Setting Boundaries: The Ultimate Gift Of Self-Care

How are your boundaries, and do you know how, when and where to draw the line, for yourself and others? I will tolerate this, but I will not tolerate that. The inability to set boundaries is a problem that many of my psychotherapy and coaching clients struggle with in their lives. Like any newly-learned skill, the practice of setting clear and loving boundaries with others takes practice. Giving away precious energy, time and power is a common complaint that many of my clients experience, which then leads them to feeling confused, depleted and resentful. Women in particular are more likely to be unclear about their own boundaries, and send messages to others that their boundaries are porous, leaving them vulnerable to boundary violation. If your boundaries are too porous, you are vulnerable to others and unable to lead an authentic life. On the other end of the spectrum, if your boundaries are too rigid, your life can be inflexible and overly-controlled. This creates problems for yourself, and others! 

Many people ask "how can I develop a stronger sense of self?" Learning to set boundaries is a great place to begin, and you can learn a lot about yourself along the way. We know how important healthy relationships are to our well being, and having boundaries and setting limits is an important aspect of human relations -- in both our professional and personal lives. It sends the message to others -- this is me, and this is you -- please do not cross the line. Knowing your personal boundaries requires understanding where you end and others begin from a psychological and physical perspective. This enables you to take care of and protect yourself as well as honor the boundaries and limits of another.

How do you know if you have porous boundaries?

  • You have a difficult time saying NO
  • You say NO when you mean YES
  • You spend precious time undoing or correcting situations
  • You are angry at yourself and others
  • You frequently apologize or say "I'm sorry" when you are NOT sorry or even angry which sends a mixed message
  • You find yourself doing things that you would rather not do
  • You feel taken advantage of 
  • You have trouble prioritizing your own needs and desires
  • You protect yourself by avoiding direct communication, conflict or confrontation and you imagine that you are protecting others 

Life and a variety of circumstances means that your boundaries are unique and subject to change throughout your lifespan. Boundaries are fluid. In romantic relationships, intimates and lovers merge temporarily and then return to claim their space. This is normal. We learn about boundaries from our family of origin and others who we meet along the way. There are developmental and learned reasons why you may have a difficult time setting boundaries for yourself and others. In some families and cultures, boundaries are not permitted. This is a pattern that you may bring into your adult life. Changing this powerful belief that boundaries are not permitted or a positive thing can be challenging. If as a youngster, you had to care for, or were burdened by the physical or mental health of a parent, boundaries can be complicated for you in the here and now. You may have developed the gift of an empathic nature and are now super-attuned to the needs of others in a habitual and automatic way. This may mean that you subjugate your own needs, which causes self-alienation and disconnection. You may have had role models that have demonstrated poor boundaries, and now you struggle to discern what is normal and appropriate of others and for yourself.

Important things to understand about setting boundaries:

  • You have rights and needs that deserve to be honored
  • You are still a good person, and even a nice person if your new identity includes protecting yourself
  • You are not selfish by asserting yourself and setting boundaries
  • You are not responsible for the happiness of other people
  • You may fear rejection and abandonment when you assert yourself
  • You may be seeking love and approval from others
  • You are responsible for setting clear boundaries and limits
  • You are not responsible for how other people receive your boundary setting
  • You will enjoy more authentic relationships when you are able to share with others how you feel
  • You may be a role model for your children or others, so setting clear boundaries is a good thing to model
  • You will improve with determination and practice
  • You will need to be consistent after you set a boundary as this new behavior takes practice

When you decide to re-write your life script, the results can be truly rewarding. It's not easy especially with those who have a vested interest in you not changing or claiming your "true" self or your precious identity. You, and they, may struggle as everyone adjusts to your newly-defined life that includes less-porous boundaries. It's not easy and a bit scary when you begin this self-care practice. So Practice and baby steps. Stay strong and ask for help from people you trust. With time, your level of comfort will increase and you will surprise yourself with how effective you can feel and be in your life, and in the world.