Do You Set Healthy Personal Boundaries?
I am sure you have heard the phrase, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’ If you think about it logically, fences are really not physical deterrents for intruders or nosy neighbours. However, they do, by and large, prevent visitors from entering without notice or permission. They clearly demarcate what is public space and what is a private space. Personal boundaries work the same way. Setting clear personal boundaries enables relationships with others that are safe, mutually rewarding, caring, respectful and supportive.
If you are often unhappy about the way people treat you, it may be time to take a deeper look at clear boundary setting. Weak or unclear boundaries leave you vulnerable. You are more likely to be taken for granted or experience exploitative relationships. On the other hand, if you often feel anxious around people, misunderstood or have been told you are emotionally unavailable or disconnected, you may be setting boundaries that are so rigid or inflexible that others find it difficult to build a relationship with you.
Healthy, clear boundaries protect you while allowing you to connect with yourself and others. Setting healthy boundaries teaches others how to treat you and also allows them to see who you are. Being able to set boundaries effectively is a sign that you truly know ‘you.’
What Are Personal Boundaries?
Personal boundaries are rules, guidelines or limits that you create based on what you believe are reasonable, comfortable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards you. You demonstrate those boundaries by the way you present yourself to others and how you respond when someone steps past your limits. Boundaries are the way you say, “This is who I am.”
If you witnessed healthy boundary setting as a child, then you probably do a pretty good job of setting boundaries now. But some of us were not taught as well, and our boundary setting skills are not as well developed. And even if you learned boundary setting as a child, the boundaries you set then may not be consistent with how you would prefer to be treated as an adult.
It is important to question boundaries that were passed on from your past and to reset them based on your own values and beliefs, your current situation, and what you want for your future health and happiness.
Are Your Boundaries Unclear or Weak?
People with unclear or weak boundaries tend to be good listeners and the forever reliable friends that others will ‘emotionally dump’ on. This can leave them constantly feeling emotionally drained as they easily take on the emotions and needs of others. It also, in turn ‘informs’ friends that they are ok in doing so, which further propels them to repeat the behaviour.
In being the ‘carer’ of others they may experience a lack of separateness, therefore they will have difficulty identifying their own emotions and needs. People with unclear or weak boundaries can be quite sensitive to comments and often highly self-critical. They seek approval by meeting the needs of others.
Some signs of weak or unclear boundaries include: people pleasing, being over involved, and trying to solve or fix problems for others. Taking on too much work, making too many commitments, and perfectionism are also indicators. People with weak or unclear boundaries thrive on being with others and may not do so well when alone. As a result this may make them stay in unhealthy relationships with friends or a partner. They may find themselves bearing more responsibility than their partner for taking care of the family, the relationship, household chores, finances, kids etc. These relationships tend to fail, ultimately. Those with weak boundaries can take responsible for everything and everyone, leaving them feeling powerless, imposed upon, and in the end, resentful.
Unconsciously, unclear or weak boundaries may be about their own need for caretaking. Ultimately, however, they disconnect from themselves as they are not connected with their own emotions and needs. This disconnection can lead to extreme stress and compulsive behaviours such as comfort eating, overworking, and a general lack of self care.
Are you are a people pleaser? Do you give too much of yourself? Do you have difficulty saying no or give in easily to someone who is pleading, controlling, loud, demanding, angry, pushy, or critical? Or even someone who smothers you with affection? If so, the boundaries you are setting may be inconsistent with how you really want to be in your relationships with others. Maybe it is time to strengthen or clarify those boundaries, particularly if you exhibit more than a few of the following characteristics:
- often feel like people take advantage of you or take you for granted
- find it hard to say no for fear of disapproval or rejection
- say ‘sorry’ a lot, sometimes without realising you do
- fail to speak up when you are treated poorly
- go against your personal values or rights in order to please others
- often feel like you have to listen to and save or fix people and their problems
- base your sense of self on what others think/say about you
- feel bad or guilty when you say no
- give as much as you can, for the sake of giving
- have friends who count on you to the extent that you feel emotionally drained
- are the one in your family that does the most, while everyone else is ok not doing much
- allow others to make decisions for you and, consequently, feel powerless
- find yourself sucked into drama, fighting or debating when you dislike conflict
- are the peace keeper in your family; family members come to you to sort out conflict
- really hate letting people down
- find it hard to express your opinions or wants, and usually go with the flow
- feel responsible for other people’s happiness (partner, parents etc)
- take care of other people’s needs at the expense of your own
- accept advances, touching and sex that you don’t want
Are Your Boundaries Too Inflexible Or Impenetrable?
Those who set boundaries that are too inflexible or impenetrable fear being close to others. For them, intimacy or closeness is uncomfortable, unsafe and triggers anxiety. Somehow, being open or getting close to others makes them feel as if they are losing their independence and being controlled or suffocated.
They rarely share personal information or ask for help. People with inflexible boundaries appear self-contained, seemingly have no problems, and have few or no close relationships. If they have a partner, they prefer to keep parts of themselves ‘separate’ from the partner and may not share social or leisure activities. They prefer relationships with partners who do not require closeness or intimacy, such as a long distance romance or relationship. Their partners may complain about their lack of being ‘present’ or available. In some situations, a partner may complain of the lack of empathy or emotional connection.
They avoid conflict at all cost and have difficulty identifying wants, needs, or feelings. They do not allow themselves to connect with other people and their problems for fear of being overwhelmed or engulfed. They can be defensive, have uncompromising views, and be harsh and definitive about what is right and wrong. They may dilute intimacy in partner relationships by being judgemental or via promiscuity. Some may also avoid connection or closeness due to being a perfectionists or viewing vulnerability as a sign of weakness.
Unconsciously, people with inflexible or impenetrable boundaries have a great need for safety and self-protect by putting up barriers or walls. In their past, they have experienced significant pain when they were in a close relationship with a significant other. They have felt let down and their needs went unmet. Being vulnerable left them exposed to another and they learned to believe that being vulnerable brings hurt, loss and rejection.
They may suffer from high levels of anxiety and feelings of emotional disconnect from self and others. And because they are disconnected from themselves, they may not know what they need or are missing. This may lead to a general lack of meaning in their lives. They are also prone to depression. They may have feelings of emptiness and try to fill this with visible achievements and material gains. They have difficulty giving and receiving care. People with inflexible boundaries ultimately are in a bind, craving connection while fearing closeness.
Do you often feel the need to self-protect? And often do this by controlling your environment or others? Do you doubt the intentions of others? Are you easily anxious or overwhelmed? Are you suspicious, fearful, closed- off or hard for others to connect with? Do you often say no when invited to social events? Do you have difficulty compromising or seeing others points-of- view? If so, you may be setting boundaries that make it difficult for others to connect with you. If that is not who you really want to be, perhaps it’s time to relax some of those boundaries. You could benefit greatly, particularly if you exhibit more than a few of the following characteristics:
- find it hard to open up to your partner and family
- find it easier to open up to strangers rather than loved ones
- are often judgemental, critical or easily sees the flaws of others
- find it hard to ask for help
- find it hard to negotiate or compromise
- find it difficult to connect with others beyond a superficial level
- place high demands onto your partner, family, children, friends, employees, and/or employers
- are a perfectionist
- often procrastinate
- find decision making a real challenge
- take as much as you can, for the sake of taking
- like things to be orderly, tidy, neat and would feel anxious when it’s not
- avoid closeness, intimacy or being involved with others
- prefer to rely on yourself rather than ask for help
- tend to take more than give in friendships and relationships
- spend a lot of time defending or justifying even when it’s not your fault
- are overly sensitive to criticism
- expect others to fill your needs automatically
- find that people are often offended or upset by what you do or say
- feel special, entitled or deserving of priority treatment
- like to assert your superiority or dominance over other people
- secretly feel that others don’t show you respect
- touch a person without asking
Boundaries and relationships
When our boundaries are unclear or weak, we open up too much too fast. While the resulting surge of intimacy may seem exciting at first, our lack of boundaries can be a recipe for frustration and pain. When we open up too quickly, we are sharing our vulnerable selves too soon, without discernment. Others usually find that they are ‘over taken’ by us. They may misunderstand our motives and may take advantage of our vulnerabilities.
How often have you heard someone say, ‘I lost my self or my identity when I was with him or her?’ We may find that the person to whom we choose to open ourselves, is not prepared to take on such a responsibility. Ultimately, we become needy, desperately seeking ‘ourselves’ in the eyes of the other, and as we give up more and more of ourselves, we have less to offer. We become hurt and confused when the other person complains about feeling suffocated or wants us to be less needy of them.
At the opposite extreme, we may defend ourselves too inflexibly or rigidly. We use elaborate strategies to keep our distance, such as being excessively judgemental or analytical, or maintaining our ‘independence’ by doing whatever we want, whenever we want it, or by being unavailable or promiscuous. All these serve to reduce the bond between us and the other. We still need intimacy but are fearful to seek it, so we obtain it by permitting other people to be attracted to us, without letting them get too close. And as they express their need for more of us, we feel threatened or smothered and withdraw or push them away. Inside our inflexible boundaries we are perpetually empty, looking for love and then pulling away. This internal push and pull keeps us preoccupied with our own inner conflict, instead of relaxing and enjoying the support of a nurturing and close relationship.
When seeking partners, we often gravitate towards those with the opposite extreme of boundaries, people with inflexible boundaries being attracted by people with weak, unclear boundaries and vice versa. A relationship formed between two people with unhealthy boundaries at first seems to be a comfortable and well suited match. The person with inflexible boundaries welcomes the attention, initially enjoying the openness of the partner as it penetrates his well-protected walls. The person with unclear or weak boundaries admires the other's superficial appearance of strength and self -sufficiency, feeling that such a person can help them correct their own chaotic boundaries and get them under control thinking, ‘Finally someone who loves my intensity and passion.’ But soon when the initial fascination fades and tension grows as the person with inflexible boundaries gets tired of defending himself against intimacy and the person with weak or unclear boundaries gets tired of the emotional distance. This frustrating dance leaves both partners feeling unfulfilled and ultimately alone.
Often, at this stage, the couple may seek Couples Counselling to heal their relationship by renegotiating the personal boundaries. And for those whose relationships do not last, Individual Counselling is often beneficial to set healthier boundaries for the future.
How to Set Effective Boundaries
If you find you have boundaries that are unclear or weak or that are too inflexible, it’s not too late to change. Begin by writing a list of the boundaries you would like to adjust, reset or change. This may include boundaries at work, with family, friends and your partner. Next, adopt an open, curious, non-judgemental attitude at looking at yourself.
Pick one of the following suggestions and start today. Try it for a week and see how you feel. Remember, learning a new skill may be uncomfortable at first. Stick with it. You are important. Your needs for closeness and intimacy are valid, human needs. Your past need for safety and self-protection may not be necessary anymore. You don’t need to feel guilty anymore. Healthy boundaries bring about safe and healthy relationships. You are deserving of that.
Get to know yourself. This means knowing the ‘you’ beyond your upbringing and past experiences. Beneath that layer uncover and discover the authentic you. Write down your innermost thoughts, emotions, beliefs, feelings and choices. Connect the various parts of you- mental, emotional, physical and if inclined, spiritual. See if that all fits in with the ‘you’ you want to be now or if some are adopted from your past. Remember, you can’t know your boundaries without first knowing yourself.
Practice flexibility. Having healthy boundaries doesn’t mean automatically saying yes or rigidly saying no to everything. Carefully select the people you want to be open with. They need to be deserving of your vulnerability. Slowly let your guard down, there are inherently more ‘good’ people in this world than ‘bad.’
Practice compassion. You can have compassion and empathy for others without necessarily acting them out. And if compassion and empathy is a challenge for you, pick a simple thing each day i.e. listen to a friend or do a good deed with no aim for self-gratification.
Practice true self-love. Self-love is not simply accumulating feelings of pleasure which come from doing activities we enjoy. It is a deep sense of self-appreciation which grows, over time, from performing actions that support us and that foster our emotional, physiological and spiritual well-being and growth. When you love yourself, there is less need to hide your true self. You can feel safe with vulnerability, closeness and intimacy with others. You can feel what you feel for others without the need to take on the responsibility of their emotions or expectations.
Practice openness for growth. It is hard to hear how your behaviour may have impacted others. But do so anyway, all aimed towards self-growth and self-love.
Practice awareness of black and white thinking. Life really are shades of grey. If you are challenged in being open and vulnerable, try to let others closer to you bit by bit. Attempt to connect with others on a level that is a little uncomfortable for you. And if you have difficulty saying no, try the middle ground and say, ‘let me think about it and get back to you’.
Practise being present in the moment. Old habits can be hard to let go. When you feel the urge to (insert your habit), stop and check in with yourself. What thoughts are racing through your mind? What are you feeling right now? Permit your thoughts and feelings to flow, avoid suppressing them or distracting yourself with an activity. What do you need? Firstly think, then let the thought sink into your stomach or abdomen area, the allow yourself to feel. See what comes up for you. If that does not work, inhale 5 deep breaths then slowly notice 5 items in your immediate surroundings. Notice as many details as you can on each item, colour, texture, shape etc. That will bring you back to the present moment.
Find a professional therapist who is trustworthy to help you work with boundary setting. Remember that if you feel uncomfortable with something, or if you are being pushed past your limits, your boundaries are probably being violated! Learning how to protect your self is the key to being an emotionally healthy person. And if you are someone with inflexible boundaries, you may decide that feeling anxious and constantly withdrawing is not an optimal way to be. You too, can reset your boundaries based on your current life situation towards health and closer relationships.
Happy boundary re-jigging!