The Basics of Personal Boundaries

I’ve alluded fairly often to developing boundaries in relationships to improve the quality and health of connections. But, I’ve been vague because this is very much a work in progress and something I am still trying to understand and implement, one day at a time.

I need to organize my thoughts and I think that others could benefit.

First of all, it is important to understand that boundaries are not intended to be a tool to manipulate others to act a certain way. They are limits that we set out for how people act and behave around us. They define our behaviour when these limits are exceeded. Boundaries reflect our core beliefs, values, perspective, and opinions. They are like invisible bubbles, protecting our sense of self and wellness.

Boundaries are necessary because if you don’t define what you deem to be acceptable, you will be at the mercy of others. This means they will be able to tell you how to act, think and feel. This can result in you spending all your time and energy catering to what they want, which may or may not line up with your own needs and at its worst can result in emotional, physical or spiritual abuse. Over time, this can build to feelings of depression, isolation, perfectionism, people-pleasing, guilt, anxiety, lack of personal decision making skills, over or under-sharing, victimization, lack of identity and ability to express yourself.

So.. a lot of really crappy stuff.

Boundaries can be set for: personal space, sexuality, emotions, thoughts, possessions, time and energy or culture, religion, and ethics.

Things to consider:

  • Healthy boundaries attract people that are willing to respect you and want good things for you while poor boundaries are more likely to attract people who want to manipulate you.
  • It is good practice to reassess your boundaries over time; being too rigid can be  damaging by not allowing the freedom to adjust our limits as we grow. For example, I used to hate avocado, it was a hard boundary. Now I want it on everything. Growth and a boundary shift.
  • Boundaries are intended to protect your joy by ensuring that the things you choose to do match with your values and allow you to conserve energy for pursuits you find meaningful.
  • Sharing complex feelings and experiences gives you the choice of breaking boundaries, when the time is right, and being vulnerable. Shared vulnerability brings people closer over time. Vulnerability should not be confused with constant oversharing (a sign of poor boundaries) which can be a covert method of manipulation by holding a person emotionally hostage or pushing a relationship in a direction prematurely.

TMI red flags

  • posting personal rants and attacks on social media
  • no filter or regard to who gets a download of daily dramas
  • sharing personal details with new people in hopes of hurrying the friendship along
  • dominated, one-sided conversations
  • expecting on-call emotional therapy from friends and family

– Jennifer Chesak, Healthline.com

Where do you start?

  • Spend some quality time getting to know and understand yourself. This means easing up on the self-judgement and using mindfulness exercises such as meditation and journaling.
  • Be wary of asking for help in this exercise; it is possible that if you suffer from poor boundaries a number of your relationships will be codependent. This means that those people will be invested in you taking care of their happiness, which creates a conflict of interest in getting their input. If you need guidance, try someone without personal investment in helping you, like a therapist or councilor.
  • Be sure to consider your basic human rights, such as: the right to say “no” without guilt, the right to be treated with respect, the right to prioritize your needs, the right to make mistakes, and the right to refuse others’ unreasonable expectations.
  • Re-connect with your gut. If you are having a physical and / or emotional reaction to someone else’s behaviour, that’s an excellent sign that a boundary is needed.

So, you’ve done the work.  You’ve taken the time to identify where boundaries are required in our life and we are ready to roll them out.  How?

  • Focus on being assertive, not aggressive. Use language that is clear and non-negotiable without blame or threat. Focus on using “I” statements, such as: “I feel crappy when you ask about all the details of my dating life because I value privacy. What I need is space to organize my thoughts”.
  • Learn to say no without explanation.
  • It is possible that people will respond poorly to your efforts to enforce boundaries. That’s okay, remember that much like taking chemotherapy to reduce the size of a tumour, the greater good of setting healthy boundaries offsets the discomfort and the risk of pissing people off.
  • Learn to take time to tune out. No matter what the demands on your time, you are entitled to time to tune out, protect your privacy, and prioritize your needs.
  • Boundaries can be even harder to set with a person who lives with mental illness (such as addiction).  If you are experiencing problems setting or asserting boundaries, reach out to a mental health professional.

Finally, just as important as developing and protecting our own boundaries is the effort to respect the boundaries of others.  Time to connect with your intuition again and watch for social cues and body language that the person is negatively impacted by what you are saying (i.e. lack of eye contract, nervous gestures, folding arms, backing away, etc). If in doubt, ask people to be honest if you are pushing their boundaries. Often this can seem scary, but you may be surprised that people will appreciate your respect of their boundaries and consider you a safe person to be vulnerable with.

For some more information and another perspective, I enjoyed this TEDTalk by Sarri Gilman.

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