Do you find yourself saying yes, and later wishing you had said no? Do you over-extend yourself at work, at home, or in your personal relationships? Do your own needs and wants take a back-seat to the needs of others, making you feel resentful? Or maybe you tolerate poor behaviour in relationships?
If any of this sounds familiar, learning how to set boundaries is a solution for you.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are the rules and limits we set in our relationships and in our lives. Healthy boundaries protect your needs, wants and preferences. Healthy boundaries are based on the belief that you have a right to live your life on your terms.
People with porous boundaries have difficulty prioritizing their own needs. Relationship rules and limits are poorly defined and easily breached.
The result can be feelings of resentment, having a lack of time and energy, being enmeshed with the problems of others, and declining mental wellness.
Boundary-setting is good self-care
When we set boundaries in our relationships, it is a form of self-care. It's something you do for yourself! It acknowledges that we value ourselves, our time, our emotions, our energy and our preferences. Appropriate boundary-setting can improve our emotional well-being.
Boundary-setting can improve our emotional well-being.
It also protects relationships. Do you resent others because you're always giving too much of yourself? Relationships can be improved simply by setting appropriate boundaries.
It's important to note that some relationships are toxic, and the best way to manage them is to minimize or eliminate contact. This is also boundary-setting.
Why do people have poor boundaries?
People often respond to feelings of low self-worth by seeking approval and praise from others. Over-giving may provide a short-term boost in positive emotions. However, it doesn't increase self-worth in the long-term. In fact, it often erodes feelings of self-worth.
Porous boundaries are sometimes an indication of wanting to be liked, fear of judgement by others, approval-seeking and a general sense that the needs of others should be prioritized. Exploring family of origin dynamics with a therapist may be helpful to identify the source of existing relationship patterns.
If your boundaries are porous and flimsy, you may inadvertently be communicating that it's ok to neglect your needs, over-take your time and be treated with disrespect.
Boundary-setting is a skill you can learn!
If you are a people-pleaser, don't despair! Follow these steps to make healthy changes in your relationships.
Step 1 - Know what you want
If you don't know the answer to this, it may be because you are accustomed to accommodating others and you're unclear about your own needs. Take the time to understand your values, preferences, goals, priorities and dreams. Ask yourself how you would use your time and energy if the needs of others were not a factor.
Step 2 - Listen to your emotions
Emotions are your own personal alarm system, alerting you to a problem. Tune into your emotions and notice how you feel. If you regularly feel resentment or other intense emotions such as anger, there's something you need to pay attention to. Feeling resentment is an indication of being taken advantage of. Anger is a secondary emotion, which conceals a primary emotion such as fear, loss or sadness. It's important to look deeply at what you're feeling, and determining the cause.
Step 3 - Create and communicate your boundaries
You are responsible for setting your own boundaries. Don't leave it up to others. Decide what boundaries are important to you. This includes how you spend your time, what you do for others, how you spend your money, what behaviour you will and won't tolerate, and so on.
When a request or an expectation arises that conflicts with your wants, communicate it clearly and directly. Don't drop hints and hope others will pick up on it. Don't agree to something, then behave passive-aggressively hoping they won't ask again. Be direct and appropriately assertive.
Take a "Don't complain, don't explain" approach. Simply state your preference without having to justify it. You have a right to set boundaries that work for you. You don't need approval from anyone.
Of course, there is always room for flexibility in healthy relationships. You are allowed to change your mind or make exceptions. It's really up to you!
Step 4 - Learn to tolerate discomfort
If boundary-setting is new to you, it's likely to feel uncomfortable at first. But with practice, it gets easier. Stick to your new boundaries by reminding yourself of your goals.
Step 5 - Maintain your new boundaries
Just like fences, boundaries need maintenance. You might start to get sloppy, or others may try to push the limits to see if you'll bend. Revisiting your values and goals will help remind you why it's important to stick to your new rules.
You have a right to set your own boundaries and to live life on your own terms. New behaviours take practice before they feel comfortable, but it's worth the effort when the outcome is increased self-worth, improved wellbeing, and having time and energy for yourself and your own projects.
Tina d’Entremont is a Registered Counselling Therapist based in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. She blogs on mental health and well-being topics. If you enjoyed this blog, please subscribe for updates on her website.