What Are Healthy Boundaries? Why Do I Need Them?
This is an adaption of two excellent articles, “What Are Healthy Boundaries and Why Do I Need Them?” and “10 Steps to Setting Healthy Boundaries” (click on a link read the full article), written by Sharon Martin, LCSW, and published online in PsychCentral.com, May 20 and 23, 2016.
A boundary delineates where I end and where you begin. It says this is how you can treat me.
When you don’t speak up and say that a boundary has been crossed, it gives the impression you’re okay with it.
When a boundary is crossed, you need to provide feedback saying it’s not okay. The boundary is worthless if you don’t enforce it by giving feedback and consequences.
Some people will easily accept a boundary and others will continue to challenge and escalate it. So, if the person for whom you set a boundary continues to violate it, you need to talk with them about it again. The specific consequences depend on the nature of the relationship and the relationship history.
Why do you need boundaries?
To be quite frank, without boundaries, you’re going to have dogs shitting all over your lawn. You’ve probably already experienced the human equivalent of this. Remember: You don’t owe an abusive person anything, regardless of the rationale thrown at you, especially the guilt-inducing “Honor thy father and mother.”
1. Boundaries allow you to be your true self
Boundaries create a separateness that allows you to have your own feelings, make your own decisions, and know and ask for what you want without needing to please others.
2. Boundaries are a form of self-care
Healthy emotional boundaries mean you value your own feelings and needs and you’re not responsible for how others feel or behave. They allow you to let go of worrying about how others feel about you and places that accountability squarely with the other persons. Bottom line: If you are true to yourself, what others may think of you doesn’t matter in the real world.
Boundaries also keep you from overextending yourself. You can’t take on every project, work every shift, or be on every committee that you’re asked to join. Boundaries mean saying “no” to things that don’t align with your priorities.
3. Boundaries create realistic expectations
Whether it’s with a friend, spouse, parent, neighbor or boss, relationships function best when we know what’s expected. When you clearly communicate your boundaries, people know how they’re expected to behave. When expectations aren’t communicated and met, resentment and anger grows.
4. Boundaries create safety
Boundaries provide physical and emotional safety by keeping out what feels uncomfortable or hurtful.
What prevents you from setting boundaries?
It’s scary to do something different. What are you actually afraid of? How likely is this to happen? What will happen if you set a boundary? What will happen if you don’t? By asking yourself questions like these, you can give yourself a reality check and find out if your fear is alerting you of real danger or keeping you stuck.
Similar to fear, ambivalence represents that you aren’t 100% convinced that boundaries will solve your problem. Some ambivalence is fine. You don’t need to be 100% sure before you act.
3. Low self-worth
Some part of you feels unworthy or unlovable. You always struggle to prove your worth by putting other people’s needs before your own. You’re not used to being treated with respect, so you don’t even know what it looks like.
You don’t want to ruffle feathers. You don’t want to disappoint people. You’ll pretty much avoid conflict at all costs.
The truth is setting boundaries does disrupt relationship systems. You will get resistance. Sometimes this resistance isn’t as bad as you imagined. Other times, there is real danger. If you think that setting a boundary will put you in serious harm, please get help. One such resource is the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or http://www.thehotline.org/.
Setting boundaries doesn’t come easily or naturally to a lot of people, but you can learn to set healthy boundaries.
Examples of Boundaries:
- Karla and Mark have two young children. Mark’s parents have a new dog that seems aggressive. He doesn’t feel comfortable with the dog around his kids. Mark tells his parents their dog isn’t welcome at his house and he will not bring his kids to their house unless the dog stays in the garage.
- A roommate agreement (the concept isn’t as ridiculous as it seems on The Big Bang Theory) that identifies expectations about cleaning, food, and noise.
- Telling your boss you can’t work late tonight.
- Having a personal policy of not loaning money to family members.
10 Steps to Setting Boundaries:
1. Clearly identify your boundary.
Get really clear with yourself about what the boundary is that you need to set. Do you need your mother to stop calling all together or can she call you under certain circumstances? If you aren’t clear, you won’t be able to communicate your expectations. A wishy-washy boundary is not effective. Spend time figuring out what you really want before taking action.
2. Understand why you need the boundary.
This is your motivation for setting the boundary. If you don’t have a compelling reason, how are you going to follow through setting a boundary outside your comfort zone?
3. Be straightforward.
Don’t be cryptic or purposefully vague thinking you’re going to spare someone’s feelings or avoid a conflict. The kindest and most successful approach is to be direct. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
4. Don’t apologize or give long explanations.
This kind of behavior undermines your authority and gives the impression that you’re doing something wrong that requires an apology or justification.
5. Use a calm and polite tone.
Keep your own anger in check. Don’t try to set boundaries in the middle of an argument. You want your message to be heard. Yelling, sarcasm or a condescending tone all put others on the defensive and distract from the real issues.
6. Start with tighter boundaries.
It’s always easier to loosen up tight boundaries than it is to tighten up loose ones. People-pleasing results in loose or weak boundaries that are hard to tighten up later.
For example, you set a clear expectation with your ex that you don’t want her coming into your home when she returns the children. From this firm boundary, it’s easy to later invite her in if you feel it’s appropriate. It’s much harder to later tell her she can’t come in when initially you’d given her free access to your home.
7. Address boundary violations early.
Small problem are always easier to deal with. Don’t wait until someone’s violated your boundary a dozen times before you speak up or blow up in anger. It’s not fair to assume others know your boundaries until you’ve explained them. Nor is it fair to “change the rules” and abruptly tell your cousin that you’re not going to help pay her rent after you’ve done it with a smile on your face for the past three months.
8. Don’t make it personal.
Setting a boundary isn’t a personal attack.
9. Use a support system.
Starting to set boundaries is tough! It can bring up a lot of questions, uncomfortable feelings, and self-doubt. Having a support system is invaluable whenever you’re doing something challenging.
10. Trust your intuition.
Slow down. Tune into yourself. Pay attention to what you’re feeling. What is your gut telling you? If it feels wrong, make a change.
Following these 10 steps will help guide you toward setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. Remember, they are not only good for you, but they’re good for everyone involved.
A Final Note
If the person for whom you’ve set one or more boundaries cannot or will not honor your boundaries, it’s time to implement your stated consequences. If you don’t, you’ll simply be adding fuel to the fire by saying, “That’s OK, I really didn’t mean what I said. Go ahead and abuse me by disrespecting me and my wishes.”
On the other hand, if you really did mean what you said, it may now be time to implement the suggestions in our article, How to Divorce Your Abusive Parent … And Survive. Another very helpful article is Detaching With Love: Setting Boundaries in Toxic Relationships.