Updated: Oct 7, 2021
Recently, someone told me that they’re a little bit afraid of me. I found that surprising and a bit funny because I don’t consider myself at all scary to others. I try to do my best to consistently treat others with kindness and respect.
What the person was picking up on, I think, was that I have pretty firm boundaries and I’m not afraid to stand up for what I believe in and give some compassionate tough love. My boundaries are something that I’ve worked on for years and they don’t come naturally to me at all. In fact, I used to be a complete pushover!
This is a really important point with boundaries- they’re absolutely something that we can learn how to improve. We develop our boundary patterns in our families when we’re growing up, but that doesn’t mean that we’re stuck with these patterns forever.
As a psychologist, I work with people all the time on the skill of setting and maintaining boundaries.
So what are boundaries?
Boundaries are the internal rules that we put in place regarding what we feel is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour from others.
There are a number of categories of boundaries:
This category relates to how others respect your feelings and having the ability to separate your feelings from someone else’s.
This has to do with having and expressing your own opinions and being able to make your own decisions based on your beliefs and preferences.
This includes who touches you and how people touch you. It also has to do with your preferences around personal space.
This relates to how others speak to you, treat you, and respect your choices, time and energy.
This relates to how people respect your belongings and your money.
What are some signs that your boundaries are not firm enough?
When you find yourself saying yes when you want to say no.
Feeling angry and frustrated every time you see a certain person.
Not listening to your body’s needs for things like food, sleep and a break.
Staying quiet when faced with inappropriate behaviour from others.
Feeling pressured to lend belongings or give money away.
Feeling afraid to assert your opinions.
What are your boundaries like?
I’d like you to rate each of these categories of boundaries (emotional, mental, physical, relationship, material) on a scale from 0-10. 0 = no boundaries; 10 = excellent boundaries. This will give you an idea of where you think you could have some improvements.
You’ll likely find that you have great boundaries in some settings, work for example, but your boundaries are too flexible in other settings, like with family. You will also likely find that you’re better with certain types of boundaries (like physical boundaries), but struggle more with other types (like relationship boundaries).
Now what I want you to do is reflect on what might be holding you back with regard to setting firmer boundaries.
Some really common reasons are:
* Feeling like you’re selfish if you set a boundary. (Sidenote: In order to live a truly fulfilled life, it’s important to let go of the need to put others’ needs above your own. We need to take care of ourselves well in order to be able to consistently give to others.)
* A belief that you always have to be nice. (Sidenote: Setting a boundary doesn’t mean that you’re not nice. In fact, the kindest people often have the firmest boundaries.)
* Everyone is expecting you to do these things, so you feel like you can’t disappoint them. (Sidenote: There’s no time like the present to begin a “new normal.” It will likely be hard at first, but worth it in the long run.)
Setting healthy boundaries
Now what I want you to do is make a list for yourself of what healthy boundaries look like to you in each of the categories above: Emotional, Mental, Physical, Relationships, Material.
The key is, these are YOUR boundaries. You can set whatever boundaries you feel are appropriate for your own life. I recommend doing this exercise alone.
Some examples of healthy boundaries are:
Emotional: I’ll stand up for myself when my uncle is putting me down.
Mental: I make up my own mind about who to vote for in the next election.
Physical: I no longer give my friend a hug when I see him.
Relationship: I politely decline when I’m asked to babysit my nephew on a night I have plans.
Material: No more lending money to my friend who’s making poor financial decisions.
So now that you’ve decided on some changes to your boundaries, you want to give a proactive heads-up to those being impacted by your new boundaries.
I always think it’s a good idea to prevent problems rather than deal with them after the fact. The fact of the matter is, when you start setting firmer boundaries, it will likely cause some tension. The people in your life are used to you behaving in a certain way.
So if you can, go to whoever will be impacted by your boundaries and let them know what you’ll be doing from now on. This will give them a chance to wrap their head around it before it actually happens.
For example, if you tend to be the one bailing out your friend when she makes poor decisions, talk to her that you’re no longer going to be doing this. Explain in clear language what you’ll be doing instead.
You’ll want to practice how to speak about your boundaries.
Less is more when it comes to explaining your boundaries. For example, in relation to someone asking you to do something that you do not want to do, you might say, “Sorry, but I can’t commit to that right now” or “I can’t fit that into my schedule at the moment.”
What you don’t want to do is get into all of the reasons why you can’t do it. We’ve all been there or heard someone do this before, “Oh I’m so sorry that I can’t go to your party on Friday, because I have a work commitment and we only have a babysitter for the kids for a few hours, then I have a bunch of things to do the next day and we’re trying to get to bed earlier….”
Keep your boundaries simple and remember that most of the time, the person doesn’t need (or want) a long-drawn-out explanation.
An important aspect of improving your boundaries is also being very consistent with respecting others’ boundaries. By treating others the way you want to be treated, you’ll create a wonderful positive feedback loop.
So how do you deal with consistent boundary violators?
If someone is consistently violating your boundaries, you have 3 choices:
1. Give in to the person.
Needless to say, I don’t recommend this option, but it’s a free country!
2. Keep trying and being consistent.
It often takes longer than we’d like for boundaries to start being respected. I do recommend cultivating some patience around your boundaries and doing your best to try to keep reinforcing the boundary multiple times (within limits of course). This is particularly relevant when you’re boundaries have been really flexible or non-existent before.
It can take a while for people to get used to a big change. Also, be honest with yourself about how consistent you’ve been with maintaining the boundaries. Often, we set a boundary and then only half-heartedly enforce it, which really confuses other people and prolongs the amount of time that it takes to really have the boundary work.
3. Reduce the amount of time you spend with them OR cut them out of your life.
If someone is consistently disrespecting your boundaries, you’ve got to give some serious thought to their presence in your life.
It’s often very difficult to consider cutting people from your life, but remember…if someone is not being respectful to you and your boundaries, you need to make some tough choices. You don’t need my permission, but I’m going to say this anyway- you have permission to cut any person out of your life if they’re respecting your boundaries. Yes, even family.
If removing someone from your life sounds too challenging, you can consider cutting them out for a period of time (6 months for example) or setting firm boundaries on when you see them (such as only at birthday parties, Easter and Christmas).
Remember, it’s your life and you get to decide what’s right for you.
Good boundaries are the foundation for a life characterized by self-respect, emotional strength and happiness. By working on your boundaries, you’re going to find that the quality of your life improves substantially.
I’d love to hear what you plan to change in your boundaries! Comment below and tell me all about it.