Part 1: What do you need to know before setting healthy boundaries?
To be able to develop authentic relationships with ourselves, with our family and friends, we need to set clear boundaries and limits that separate our physical and emotional world from others. This process first implies having a clear idea about who we are.
Our self - identity starts developing in childhood, intensifies in puberty and emerges in the young adulthood when we understand that we can be part of a family, a community or of a culture at the same time with being a separate individual, owning our feelings, thoughts, behaviours, beliefs, physical and emotional spaces.
Before being able to affirm our limits, it is important that we know who we are. We should know what is important to us, what we are willing to do and what not, what is or isn’t negotiable, from small things like the music we prefer, to big things like our beliefs about relationships and life.
Setting boundaries requires therefore a high degree of self-awareness of feelings and needs, courage to express those in front of others and experience in using “I statements “, it means expressing your needs and feelings in direct, honest and appropriate ways while being concerned about the feelings of others too.
What is your idea of boundaries?
Personally, I like to think about boundaries the same way in which I imagine my house and my garden: is anyone allowed to come inside, any time they want? Is my garden or house open to using at anybody’s discretion? Do I make it clear when I don’t want to be disturbed, if so, how? Do I allow others to tell me how to decorate my house or to use my food in my kitchen? Do I set and apply clear consequences if somebody crosses my limits?
The main idea is about how loose or rigid my house rules are, how clear I set these rules for me first internally, and then how I communicate them to the exterior in such a way that people understand and respect them.
As we use doors and fences to protect the privacy and safety of our home, similarly we use boundaries and limits to protect ourselves and keep us physically and emotionally balanced.
Most of us have never learned to say no, and as a result we far too often say yes almost automatically, without considering the consequences of our decisions for us. We are chronic helpers, and very often we seek validation and appreciation, or we try to avoid making others uncomfortable. We are constant givers, but more than we can afford to give. This is a sign of having loose boundaries.
The idea of saying no does not even cross our mind, as “being nice” is something we learned while growing up. The problem is that we cannot let our self-worth depend on pleasing others and making ourselves liked. In time, if we keep putting others first, we will lose our self-esteem and our ability to know what we really want. And that will lead to feelings of increase anger because we “sacrificed” for the others (without considering that it was our decision) and hurt because probably the others will not reciprocate as we’d expect them to.
What are the obstacles in setting boundaries?
Although it is clear enough why it is important to set clear boundaries, many people don’t do it out of several reasons:
• they don’t know what they want or feel (because of a low level of self-awareness)
• they fear people’s negative reaction, as they’ll expect the others to feel angry, upset or disappointed.
• they feel guilty or ashamed for having and expressing their needs.
• they fear losing someone’s love, friendship, appreciation.
• they don’t know how to communicate assertively and mistakenly believe that assertiveness is aggressiveness.
Knowing that setting boundaries is difficult for you is no excuse to not start doing this. Yes, it is a matter of training and of starting with something small and to develop from there to more important areas in your life.
The most important motivator is to reflect upon the following question:
Which consequences do you think your self-esteem will suffer on the long run, if you do not start today to set your healthy boundaries?
Types of boundaries:
Being conscious about different types of boundaries and understanding how you relate to them is an important part of your work. Here are several types of boundaries that you can think about:
• Physical boundaries- related to your personal space, privacy and body, both in private and public contexts. How close to you do you allow someone to be? Are you clear about the different rules you apply in certain environments and places and with different persons? Are you aware of your body responses when somebody crosses your boundaries?
• Resources boundaries- do you give or lend your personal things (car, money, clothes…)? What about your time and energy; how aware are you of the way you use these two important resources?
• Mental boundaries- apply to your thoughts, values and opinions and refer to how easily influenced you are. Are you too rigid with your own beliefs and don’t take any new opinion in, or do you let others’ beliefs convince you, easily giving up your ideas?
• Emotional boundaries- distinguish separating your emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s. Are your healthy boundaries preventing you from feeling guilty or bad for someone else’s negative feelings, and from taking other’s comments personally? High reactivity suggests loose emotional boundaries.
Although it is important to be aware of all types of boundaries, in my work I help clients deal mostly with resources (especially time and energy) and emotional boundaries. In part two, I will focus more on these two categories as I am sure that once we start paying attention to the way we set our limits in any of these areas, we can extend our skills and set clear limits everywhere we feel we need to.
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