Boundaries. The word alone brings different pictures to the minds of different people. Some people see boundaries as barriers; others see boundaries as freedom. Boundaries with other people are what we make of them. Still, they are definitely needed if we want to maintain the space between where we begin, and another person ends.
By definition, a boundary is a limit. It’s the space between other people and us. It’s a clear place where you begin, and the other person ends. Sometimes this is an apparent physical boundary, but for most of us in relationships, it’s the emotional boundaries that we create (or don’t) that keep us safe and sane (or not).
Boundaries are necessary to take care of ourselves. I often meet people who believe that creating and living with boundaries somehow mars their humanity–making them less of a kind and loving citizen of the earth.
Unfortunately, they have this misguided notion of boundaries due to the traumas and situations in our lives where we’ve been taken advantage of. (I, too, have had this notion way too much in my life.) We’ve been led to believe that we’re not supposed to have autonomy over our feelings and actions if we want to be kind and loving fellow humans.
The sad and tragic error of not creating boundaries is that we don’t make any limits or spaces to protect and care for ourselves. This is why so much physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual hurt happens in our lives. According to PositivePsychology.com, healthy boundaries are necessary for us to establish our identities.
Without healthy boundaries, we can feel hurt and victimized. This is often a precursor to the total enmeshment (relationship[s] without clear and impermeable boundaries) with another person or other people. I have one word when it comes to those relationships: codependency. That unhealthy imbalance steals our identity and is an indicator of what we will (and will not) hold ourselves responsible for.
This is why the work I do focusing on self-care and self-forgiveness is vital. We hold ourselves accountable for so many things that were never ours to hold, and that’s because we didn’t have healthy boundaries to help protect us. Having healthy boundaries is part of self-care. It is also the first step to helping forgive others (and ourselves). It may seem counterintuitive to put up what society has deemed ‘barriers’ when working on healthy relationships. The truth is, we owe it to ourselves to determine our boundaries to love ourselves and love others.
How Do We Establish Healthy Boundaries?
When we want to establish healthy boundaries, the most critical step is figuring out why we want them in the first place. Humans are creatures of benefit; intrinsically, we’re more driven to do things that provide benefit. So, look at what we feel strongly about–for our minds, bodies, and spirits. What benefits are there to having healthy boundaries?
For starters, having healthy boundaries:
- Provide good mental health
- Promote well-balanced emotional health
- Help prevent burnout
- Help develop identity
- Model for people how we want to be treated
- Helps establish the autonomy of our bodies, thoughts, and emotions
When we don’t have healthy boundaries in relationships, we can suffer from some of the following:
- Resentment: toward others and ourselves
- Anger: we’ll need to work on forgiveness of ourselves and others
- Burnout: we just get tired of the same old, same old
- Stress: we’re not sure how much longer we can keep it up
- Financial burdens: codependency can be exceptionally costly
- Wasted time: relationship investment with those who won’t respect us and take advantage of us
- Relationship issues: not really understanding who you are in your relationship
- Mental distress: feeling responsible for the problems of those with whom you are in a relationship
Not having healthy boundaries can (and too often, does) negatively affect every facet of our lives.
Establishing boundaries can be challenging, though. Most of us simply do not know how to set them. We likely didn’t have healthy boundaries modeled for us, and we’ve just figured things out. Often this means we’ve gotten into painful relationships, and the boundary lessons we took out of those relationships were hard-fought.
Additionally, there is not a one-size-fits-all relationship template. Boundaries in romantic relationships look different from work relationships and family dynamics. Plus, you may actually have decent boundaries in one area of your life. Still, in another, like your romantic relationship, you don’t. Part of establishing healthy boundaries is looking at your relationships and pulling out boundary points (or recognizing there are none) from where you can start working.
Boundaries Are Not Selfish; They’re Self-Care!
Too often, we’re worried about people thinking we’re ‘selfish’ if we establish healthy boundaries and work on our own self-esteem. In fact, we often lose our boundary-making ability in childhood as we deal with dysfunction or trauma. As adults, we have to learn that we do indeed have sovereignty over our emotions and our bodies.
I know this because I lived this. There was so much chaos in my childhood. Parents divorced and remarried, and our families grew from three to nine kids. As if it wasn’t easy to get lost in those dynamics as it was, there was abuse of all kinds thrown in. As a result, I didn’t learn how to protect myself from inappropriate body touching. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself in relationships. I became a people pleaser who survived by appeasing others first and putting my own needs last (if at all). This people-pleasing personality did help me to become hyper-vigilant about the needs of others, which served me well in my career as an executive assistant.
But that silver lining also came with a heavy price. It killed any ability for my own self-empowerment.
In fact, when I started learning about boundaries, it was hard to set them without feeling selfish and guilty. I was used to not taking care of my own needs, desires, feelings, and
opinions. I worried about those in relationships with me not being able to manage or feeling neglected without me constantly worrying over them, even if that meant forsaking worrying about myself. Improving my self-esteem and setting boundaries was a necessary responsibility for me to actually be an equal in relationships, not just a lesser.
That equality that I felt made a difference. I could feel myself becoming more…well, me, when I practiced establishing boundaries, and I was able to remind myself I was entitled to my own needs, desires, wants, and opinions.
I also forgave those I felt should have behaved differently–those who took advantage of my codependency. I recognized that I had some responsibility in that if I wasn’t making my needs known, it wasn’t really fair of me to expect them to just ‘do the right thing.’
In reality, boundary setting is far from selfish. Selfishness is when you don’t consider others. Boundary setting is imperative for considering others because it establishes equal footing for you and those you’re in a relationship with. That’s how an authentic, meaningful, and functional relationship should be.
When I began to set proper boundaries, I also began to feel mentally, emotionally, and physically safe–something I’d not felt in many years. This safety and security encouraged me to continue to learn about boundary setting and to work to set them in all areas of my life. In doing so, I realized that respecting boundaries is a two-way street. When we surround ourselves with those who are strong in themselves and confident in their boundaries, we tend to be okay with setting our own without guilt.
I didn’t start really standing up for myself in personal relationships until later in life–in my 40s. In my last marriage, my boundaries prevented me from being a doormat. They allowed me to express myself as I wanted.
Even though that marriage ended in divorce, I felt free. I knew what having freedom, forgiveness, and boundaries felt like. That’s what helped propel me in relationships moving forward and then again with my current husband.
When he and I started dating, I was able to be upfront with my availability. I let him know that we’d work around my work schedule to talk and that we would not be able to see each other every day. I realized I tended to get lost in relationships, so it was important for my security and sanity to set these boundaries up front.
And you know what? He not only agreed to the boundaries I put forth, but he thanked me! He told me that he hadn’t really been in a relationship before where he didn’t have to guess what to do or what was expected, and he felt free. It was freeing for both of us, really. It reinforced that boundary setting really is in the best interest of everyone in the relationship.
If you’re looking for more information on how healthy boundaries can help you define your individuality, check out The Conscious Coaching Hour with me and my intuitive coaching friends Sakura Sutter and Rory Reich. It’ll be an episode of ‘Love From The Hyp’ that’ll stick for a while!