When we care for ourselves and our needs, we set clear and healthy boundaries in our relationships. We want to ensure that our relationships are “mutually respectful, supportive, and caring” (Jane Collingwood, http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-importance-of-personal-boundaries/). Imagine boundaries like the door to our home. We do not permit just anyone to enter our home. The door is a boundary to ensure that the right people, those who won’t take advantage of you or harm you, are the only ones who enter your personal space (Anne Katherine, https://www.uky.edu/hr/sites/www.uky.edu.hr/files/wellness/images/Conf14_Boundaries.pdf).
Boundaries protect us from those who may want to hurt us, take advantage of our good nature, and zap us of our emotional energy. Boundaries are limits we set within all of our relationships. Unhealthy boundaries leave you vulnerable. Healthy boundaries are more likely to ensure that you are treated with respect, are valued, and “help you avoid getting too close to people who don’t have your best interests at heart” (Collingwood).
I am still learning to set healthier boundaries. I was not taught how to set healthy boundaries as a child and, as I look back on my life, I have permitted many into my personal life and invested a lot of time into people that I should not have. I was often left lonely and isolated despite being around for everyone else. In 2013, I went as far as permitting a 23 year old supposed friend (the daughter of an old classmate) move into the home of myself and husband (at the time), because she was in mental health crisis and had nowhere else to go. She knew everything about me; I confided in her. It was the most hellish summer of my life. She and my husband (at the time) became soul mates and had an affair under my nose. I truly did not know this girl enough to invite her into our home but I felt sorry for her. If I was her age and going through something similar, I thought, I would’ve wanted someone there for me. This was definitely not setting healthy boundaries and I was burned and hurt terribly in the end.
I am learning to set better boundaries but it is a process and takes time to do (Katherine). I am learning to be patient and compassionate with myself along this journey of recovery that I am on. I am learning to love myself and make myself a priority.
So, How Do We Set Healthy Boundaries?
First of all, we need to know why setting healthy boundaries is important. Anne Katherine, in her book, “Boundaries: Where You End and I begin,” shares the following reasons:
- To practice self-care and self-respect
- To communicate your needs in a relationship
- To make time and space for positive interactions
- To set limits in a relationship in a way that is healthy
There are two types of boundaries: physical and emotional. Physical boundaries are your personal space and privacy. We establish physical boundaries through what we wear, our home, verbal communication, and body language (Katherine). For example: we feel uncomfortable when a stranger gets really close to us during a conversation. We may, at first, non-verbally express our discomfort by stepping back to distance ourselves from the stranger. If the stranger were to begin moving closer after our moving further away, we’d probably then verbally express our discomfort with them to protect our physical boundary.
Emotional boundaries are those which protect us emotionally and psychologically. They set us apart from others and how they are feeling and who they are. When we have unhealthy emotional boundaries, according to Katherine, we expose ourselves “to being greatly affected by others’ words, thoughts, and actions,” and end up feeling hurt, betrayed, and alone. The following are some examples Katherine offers for invasions of our emotional boundaries:
- Not knowing how to separate our feelings from our partner’s and permitting their mood to dictate whether we are happy or sad. This is also a sign of codependency (Melodie Beattie has done a lot of work on this topic if you’d like to learn more about codependency).
- Sacrificing your plans, dreams, and goals in order to please others
- Not taking responsibility for ourselves and blaming others for our problems
Collingwood, in a PsychCentral article, lists a ‘Five Things’ method to setting healthy boundaries:
- List 5 things you’d like people to stop doing around you
- List 5 things you want others to stop doing to you, for example, being inconsiderate or ignoring you
- List 5 things that others may no longer say to you
Collingwood, adds, now, think about your current relationships and the boundaries you have. Ask:
- How much attention do people expect from you at a moment’s notice?
- Do you always make yourself available, for example, do you always answer the phone no matter what?
- How much praise and acceptance do you receive?
- Why are you popular with your friends?
- How do you feel after spending time with each friend or family member?
As you consider these questions, you may decide to update the boundaries you have with some of those in your life. Instead of saying to yourself, “I want to please others,” say “I value my time and want to keep some for myself” (Collingwood).
Collingwood warns that those close to you may not, at first, like the changes you make. For some, you may lose the relationship. Keep in mind that those relationships that are “worth having will survive, and grow stronger.”
At first, as mentioned earlier, you may experience some objections to your new boundaries. Collingwood says to remain consistent with what you have decided. Be simple in what you ask for. If, for some reason, you see a need to compromise on a boundary, “be flexible, but take it slowly and don’t agree to anything that doesn’t feel right.”
In time, your boundaries will earn you more respect from those in your life.