I believed for many years that if I were “nice” to other people and pleased them enough, they would like me and be “nice” to me, even love me. The strategy backfired every single time. People were all too eager to take advantage of my kindness, compassion, and generosity. I stayed in relationships and jobs long after I had clear evidence of incompatibility, abuse, and exploitation. Constantly looking to please others is one symptom about not setting appropriate boundaries. When I reached the points of anger and resentment, I no longer liked the person and wanted them out of my life altogether. Even then, I often remained because I wanted to protect their emotions. The bouncing back and forth and fuming contributed to depression, anxiety, headaches, and exhaustion.
Just What Are Personal Boundaries?
Personal boundaries are the rules and limits you establish to maintain fairness in your relationships. They are outcomes of knowing your values and what you are willing to put up with in your life. You set them when you need to let other people know they violated a value. When others’ respect your you feel a sense of personal strength and trust. When they are not respected, you may feel betrayed or abandoned or a host of other feelings.
Types of Boundaries
While most people refer to boundaries as healthy versus unhealthy, there are four categories— healthy, rigid, porous, and nonexistent—under the umbrellas of healthy and unhealthy. I prefer the words effective and ineffective as these definitions point to strategies you have used that did not work. You examine them to decide what to do next.
Healthy (effective) boundaries have clear expectations and consequences for violation accompanied by following through, if necessary. You know your values and your limits for value violation. You clearly communicate your needs and expectations. You share personal information appropriately, on a need-to-know basis. You accept the word “No” from others and expect them to do the same.
Rigid boundaries cut you off from engaging in meaningful relationships with others. You tightly control your boundaries, so others know little about you. You do not ask others for help. You closely guard your personal information. You do not let others get close to you even in intimate relationships. Your main fears are rejection, betrayal, ridicule, and retaliation.
Porous boundaries let people into your life indiscriminately. You tend to share too much intimate and personal information with others too soon. Saying “No” is hard for you. You become involved in other people’s problems. Other people’s opinions are more important than yours and you believe you are neutral on most issues and have no opinions. You endure abuse—mental, physical, emotional—and disrespect. Your main fears are rejection and abandonment.
Nonexistent Boundaries put you at the mercy of others. You live an unbalanced life of constant drama as the whims of others push, pull, and run over you. You may feel lucky to have the person in your life regardless of how they treat you. Your basic fear, abandonment, is based on the belief you are not worthy of respect, acceptance, compassion, and affection.
Most of the time boundary setting is the result of an ongoing offense but can spring from a one-time experience. Therefore, boundaries are most often drawn when your threshold for tolerance of the experience is crossed.
“No” and “Yes” are rights and complete sentences in and of themselves. You do not owe the other person an explanation. “No, I am not going to the park today.” “Yes, I am going to the movie alone.”
Granted, not all situations are grave upheavals in your life. You may be tired of friends who never want to go to your favorite restaurant, so, you go along with their choice, seething the whole time and not enjoying their company or your meal.
The Challenges of Setting Boundaries
Drawing boundaries and setting limits can be intimidating, even frightening. The degree of difficulty in setting a boundary depends on several factors:
- Your emotional investment in the relationship.
- What is at stake.
- Your level of comfort in drawing lines between you and the person(s) who is hurting you.
- Your level of comfort with maintaining the status quo versus speaking up. Many people experience physical reactions at the mere thought of anything resembling confrontation.
How to Set and Enforce Effective (Healthy) Boundaries
Be very clear about every step of creating your boundary. Think carefully about the value being violated and how important it is to you. Think about your level of dissatisfaction and what you want the outcome to be. Only you can gauge your degree of tolerance and conviction. Weigh the possible outcomes and seek professional guidance, if necessary. Not all boundary violations are as clear-cut or simple as the examples in this article. Many factors may complicate your decision.
See yourself through the eyes of self-compassion. Your situation most likely developed over time, perhaps decades, with different people in different settings.
The safety of you and those close to you is paramount. If you are in a relationship where you most likely will not be harmed practice setting firm, clear boundaries and work your way up to bigger issues, gaining wisdom and confidence all the way.
Look at both sides of your circumstances. Take responsibility for your involvement in the other person’s mistreatment of you. Responsibility does not equal blame. Rather, it means honest self-examination:
- What is the significance of this relationship to you? “Jeana and I have been friends since we were five and lived next door to each other.”
- What is the pattern? What sets it off? If the other person retaliates when you set or enforce a boundary, you can say, “Hmmm, every time I disagree with Jeana, she gets upset and has her boyfriend, James, call and scream and cuss at me.”
- In what ways am I ignoring, denying, or stuffing down the reality? “I let James demean me, and I don’t hang up until he’s done talking. Then, I collapse into a puddle of tears and go out for ice cream.”
- What do I fear will happen if I speak up to James or hang up on him? “I’m afraid he will come to my home and do something to me.”
- What is the likelihood of your fear coming to pass? “Well, James has never come after me at home in all the eleven years he and Jeana have been together.”
- What will I gain if I set a boundary with them? “I’ll be pretty proud of myself. James just likes to blow smoke and sound scary. He will continue to do so as long as I do not set him and Jeana straight.” (Note: This epiphany came from #5, seeing the evidence that James has not attacked her, ever.)
- What will I do about it? “The next time Jeana gets mad at me, I will tell her, “If James calls and yells and cusses at me, I will hang up on him. If he continues, I will sever my relationship with both of you. We are supposed to be friends and you retaliate every time you don’t get your way. That’s life, Jeana. Get over it.”
- What happened next? Jeana did her usual number of involving James in our friendship. She always hides behind him and lets him do her dirty work. As I predicted, James called and began his tirade. I interrupted him,” James, you have reached the end of screaming and cussing at me. This is between Jeana and me. Do not call me again.” Then I hung up on him. He has not called me for over a month and Jeana seems to get mad much less often.
- How do you feel about setting the boundary and acting on it? Wow! All it took was me getting fed up with Jeana’s and James’s behavior and letting them know, “No more. I’m done.” I feel lighter and stronger. Now, to practice on my sister who gets mad if I don’t go shopping with her on a dime’s notice even if I’ve just arrived home from work and really need a hot shower, a cup of tea, and a book.”
Boundaries help you lead a fuller, happier life and enjoy more satisfying relationships. But they are not easy. They require intention, focused attention, and effort. Even with your best planning, your intense practice, and your strongest belief in your position, the outcome may fall short of your expectation, for many reasons. Try to maintain a firm grip on your intention and a loose grip on your expectations. Always take extra care to ensure your safety if you are facing a large, complicated issue. Your ability to recognize value violations and to decide how to handle them and follow through will strengthen you. The freedom of agency in your life will energize you for future encounters. Meaningful Journaling.
Billie Wade, a lifelong journaler, believes people are precious, sacred, resilient, and stronger than they know. She created Journaling to Heal, LLC which helps people discover the power of writing in their process of recovery from emotional stress and trauma. Visit her at www.billiewade.com and find more of her writing on www.dmpcc.org/billie where she writes a monthly newsletter column for Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center.