Boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that each person individually creates for themselves - whether they are conscious of them or not.
These boundaries are all about what that person believes are reasonable, acceptable and safe ways for other people to behave around them. Their boundaries are also about how that person will respond to friends, family, lovers and strangers when they step outside those limits.
Healthy boundaries create healthy relationships.
Unhealthy boundaries create dysfunctional relationships. By establishing clear boundaries, we define ourselves in relation to others. To do this, however, we must be able to identify and respect our needs, feelings, opinions, values and rights.
The easiest way to think about a boundary is a property line.
We have all seen “No Trespassing” signs, which send a clear message that if you violate that boundary, there will be a consequence. This type of boundary is easy to picture and understand because you can see the sign and the border it protects. Personal boundaries can be harder to define because the lines are invisible, can change, and are unique to each individual.
If you have difficulty saying no, when other people ‘cross’ your boundaries you will feel anything from uncomfortable, to vulnerable or even unsafe. For some people, when they have a need to please others, they may overlook the behaviour of others, letting them ‘cross’ those boundaries … even when thsoe people are demanding, controlling, pleading, criticizng, push, invasive, abusive …. or even smothering us with kindness.
What we need to remember: it is our responsibility to monitor our boundaries, and speak up when they are crossed.
Boundaries are learned. If yours weren’t valued as a child, you may have have ‘learnt’ not to have any. Any kind of abuse violates personal boundaries, including smaller incidents like teasing. For example, my sister ignored my pleas for her to stop teasing me. This made me feel powerless - that I didn’t have a right to say “stop” when I was uncomfortable. It was also confusing to watch my parents teasing family members and going against their own needs.
Boundaries can be physical or emotional.
Physical boundaries define who can touch us, how someone can touch us, and how physically close another may approach us. Emotional boundaries define where our feelings end and another's begins. For example, do we take responsibility for our feelings and needs, and allow others to do the same? Or do we feel overly responsible for the feelings and needs of others and neglect our own? Are we able to say "no"? Can we ask for what we need? Are we compulsive people pleasers? Do we become upset simply because others are upset around us? Do we mimic the opinions of whomever we are around?
The answers to these questions help define the "property lines" of our emotional boundaries.
Learning to set healthy boundaries can feel uncomfortable, even scary, because it may go against the grain of the survival skills we learned in childhood - particularly if our families were physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive.
For example, we may have learned to repress our anger or other painful emotions because we would have been attacked and blamed for expressing the very pain the abuse had caused. We fear the feelings of rejection and, ultimately, abandonment.
We fear the feelings of confrontation as we all just want to be loved.
When we identify a need to set a boundary, do it clearly, calmly, firmly, respectfully, and in as few words as possible. Do not justify, get angry, or apologise for the boundary you are setting.
You are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundary you are setting.
You are only responsible for communicating your boundary in a respectful manner. If it upset them, know that this is their problem. Some people, especially those accustomed to controlling, abusing, or manipulating you, might test you. Plan on it, expect it, but remain firm.
Remember, your behaviour must match the boundaries you are setting. You cannot successfully establish a clear boundary if you send mixed messages by apologising.