As a wellness specialist and counselor, I meet many people who are not familiar with boundaries. So if you are one of them, you are not alone. Let’s get to know and define boundaries. They will be the most helpful tool in leading a healthy life: mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
Boundaries are guidelines, rules, or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe, and permissible ways for other people to behave toward them and how they will respond when someone steps past those limits. It’s important to have boundaries and non-negotiables for ourselves.
Many of us have learned unhealthy boundaries when faced with life stressors. For some, it may be difficult to keep good boundaries in relationships or work. Boundaries are a problem when they are too close or too distant. Learning to establish healthy boundaries is an essential part of living your best life.
Brené Brown said it best: “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”
Boundaries establish safety. They protect us from harm either physically, emotionally, sexually, or otherwise. They prevent us from feeling exploited, and when established, help us feel empowered. We can get to know ourselves and our values better, and that helps with building confidence and self-love.
There are two ends of the spectrum with boundaries. One is enmeshment—the lack of boundaries. The other is detachment—too many boundaries resulting in isolation. Neither extreme is healthy. The goal is to set the appropriate amount of boundaries to maintain safety and a sense of self, while understanding that the human experience requires interdependence.
Step #1: Clarify boundaries. Know which behaviors are and are not acceptable to you.
Step #2: Clarify consequences. Decide what you will do if the boundary is violated.
For example, “When you guilt me, yell at me, belittle me, disrespect me…”
Possible consequences: “I will: hang up the phone, leave the room, excuse myself from your life, etc.”
Step #3: Communicate. Let others know what your boundaries are and what the consequences are for violating them. (You might do this in advance. Or you might do it once the line has been crossed. In this case, you’d tell the person what was unacceptable to you and what will happen if they do it again.)
Step #4: Follow through. If a line is crossed, you need to do what you said you would. Otherwise, people will learn to not take you seriously.
Get your journal out or a piece of paper and list people in your life with whom you have a lack of boundaries (enmeshment). One of the most common features of people who struggle with boundary issues is their inability to utter the word “no.” They say “yes” to all kinds of requests in order to be nice, to be helpful, or to be needed, and then feel totally overwhelmed by how much is on their plates.
Often these types are found doing tons of charity work, volunteering at their kids’ school, being on the neighborhood watch team, working overtime at the office, helping friends move, and watching other people’s pets. Their instincts might be in the right place of wanting to help others, but the consequences to this can be catastrophic. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to tell your boss “no” in order to maintain time commitments to family, friends, and self. Sometimes it’s important to just trust the Universe that everything will get done—even if not by you.
If you are the proverbial “people-pleaser” type, you may have to swing the pendulum to the opposite direction temporarily by placing a moratorium on helping others. Perhaps for just 30 days, you will only concentrate on yourself.
When was the last time you got a massage or went to the spa? When did you last snuggle under the covers and read a good book? Have you made time for doing something fun with a friend?
If you have chronically over-committed your time, you need to practice a “fast” from accepting requests from other people and just pull your energies inward toward self-repair. This can be difficult, but it is not impossible. If people really care about you, they will support your self-care and simply ask someone else to help them out.
In my book The Rewired Life, I discuss how people who overcommit often bear the family role of the “hero.” They are the ones whom everyone else counts on. It can be a source of ego-deflation to stop saving and helping other people. You might feel like you’re losing your identity. But even heroes need downtime. You can’t really be of service to others if you’re tired, depleted, and miserable. That is a form of “emotional debting” to yourself.
It might be tricky to change this pattern in your life, but over time, people will come to respect you more for setting healthy boundaries and respecting your own time. They will see you as an excellent example of someone who is managing their time, and will admire you for it.