Boundaries are an essential part of preserving, maintaining, and enhancing an individual’s mental health. They keep us safe, happy, and emotionally stable. Simply defined: A boundary is anything that marks a limit. In this context, we are talking about a psychological limit where there is a distinction between what we feel is emotionally safe versus emotionally harmful. If emotionally harmful sounds a bit too serious for you then think about it in a way that a behaviour does not align with your value system. Everyone’s boundaries are different as they are subjective due to various variables such as the influence of our upbringing, our experiences and traumas in life, personality traits, and tolerance levels to name a few. Our boundaries can also change over time and do not need to remain constant. For example, an individual may be studying for the BAR exam and have rigid boundaries around their social interactions and leisure activities until they have completed the test.
We may not always be clear of when we need to put up a boundary. A good starting point is recognizing how we feel when a person says or does something. If we don’t like the way it feels or know that the action doesn’t align with our values; that’s a first step. Initially we may not want to make a big deal out of it or hope it is a one-off situation. However, should the behaviour repeat itself then it may be time to place a boundary. Let your intuition guide you to self-preservation. You don’t want to wait too long to establish new boundaries as it much easier to change a behaviour before it’s become a pattern or has already had harmful effects on you.
A pushy relative has familial expectations that don’t align with yours. Maybe you try to compromise but it still doesn’t feel good enough. Time to put up a boundary.
A colleague who constantly off loads their responsibilities onto you. You do it happily initially but start to notice an unfair pattern take shape. Time to put up a boundary.
A friendship that is emotionally wearing you down. You look forward to social interaction but feel exhausted after your meetings. Time to put up a boundary.
A relationship where disrespect is being shown through name calling and aggression. Time to put up a boundary.
Without boundaries, we would be yo-yoing based on the demands of others. However, placing boundaries is easier said than done. In my counselling experience, people generally don’t want to come across rude or have uncomfortable conversations. If healthy boundaries were not modeled for us growing up then it should come as no surprise that we struggle to put boundaries into action. We have may been brought up to respect our elders or follow any type of authority whether it was morally wrong or emotionally hurtful towards us. Another reason boundaries are hard is because we tend to want people to think highly of us especially if it’s part of our value system. To make clearer, we may value hard work and being dependable, so we don’t say no to the extra workload even though our plate is full. We may value connection, so we don’t say no to a social event even though our body is begging for some rest. This gets even further complicated when we take into account the hierarchy of power. Not only do boundaries give us emotional stability but they help us avoid burnout, avoid resentments towards people who do not even know they are crossing a boundary, develop autonomy and confidence, and puts us in a place where we can have healthy relationships in our life.
Boundaries affect everyone as there is no doubt there will be a need to place one with someone at some point in your life. On the flip side, we also need to be able to recognize when someone is putting up a boundary with us. We may not even be aware we are pushing someone’s boundary as it is subjective. However, when someone does place a boundary with us it is important that we respect it in order to have a mutually respectful relationship. For example, you may ask a friend something personal but they may not be ready to talk about it, please respect their boundary. Boundaries should not always be taken personal. People do project their unhealed traumas onto you, it does happen. We don't have to like it or agree with it, however we do need to respect it. Remember, boundaries help individuals preserve their mental health and are not set in stone. It works both ways. If you place boundaries on other people then you need to hold yourself accountable to respect the boundaries of others. Period.
OK now that I have your buy in to the importance of boundaries. Let's talk implementation and action.
Strategy One: Use "I" Statements
The most successful people at being assertive know they can stand up for their rights and feelings without attacking the person on the receiving end. A person good at placing boundaries might say “I prefer a bit more personal space than what we currently have” instead of saying “YOU are in my personal space can you stop being so needy.” When you place a boundary, be clear of what you need instead of the current arrangement. We can’t expect what we don’t communicate. Make it crystal clear.
I feel overwhelmed when deadlines are given with short notice. What I feel most comfortable with is at least a weeks notice to ensure I can give it my full attention.
I feel betrayed when you shared a personal story I told you to someone else. What I need is trust to know our conversations are going to stay between us.
Strategy Two: Show them the car, and then take them for a drive
When we are going to have a difficult conversation, paint a picture of the goal before you discuss what you need to get there. People are more likely to participate when you make your intentions and goals known before you bring up what you need.
I would love for our relationship to be a long lasting one. I see us watching our children go to University together. I want us to spend time together with ease and nonjudgment. I think it is best moving forward that we do not comment on each other’s marriage to show respect and preserve our friendship.
I know you want your daughter to be a top gymnast. You want her to go to the Olympics and for her to perform at an optimal level. In order to potentially get there, I need you not to come to her practices anymore. I feel you shouting from the sidelines distracts her and causes anxiety for our team. Let us do our job.
Strategy Three: Talk to a Professional
Boundaries do not have to be putting others down but instead a visualization of what you need. Sometimes boundaries need to be more direct. Where there are concerns about abuse or violence, being assertive is paramount. If you are unsure how to place a boundary or have safety concerns please reach out to me or another professional counsellor to help you through your journey to take care of your mental health.