As we approach the holidays, you may feel several emotions: warm and happy, excited, or maybe you feel anxious and even a little bit blue. The holidays involve seeing friends and family we may not have seen all year, and for some, this can be anxiety-producing and outright triggering. If this is true for you, practicing clear boundary setting is vital before any potentially distressing event.
Many people need help setting boundaries, as it is a skill that is sometimes not appropriately modeled. Even if clear boundaries have not been established in the past, rest assured that it’s never too late to learn how.
Putting boundaries into place can give you back control over a situation where others seem to have all the power and the say over your comfort. Communicating what is “okay” and not “okay” is essential to protect your physical and mental energy and ensure your safety.
Why set boundaries
Setting boundaries is like putting up signposts around your emotional and mental space. Boundaries help to recognize and respect that you have your own thoughts, memories, and experiences that shouldn’t get mixed up with someone else’s.
What’s more, boundaries can work like your own internal alarm. They let you know when someone’s getting too close to your emotional or mental limits. Your emotions can serve as guidance systems to let you know when boundaries are needed. If a conversation leaves you feeling drained or anxious, it could indicate a breach of your boundaries.
Boundaries, in a way, act like security guards for your stress levels, preventing too much cortisol, the stress hormone, from flooding your system. Boundaries are a ticket to maintaining your identity in relationships. Clearly stating your needs, values, and limits ensures you’re looking out for your emotional well-being while building mutual respect.
But it goes beyond that. Healthy boundaries shield you from manipulation. When your limits are clear, it’s more challenging for others to take advantage or pressure you into things you’re not comfortable with.
In relationships, boundaries foster trust, open communication, and understanding, creating a space where both people can grow and thrive. They also give you the power to assert yourself and communicate effectively, preventing any buildup of resentment.
Importantly, boundaries let you chase your personal goals without feeling suffocated. They’re not barriers; they’re the breathing space you need for a fulfilling life inside and outside your relationships. Boundaries are a GPS for navigating the complexities of human connections.
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”
– Brené Brown, “The Gifts of Imperfection”
What are healthy boundaries?
Setting healthy boundaries protects your time and space by establishing clear limits and guidelines for yourself and others. They also protect you from being taken advantage of or manipulated, which creates anger and further resentment.
Healthy boundaries include:
- Self-awareness: identifying your needs, wants, and limits and understanding your emotions, desires, needs, and beliefs.
- Communication: Open, honest communication to fully reveal and make others comprehend your authentic self. By expressing your needs, expectations, and limits, you foster respect and understanding from others.
- Assertiveness: Being assertive allows you to express your boundaries effectively while considering the feelings and needs of others. It involves standing up for yourself without being aggressive or passive.
- Consistency: Consistently maintaining your boundaries gives others reliable guidelines. When you hold fast to a boundary, people trust that you mean what you say, creating a foundation of trust in relationships.
- Self-care: Healthy boundaries prioritize self-care and personal well-being. When you set boundaries in this way, they allow you to prioritize your physical, emotional, and mental health, ensuring you have the energy and resources to support others effectively. Prioritizing boundary setting in your self-care builds your self-esteem and signals to yourself that you believe you are important.
On the other hand, unhealthy boundaries or a lack of boundaries can lead to a range of negative consequences, such as:
- Poor self-esteem: Allowing others to cross your boundaries consistently can result in low self-worth and feelings of powerlessness. This can make you feel angry with yourself and others and out of control.
- Codependency: Unhealthy boundaries often manifest in codependent relationships, where you become overly reliant on your partner for validation and happiness.
- Resentment and anger: Repeatedly violated boundaries can lead to anger, frustration, and resentment towards others.
- Lack of personal growth: Unhealthy boundaries can hinder personal growth and development. They prevent you from setting and achieving your goals and pursuing your passions to put the needs of others first.
- Emotional exhaustion and burnout: Allowing others to disregard your boundaries consistently can leave you feeling emotionally drained.
Why is it hard for some people to set boundaries with others?
Setting boundaries is essential to maintaining healthy relationships and ensuring your well-being. However, establishing and enforcing personal boundaries can be challenging.
Society and cultural influences:
Society often tells you to put others first, emphasizing being selfless and accommodating. This societal pressure can make you feel guilty or selfish when asserting your boundaries, hindering your ability to set and maintain them effectively.
Upbringing and childhood experiences
The way you were raised significantly impacts how comfortable you feel with setting boundaries. If your upbringing lacked healthy boundaries, you may struggle to recognize their importance or be unsure how to establish them yourself.
Fear of conflict and rejection:
You may find it challenging to set boundaries due to a fear of conflict or rejection. You worry that asserting your needs and limits might lead to conflicts or strained relationships. As a result, you avoid setting boundaries altogether, prioritizing harmony over self-care.
Low self-esteem and lack of self-worth:
If you struggle with low self-esteem you may have difficulty setting and maintaining boundaries. You may feel unworthy of meeting your needs, believing others will disregard or invalidate your boundaries.
You may strongly desire to please others, seeking validation and approval. People-pleasing behavior often leads to difficulty in setting boundaries, as you prioritize others’ needs above your own, neglecting your well-being.
Lack of assertiveness skills:
Setting boundaries requires assertiveness, and effectively communicating your needs, wants, and limits while respecting others. Unfortunately, not everyone possesses these assertiveness skills, making it challenging to establish boundaries without feeling aggressive or selfish.
Fear of losing relationships:
Setting boundaries can sometimes result in enforcing consequences, such as distancing yourself from toxic people. However, for some people, the fear of losing relationships, even unhealthy ones, outweighs the importance of self-care and boundary-setting. The fear of being alone could feel worse than being in an unhealthy situation.
Establishing boundaries requires vulnerability, as it involves expressing emotions and needs. This may feel uncomfortable for you. Fear of being judged or rejected often prevents them from opening up and setting boundaries.
Lack of self-awareness:
You may struggle with setting boundaries simply because you haven’t developed a clear understanding of your own needs, limits, and values. Self-awareness makes it easier to communicate and enforce personal boundaries effectively.
You may hold unrealistic expectations for yourself or others, leading to difficulty in setting and maintaining boundaries. You may believe that they should always be available or that others should abide by their boundaries without any explanation or negotiation.
What’s more, if you’re someone who has experienced trauma in the past in a situation where boundaries were extremely violated, you may experience all of these challenges in setting boundaries. You may be used to trying to stay off the radar and not give any sort of pushback that could put you in further danger. Therefore, saying no or putting up boundaries might feel risky in the present day. Trying to please others becomes a shield, making it hard to speak up for themselves. The line between acceptable and unacceptable gets fuzzy, making it challenging to figure out.
Many survivors are used to the “wait and see” tactic which only leaves them vulnerable to a second attack. As your boundaries get stronger, the wait time gets shorter. You never have to justify your intuition.”
–Shahida Arabi, “Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself”
What are the different types of personal boundaries?
As a child, our parents and caretakers modeled effective or ineffective emotional regulation. In households where caretakers were often hyperaroused and exhibited intense emotions, it became common that the mental state of children sync and mirror this intensity. Practicing emotional boundaries can feel challenging in these states.
Unhealthy emotional boundaries can look like:
- Having emotions rejected and invalidated
- Needing to justify why you feel the way you feel
- Oversharing to others without regard to how it will affect them/ asking inappropriate questions
- Assuming how others feel
Statements to enforce Emotional Boundaries
“I don’t feel comfortable sharing this with you.”
“I hear you’re unhappy, but I am angry at how you reacted. We are both allowed to have different emotions.”
“I would like to talk about this later.”
“I don’t like how I’m being spoken to right now.”
“I feel ___ when you say ___ to me.”
Growing up, you may have been encouraged to share your toys or possessions with siblings, family members, or peers. We learn that “sharing is caring,” and engaging in healthy sharing fosters a less selfish and more thoughtful existence. Yet, there are moments when the individual we share with exploits our kindness and pushes appropriate boundaries.
Unhealthy material boundaries can look like:
- Someone taking an item without your permission
- Refusing to acknowledge the word “no” when asked
- Abusing or destroying someone else’s property
Statements to Enforce Material Boundaries:
“I’m not comfortable lending this to you.”
“I’ve said “no,” and that is the end of the discussion.”
“I will let you borrow this, but you must return it in the same condition.”
“Please do not borrow things without my permission.”
Time and Energy Boundaries
Setting up time and energy boundaries can feel more challenging than ever in a world with increasing demands, more technological connections, and longer work hours. Setting limits is essential to conserve your emotional energy and ensure self-care.
Unhealthy time boundaries can look like:
- Feeling like you always have to say “yes” to plans
- Not being able to say “no” when someone asks for a favor
- Contacting someone who has asked for no contact
- Always being late and keeping people waiting
- Canceling at the last minute
Statements to enforce time and energy boundaries:
“I would love to help out, but I am overburdened right now.”
“I do not answer work emails or texts after 5pm.”
“I feel like my time is disrespected when I am often kept waiting. Could you be on time next time?”
“I appreciate being invited, but I’m not interested in attending.”
“I do not want to be contacted. Please respect my wishes.”
“I need some time to think about this. I will get back to you.”
Mental boundaries mean respecting the thoughts, ideas, opinions, values, and beliefs of others. While you might not necessarily agree with the viewpoints of others, and vice versa, as long as expressions are not harmful or discriminatory, everyone has the right to articulate their thoughts comfortably without facing demeaning responses.
Unhealthy Mental boundaries can look like
- Trying to force someone to have your opinion or belief
- Calling someone names if they disagree with you
- Not respecting when a person does not want to discuss a topic
- Not employing or befriending someone with different religious beliefs
Statements to Enforce Mental Boundaries:
“I respect your opinion; please respect mine.”
” I am not interested in debating my beliefs.”
“I am allowed to have my own ideas and opinions.”
“I’d like to engage in an open, respectful dialogue about this.”
Setting physical boundaries means you define your personal space and set the limits for physical contact based on what makes you comfortable. Establishing physical boundaries contributes to a sense of safety and comfort in a relationship, outlining what is acceptable and what isn’t in terms of physical touch and intimacy.
Respecting these boundaries demonstrates that you value and honor the other person’s autonomy and personal space and expect the same.
Unhealthy Physical boundaries:
- Moving too closely into personal space
- Unwanted touch
- Demanding your children to hug or kiss adults when they don’t want to
- Ignoring physical and nonverbal cues indicating that affection isn’t wanted
- Not receiving consent for affection and touch
- Making unwanted sexual comments or comments about another’s body
Statements to enforce healthy physical boundaries:
“I don’t want to be touched.”
“I am uncomfortable with PDA”
“I would like to talk about what makes me uncomfortable and what I like, sexually.”
“You are too close, could you please give me more space.”
“Are you ok with this?”
“No” is a complete sentence.”
How to practice boundary setting in a way that’s right for you:
Different people have different kinds of boundaries. The important thing is to check in with yourself and get a sense of what feels good to you. If you’re new to the process, it may take some exploration.
Here’s where to begin:
- Reflect: Understand your needs, values, and limits before setting boundaries. Think about what makes you uncomfortable or drains your energy.
- Be assertive: Communicate your boundaries clearly and respectfully. Use “I” statements to express how certain behaviors or actions make you feel.
- Start small: Setting boundaries takes practice and can feel uncomfortable. Begin by setting boundaries in less challenging situations. Gradually work your way up to more difficult conversations and establish firmer boundaries.
- Be consistent: Maintain consistency in enforcing your boundaries. Stick to what you have communicated, even if it may be uncomfortable or inconvenient.
- Practice self-care: Prioritize your well-being. Make time for self-care activities, set aside personal space, and allow yourself to say no without feeling guilty.
- Seek support: Talk to trustworthy individuals about your boundaries. Surround yourself with people who respect and understand the importance of setting boundaries.
- Learn to say no: It’s crucial to say no when something doesn’t align with your boundaries. Practice using a polite but firm tone to decline requests or engagements that don’t serve you.
- Respect others’ boundaries: Understand that setting boundaries is a two-way street. Respect the boundaries others set for themselves and be mindful of their needs and comfort zones.
- Be open to compromise: Sometimes, finding a middle ground can help maintain relationships without compromising your boundaries entirely. Be willing to negotiate and collaborate when appropriate.
- Review and reassess: Routinely evaluate your boundaries to ensure they align with your needs and values. Adjust them as necessary to maintain personal growth and well-being.
If you need more help setting boundaries:
Sometimes, establishing boundaries can cause intense discomfort, especially if your past experiences involved significant breaches of those boundaries. If you suffer from sexual, relationship, family trauma, or C-PTSD, you may be used to others disregarding your wants or needs. In this case, it can help to talk to a trauma-informed ART therapist.
ART sessions can address past situations where boundaries were blurred or crossed and help you reinstate a feeling of self-identity and empowerment around speaking up about what’s right for you.