Healthy boundaries help us to define who we are. They make sure that the people around us know what we will and won’t accept, and stay within the realm of what’s okay for us. We’ll have things that we find acceptable and unacceptable in every different area of our lives; in relationships (professional or personal), at work, at school, in public and at home. In each of these different spheres of our lives it’s important that people know what we’re okay with.
The thing is, people often feel uncomfortable to actually say what’s okay and particularly, to point out if something is not okay. But avoiding the discomfort of this confrontation in the short-term has quite negative effects on us in the long term. We end up resenting the person who is unwittingly crossing our boundaries, and we also lose self-respect because we know we’re not being true to ourselves; we’re allowing people to violate our boundaries by not attempting to set or reinforce them.
I recently listened to Brené Brown speak about boundaries and how they make us better people. She says “boundaries are finding a way to be generous towards others while continuing to stay in your integrity. It’s staying true to yourself and grounded while also feeling compassion towards others.” After extensive research into this, Brown found that the most compassionate people she came across were the ones who set and reinforced their boundaries i.e. were very clear about what was okay and what was not okay with them.
For her Ph.D. research, Brown talked to many different people who were victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She discovered that “the women who believed that their partners were doing the best they could, were the ones who left and got their children out.” The women that got out of the cycle weren’t saying negative things about their partners. They were the ones that felt that their partners were doing the best that they could. More and more, Brown found that the way to live with more compassion is to set clear boundaries. Boundaries allow you to respect yourself and the people in your life more. Brené Brown thinks of it as BIG – Boundaries, Integrity and Generosity. Setting boundaries in your life that help you to stay in your integrity, while being as generous as you can towards others.
Having clear boundaries improves self-esteem: this can be because generally boundaries improve our relationships; having healthy, constructive relationships benefit how we feel about ourselves. Also, if we don’t create or maintain our boundaries then it can make us feel bad about ourselves because we’re not living in line with our values or our integrity. Lastly, boundaries improve our self-esteem because holding our boundaries demonstrate to us that we value ourselves and that we’re worth looking after.
It helps to conserve our emotional energy - and this is precious! If we use up all of our emotional energy during the day on things we don’t want to do (saying yes to things that drain us, doing favours for people when we don’t really have time), then what will the quality of our interactions be like after work, when we’re at home with our family, close friends, or children? We might find ourselves snappy and irritable, or just exhausted when we’re finally around those that we’d like to spend our energy on. This is another way that boundaries can be so good for our relationships and our own mental and emotional clarity.
Boundaries allow us to grow and develop in a safe space. Once we have our boundaries set, and we’re comfortable making these known, then we have surrounded ourselves with people who value and respect us. This safe environment makes it easier to explore and be vulnerable within the limits of our (and other peoples’) boundaries.
So how do you identify your boundaries?
Think about your values – what are they? Your boundaries will be in line with them. Narrow them down as much as you can and then think about whether those values are respected by others, or if they’re being trodden on by others. If they are, you might need to strengthen them up.
Firstly it might help to come up with some rules to follow. What are your basic rights? Think about the things that you think are fair to expect of anyone. For example:
I have the right to say ‘no’ without feeling guilty
I have the right to change my mind
I have the right to make my needs as important as other peoples
I have the right to be respected
Once you’ve identified your own set of rules or rights, it’ll be easier to know when one of them is being pushed or violated because it gives you a set of guidelines to look back on and see why something made you feel bad (or angry or sad).
The more you think on this set of rights, and become confident that you’re allowed to protect them as you would anyone else’s, the easier it’ll become to stand up for them when they get pushed.
Sometimes, it’s actually our personal threshold for social discomfort that can get in the way of us setting and/or maintaining boundaries. Saying “no” can make us feel awkward or uncomfortable. If this is the case for you, then weave that throughout your set of rights. You have the right to say “no” without feeling uncomfortable or as if you’re causing offence. You have the right to say “no” without feeling like you have to follow it with a lengthy justification as to why. You have the right to make someone feel slightly uncomfortable for a minute while they learn where your boundaries are.