What are boundaries?
In the literal sense, a boundary marks the limit or edge of something. Here, we’re talking about boundaries in the metaphorical sense – the limits we have to protect ourselves. In essence, they are the parameters around that which we consider acceptable behaviour from ourselves and others.
Boundaries come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some might be firm and rigid; others may have more flexibility. Some boundaries exist to separate our personal and professional lives (“I do not answer work emails at weekends”) some guard us physically (you might have a personal space bubble) and others are there to protect our time, emotions, headspace and energy. To be clear, this is not about putting up defensive walls, but about fostering healthy, reciprocal relationships.
Why do we have boundaries?
Boundaries not only protect us, but they help us to build a sense of self-worth. Healthy boundaries lead to mutually respectful relationships with others and they help us to respect and value ourselves. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of our own personal boundaries and those of others.
If your interactions with other people often leave you feeling uncomfortable, stressed, resentful or drained, then it might be time to give your boundaries a health-check.
It could be useful to reflect on your relationships throughout your life – are they usually balanced? Are they more or less balanced with family / friends / colleagues / romantic partners? Perhaps your friendships tend to have equal give-and-take but your romantic or sexual relationships are usually unbalanced. Take stock of when it is and with whom you feel you have given too much of yourself.
In an ideal world, we would intuitively know exactly where we want our boundaries and how to implement them. However, for most of us, we learn where we need boundaries after they have been overstepped.
How can I achieve healthy boundaries?
The first step to establishing healthy boundaries is listening to your body, your thoughts and feelings and asking yourself when and where you felt a boundary was crossed. For example, it could be that a friend came to visit and you felt mentally and physically drained after they left. You came to the conclusion that they stayed much later than you would have liked. Ask yourself, “did I make my boundaries clear?”
Being assertive is the key to improving boundaries. If you struggle with being assertive and making your boundaries known then perhaps you just need more practice, or perhaps this is something you could explore and work on in personal therapy. The important thing to remember is that no one gets the balance right all the time. Setting and preserving healthy boundaries is an art that needs constant refinement and is not something that will be perfected overnight.
If any of this resonates with you then my hope is that what you will take away from this, is a greater awareness of what your boundaries are and how you feel when they are overstepped. This is the key to knowing where you’d like your boundaries to be.
The next step is to be assertive in expressing your boundaries. This could be as simple as saying, “I’m feeling quite tired and would like to go to bed now”. If this is not something you are used to then it may be that you feel mean, selfish or unkind in asserting your boundaries but remember that your needs are just as important as anyone else’s. It’s possible that you may be met with resistance at first but try to sit with this discomfort and stay strong.
Above all, remember to listen to your thoughts, feelings and body and be kind to yourself. Remember that it’s ok to put your own needs first. No one can pour from an empty cup.
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