find a more functional flow.
The ‘flow’ is what you will recognize as more equal give and take in your relationships. And the more balance you can cultivate within yourself, it will ripple out to all of your relationships.
In order to assert any type of boundary with others, it is necessary to develop your own style of assertive communication. As mentioned, the art of boundary-making is all about the process of defining and making clear.
This is often as simple as speaking up, rather than assuming that people already know the terms of things. Statements need not be harsh or abrasive, but rather firm and clear.
Most people really want to know what your needs and wants are, so that they can begin to negotiate them with their own needs/wants. Most people also crave to express their own needs, and this creates an opening to do so. The act of taking turns and truly listening to one another can define mutual boundaries.
In order to communicate with that degree of intimacy, you may share what you need, expect, agree or disagree to, are willing to commit to, and what the mutual arrangement will be.
Otherwise, people will have no idea what the boundaries are and they will fill in the blanks with their own assumptions. Many misunderstandings occur at this point, as people forget or neglect to mutually define the terms.
Three examples of communication types are passive, assertive, and aggressive. Most of us recognize that assertiveness is the middle ground of the three. But what that looks like in practice is unique to each situation. Experiment with different styles until you find what feels natural to you.
One example is to use active problem-solving statements such as:
“I would like to know a good time we can sit down to talk, as I have some things I need to say/express/address/etc.”
Instead of accusative statements like:
“You never listen to me” or “You don’t care how I feel.”
Being assertive requires patience and persistence. When you assert your personal boundaries, you’re sending a clear signal that you respect your space and expect others to do the same. And the best way to do that is to create your very own self-care plan as a way of enhancing your health, managing stress levels and boost your self-esteem.
References and Further Reading