Boundaries – what are they and why do we need them?
Do any of the following statements resonate with you?
o I feel a little aggrieved at times with others, especially when they're taking advantage.
o I do so much for others and it just gets thrown in my face
o I feel hurt, irritated or angry when I ask for help or support and I get nothing back
o I’m a people pleaser, I’m always agreeing to do things that I don’t really want to do
o I just can’t say no
o People just say what they like to me
o I just take what people throw at me
o The thought of standing up for myself makes me anxious
o I don’t really have an opinion or stand my ground
o I feel anxious around aggressive people
o I’m afraid of conflict, it’s easier to just walk away
o I often feel easily hurt or upset by other people’s comments or behaviour
If you can relate to any of these comments, then it’s possible that you're struggling to put healthy boundaries in place. But before your critical voice kicks in and you start being down on yourself for not having healthy boundaries, ask yourself why this might be. Certainly for me, boundary setting wasn’t on the curriculum when I was growing up.
What exactly are boundaries?
Boundaries are our personal limits in terms of how we will interact with others, how we expect to be treated by others and how we will respond if or when they ‘cross the line’. They are a set of expectations we set for ourselves in order to keep ourselves physically, emotionally and psychologically safe. Boundaries are very individual; mine might be different to yours. Your boundaries are very personal to you and they may differ depending on the circumstances or the people involved and based on your socialisation, personal experiences, beliefs and opinions that make you who you are. According to Nina Brown, boundaries can be:
o Soft/porous: where a person finds it difficult to separate their own thoughts and feelings from those of another person. People with soft or porous boundaries can be at risk of being manipulated or may feel easily overwhelmed with the emotions of others. Alternatively they can take too much responsibility for the feelings of others. They often struggle to put healthy boundaries in place.
o Spongy: a person with spongy boundaries is able to put some boundaries in place but may find it difficult to know what to let in and what to keep out. They may struggle to know what feels right or wrong for them.
o Rigid: a person with rigid boundaries is completely closed off and lets nothing in or out. This person often feels under threat and struggles to trust other people or let others get close to them. Consequently they struggle to build healthy, trusting and fulfilling relationships with others and can be left feeling isolated or lonely
o Flexible: a person with flexible boundaries has an ability to set healthy boundaries; this person has a strong sense of what feels healthy or unhealthy, right or wrong for them; they are less easily triggered and have greater control over their boundaries, making it difficult for others to control or manipulate them.
Healthy relationships depend on mutual respect for boundaries and soft/porous, spongy or rigid boundaries are often implicated in stress, anxiety and depression.
So what are healthy boundaries?
Healthy boundaries differ from person to person, but here are a few examples to get you thinking about what your boundaries might be:
o Being guided by your own inner principles and values
o Knowing your tolerance levels
o Knowing how to manage unwanted or unsolicited advice or provocation
o Responding to a negative or critical person or bullying behaviour
o Setting limits around your time, energy or resources e.g. yes I’ll come over but only for an hour; yes you can borrow my drill but please have it back by tomorrow in good working order
o Having a strong sense of how you feel in any given moment and feeling able to respond in a way that keeps you safe and in line with your values
o Having confidence to not commit on the spot e.g. I’ll think about it
o Cancelling plans or commitments without feeling guilty
o Being assertive (not aggressive or passive)
o Saying no
How do I put healthy boundaries in place
Having healthy boundaries means that you’ve started to matter to yourself, you’ve started to care about you and started the journey towards better self-care. But it can be really hard to start putting boundaries in place, especially when the people in our lives are used to us always being there and always meeting their needs. Here are a couple of ways you can start to put better boundaries in place:
Saying ‘No’: how many times do you get asked to do something that you really don’t want to do? Often we say yes, when we really want to say no. So what stops us from saying no? Fear of seeming unhelpful, unfriendly or anti-social? Fear of being rejected? Fear of appearing rude? Agreeing to do something that we don’t want to do leaves that part of us that wants to say ‘no’ feeling unheard and our needs unmet. It’s worth exploring the underlying fear that stops us from saying no. Setting healthy boundaries means learning to respect our inner voice, the voice that says “that part of me would much rather be doing something else or nothing at all instead.” Learning to say ‘no’ in a respectful way sends a message to others that we have boundaries and we respect our own boundaries. A good first step is to practice saying ‘no’ to the small things, for example:
o No, I’m not busy at weekend but I’d really like to keep it like that
o No, I can’t collect your dry cleaning, I’m not passing the dry cleaners today
Stating consequences: another way of establishing boundaries is to let others know the consequences of failing to respect our boundaries, for example:
o If you continue to swear, I will put the phone down
o If you keep sending me offensive messages, I will block you
o If you continue to insult my cooking again, I will no longer cook for you
o If you shout at me while I’m driving, you will have to get the bus
Being assertive: very often, when our boundaries are breached, our responses can either be angry and aggressive as we feel irritated towards the person, or we behave in a passive way, doing as we’re asked but feeling resentful. Practicing assertiveness is a good way to begin to put healthy boundaries in place, for example:
o I’ll have to get back to you about that when I’ve had time to reflect
o I respect your opinion, I also respect mine so we’ll have to agree to disagree
o I feel very upset when you behave in that way (possibly followed by a consequence statement if the unwanted behaviour continues)
o When is a good time to discuss something that is bothering me?
There is a growing awareness of the need to teach kids how to set boundaries, for example parents insisting that grandparents ask their child’s permission for a hug or a kiss. ‘WTF’ I hear you say? Well if you think about it, how else does a child learn to expect others to treat them with respect and dignity, to respect their space, their body, their thoughts and feelings? It's certainly an interesting discussion point!
As adults, it isn’t easy to start to put boundaries in place when we’re not used to doing it and it can feel very daunting at the start, especially if you have very porous boundaries. If a lack of boundaries or porous, spongy or rigid boundaries are causing big problems in your life, it may be worth getting professional help. A good therapist can help you work through your underlying fears, can help you to develop a better understanding of yourself and what your boundaries are and can help you to develop better boundaries that, in the longer term, will help improve your mental health and ultimately your relationships with others. In the meantime, rather than going all-in, it might be an idea to start with the small stuff whilst you build your confidence.