What are Boundaries and Why are They Important?
Boundaries are guidelines we put in place to safeguard our physical, emotion and mental wellness. They are useful for protecting ourselves and ensuring our needs are met. When we overextend ourselves, agree to things we don’t want to, or allow people to treat us unkindly, we may become resentful. We may feel taken for granted, burnt out, or put down. Strong boundaries allow us to stand up for ourselves, not tolerate mistreatment, and engage with people authentically.
It’s up to us to enforce our boundaries, even when others don’t respect them. It’s about knowing what we’re comfortable with, and what we won’t tolerate. This helps us build self-esteem and explore the world and relationships in a safe way.
Boundaries are not rules that we impose on other people. They’re rules that we follow because we know they’re best for us. Healthy boundaries involve clear communication, and unwavering adherence on our part. They don’t include trying to control other’s behavior.
How to Set Healthy Boundaries 101
First, it’s important to realize that we aren’t responsible for the emotions of others. This doesn’t mean we should do things to actively harm people. In this context, it means we can’t control how people respond to our boundaries.
There are many facets of life that may require boundaries. Three major ones are physical, emotional, and intellectual. Physical boundaries include personal space, privacy, sexual activities and orientation, body autonomy, etc. Emotional boundaries include how people speak to us, how much time/energy we dedicate to something/someone, and how we handle other’s emotions. Intellectual boundaries refer to appropriate expression of ideas.
- Identify our human rights. We all have inherent rights, such as the rights to physical and emotional safety, love, respect, choice, etc. It can become easier to adhere to boundaries when we accept that no one should infringe on our basic human dignity.
- Get in touch with emotions. Our instincts can tell us a lot about what we need. To understand our emotions, we can ask ourselves, “How do I feel right now?” This can be asked in any situation, which can help clarify when we feel most content or uncomfortable. It’s also useful to pay attention to body cues (increased heart rate, clenched fists, flinching, etc.). These sensations can alert us to when we feel unsafe.
- Identify core values. Values are principles that guide our lives. For example, we may feel uncomfortable with gossip, need alone time, or like privacy.
- Be assertive, not aggressive. In situations where we aren’t in danger, boundaries should be set firmly, yet respectfully. We should make the limit about us, not demean others. To do this, use “I feel” statements. Say, “I feel____when____because____. I need____.” This conveys emotions and needs directly.
- Learn to say no. We may not want to say no for fear of disappointing others. However, as the saying goes, “No” is a complete sentence. If we don’t want to do something, we don’t need to offer an explanation or apology. “No” is good enough.
- Be consistent. Playing fast and loose with applying our boundaries can be confusing for people. Expectations may be unclear. Consistency helps maintain strong, clear limits.
- Understand boundaries may change. Our needs and comfort levels may change over time. As such, our boundaries might, as well. It’s useful to reassess boundaries occasionally, to ensure they are still working for us. If change is required, we should allow ourselves flexibility to do so.
- Respect other’s boundaries.
What to Expect – The Good
Setting boundaries may feel very empowering. When we know what we need, and advocate for it, we feel self-assured. The relationship we have with ourselves is the most important. When we hold strong boundaries, we put our best interest above pleasing others. This allows us to trust that we have own back.
Healthy boundaries can also improve our relationships with others. Setting boundaries with safe people opens a door for them to know us better. Explicit boundaries help people understand how we feel, what we expect and what we dislike. When we respect each other’s boundaries, we create safe, mutually enjoyable relationships.
What to Expect – The Uncomfortable
If we aren’t used to setting boundaries around our time, emotional energy and well being, it can feel very uncomfortable. It can be even worse for those who had caregivers who discouraged independence or personal limits. We may feel guilty, fearing damage to our relationships. We may worry that people will think we’re mean or unreasonable. Societal customs often portray self-sacrifice as heroic and expected. We may often feel obligated to do something we don’t want to (like tolerating unhealthy family dynamics), to maintain the status quo.
People may respond poorly to our boundaries. Setting limits may make people question themselves or feel shame. E.g., if someone is yelling and we say “I feel scared when you yell. If it continues, I’ll have to remove myself from this conversation”, they may feel shame. If they are unable to process this, it may manifest as anger or sulking. Others may also be used to us responding in a certain way. When we don’t, it may shock or upset them. It can be particularly difficult to set and hold boundaries with our family. It can be scary to challenge heavily engrained, unhealthy dynamics. Exploring our boundaries can be overwhelming. We may struggle to identify our needs and values, or fear rejection or disappointing people. If we’re ready to create strong boundaries but don’t know how, speaking to a counsellor may help. They can help us explore our fear of boundary setting, provide helpful tips and support, and roleplay boundary-setting in a safe environment. Joining UCA as a member provides access to confidential telephone counselling 24/7, 365! We all deserve to be our own greatest advocate. Start practicing better boundaries and put personal wellness first.