How to Make Boundaries Work for You

Everyone has his or her own boundaries or limits that he or she creates. Sometimes, it’s a limit on the amount of carbs we eat in a week or the number of glasses of wine we indulge in on Wine Wednesday. While boundaries and limits could seem like interchangeable concepts, there’s a massive difference between limits and boundaries. While limits usually refer to a threshold we create, whether that be a financial, physical or emotional threshold, boundaries are much more personal, with a heavy emphasis placed on our interpersonal relationships – and how we choose to behave within them.

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Boundaries are our sense of where we end and where others begin. Appropriate boundaries are essential in protecting our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well being. Healthy boundaries keep us safe and comfortable and also allow us to connect with others in meaningful and loving ways. Healthy boundaries protect both ourselves and our relationships with others. A healthy balance in boundaries is the awareness and respect for ourselves in what we can give without feeling depleted. It is the ability to say ‘no’ without feeling manipulated and to respect our own limits without feeling guilty.

Problems with boundaries can begin in family structures that lacked appropriate boundaries or had overly rigid boundaries. Our experiences in relationships and with others respecting (or not respecting) our personal boundaries can also alter our sense of boundaries and safety in the world.

Our boundaries can become out of balance in one of two ways. We may not realize it, but our personal boundaries may be too open and permissive or too closed, rigid and restrictive.

SIGNS OF OVERLY OPEN BOUNDARIES CAN INCLUDE:

  • Saying ‘yes’, when you want to say ‘no’, you end up feeling resentful, you distance yourself (and the cycle repeats)

  • Disclosing personal information that you feel uncomfortable about (you reveal too much personal information about yourself too soon)

  • Sharing inappropriate information about yourself that makes others feel uncomfortable

  • Often feeling like people take advantage of you (you are always the one picking up the cheque or helping others without reciprocation)

SIGNS OF OVERLY RIGID BOUNDARIES CAN INCLUDE:

  • Often feeling lonely or disconnected

  • Feeling like no one really understands or knows you well, you don’t open up or let others in

  • Difficulty relating to others, you have created a wall between yourself and others

  • You alienate your loved ones

  • Enjoying time for your interests, hobbies and projects, but they don’t include or make space for anyone else

Setting healthy boundaries is not a black and white approach. It is about learning to live and become comfortable in the grey areas of life. It is about giving ourselves permission to check in with ourselves and consider our own energy levels. It is knowing what feels good to give, as well as what we need to take care of ourselves.

Boundary work requires us to first develop a relationship with our authentic selves. To know what we want, what our priorities and values are, and to have an awareness of our own needs. Boundary work is an inside job. We cannot rely on others to be responsible for setting and respecting our own boundaries (often those who we feel are violating our boundaries may not be aware of our needs or they may even have boundary challenges themselves).

Boundary work is a process, and it takes time for us as well as for others around us to adjust and to learn to honour and respect our new boundaries. It is important to know that not everyone will be happy or supportive of your decision to set new, healthier boundaries, especially if he or she benefited from the old way of doing things.

Common challenges in setting healthy boundaries often include feeling guilty for saying ‘no’ or not meeting others’ needs. If this is the case for you, it can be helpful to say ‘no’ anyways and to learn to face and become comfortable with any feelings of guilt. The intensity of the guilt will pass with time and practice.

It may also feel easier just to say ‘yes’ rather than to deal with the discomfort of possible confrontation or conflict. Yet always saying ‘yes’ can also become an unsustainable strategy in the long run. We may withdraw from or end relationships that become too draining. We might quit a job where we are feeling burnt out and taken advantage of. Learning to stand up for ourselves earlier on can help us to sort out if others actually don’t care or respect our needs, or if they are just unaware of what they are. This is an essential distinction.

If your boundaries are in need of a tune up or major overhaul, know that redefining boundaries takes personal reflection, work and practice. Like any new skill, we need time to practice communicating our boundaries in order to become more comfortable and graceful in the process. Seek support from others who honour and respect their own and others’ boundaries. This may include friends, family, professional or therapeutic support to help you in establishing new healthier boundaries and communicating these boundaries with love and confidence.

Think of developing your boundaries like starting a new fitness regime, it’s difficult at first (and you may curse at your spin bike), but it gets easier and more natural with time and practice. And before you know it, you’ll be flexing your boundaries like your toned biceps.