Boundaries are the limits a person can set on what they will accept and how people treat them. Knowing how to set boundaries for yourself is one of the most important life skills to learn. In an ideal situation, your parents and/or the other adults in your life showed you how to set boundaries through their actions and words. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, this doesn’t happen. And setting boundaries becomes a skill that people spend most, if not all of their lives trying to figure out on their own. Basically like playing the same video game level over and over again, trying to learn this same lesson. Setting boundaries can be hard or even feel impossible. Especially if you are used to your boundaries being laughed at, ignored, pushed aside, or not even acknowledged (this is common in child emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, child neglect, intimate partner violence/domestic violence, systemic racism, etc.). People in these situations learn to live with the fear that if they set boundaries, even really small ones (like needing alone time or a safe space), they will be punished for it. In the face of danger and/or fear, people mainly talk about fight and flight, but another common response is not resisting. The person begins to belief that no resistance = no pain. This also happens on a society-level. Society sees marginalized people setting boundaries as rude. Having no boundaries allows people full access to you and oppressors feel entitled to the bodies, cultures, etc. of others. That’s why setting a boundary like kneeling for the National Anthem can cause so much outrage. Laws and society’s expectations respect the boundaries of certain people while dehumanizing others to many different degrees depending on race, gender, ability, etc. In this post, I’m going to talk about what boundaries do and how to start setting solid personal boundaries. Firm solid boundaries are so necessary for good mental and physical health, for interacting with the people in your life, and for community-building.
What Do Boundaries Do?
Setting boundaries is a way to take care of yourself and your emotional/psychological needs (Check out this post explaining self care). Firm boundaries protect people from emotional harm, burn out, feeling drained, etc. Like how the skin, skulls, rib cages, etc. protects important organs in our body. Setting boundaries is a part of having good mental health and living a more satisfying life. Making solid boundaries gives everyone involved the opportunity to make sure their emotional needs are taken care of and to continue to enthusiastically consent to dealing with a given person/situation. When you trust other people to respect your boundaries, there’s a freedom there. You feel more comfortable being relaxed and being yourself because you don’t need to worry about any threats. Also boundaries are not hard and fast rules. They change as you change and as your needs and the situation in your life changes. Boundaries are not about setting limits on other people’s behaviors. You can’t control other people. You can only change and control yourself. Boundaries are ultimately for you, not for other people. They are guidelines for yourself so you can figure out what’s best for you in each situation.
Examples of Phrases Used to Set Boundaries:
I already said No. I’m not repeating myself.
I don’t want to talk about this right now. Give me an hour.
If you keep doing this, I am going to leave/block you.
Notice that these boundaries focus on what you can do for yourself and your own behaviors. Again, boundaries aren’t about other people’s actions. Boundaries aren’t “You can’t say that so stop it”. That’s trying to control someone else’s behavior. What you can do is separate yourself from people: block them, stop doing business with them, stop giving them money, etc. Setting boundaries requires a realistic awareness of yourself and compassion towards your own psychological/emotional needs.
Some people have a hard time with setting boundaries due to feeling guilty or anxious. Like I mentioned before, someone feeling guilt and/or anxiety when setting boundaries could come from trauma and/or multiple experiences of people and society telling you that you don’t get to have respected boundaries. That right there is definitely grounds for self-reflection and/or working that out in therapy. Like I mentioned in the self-care post, taking care of mental and physical health is not selfish. You will be a stronger and happier person in the long run if you protect your whole body and self. And on the other hand, if you think other people setting boundaries is rude, it really says A LOT more about you than it does about the person setting the boundary. Self-reflection is important here. What is making you feel like you deserve access to this person in this way? Who are you really? Check that entitlement.
I’ve noticed that many conflicts and issues come up because at the end of the day, many people don’t know how to set clear, firm personal boundaries. It can be hard for many people to know where to start. I’ll help.
Some tips for setting boundaries:
One place to start is coming to a place where you internalize and truly believe that you have just as much of a right to boundaries as anyone else. Trauma, etc. could have you feeling like you don’t need or deserve protection, but everybody will burn out after awhile without taking care of themselves. Wearing a coat in cold weather doesn’t make someone weak, lazy, or selfish and neither does taking care of your mental and emotional health.
Know yourself and your limitations. If you don’t know yourself, you’re not gonna be able to communicate that to someone else. For the record, having limits isn’t a bad thing. It’s a human thing. Nobody is limitless and knowing your personal limits is another way of taking care of yourself, prioritizing yourself, and helping yourself grow.
Being more mindful of yourself is very helpful in learning how to set firm boundaries. Finding the right mindfulness technique(s) for you can increase self-awareness, help you manage anger and/or cravings, make it easier to understand your own emotions, etc. Check out my post here on mindfulness for more information.
Individual or group therapy could help you work through the deeper things possibly going on for you. It isn’t wrong to need professional help with figuring out how to make setting clear, strong boundaries easier and managing any related emotions, thoughts, and/or traumas that may come along. People need backup. That’s real.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a situation turn sour between people because of paper-thin boundaries, my rent in NYC would be covered forever. For many people setting clear, firm boundaries is something that was never really taught. Boundaries don’t always feel nice, but they’re always necessary. Getting to a place where you really believe your mental, emotional, and physical health deserves to be protected and that you’re not weak, rude, etc. for setting boundaries is a struggle for many. Using self-reflection, mindfulness techniques, and/or therapy can help you learn your personal boundaries and be able to communicate them clearly to other people. Firm, clear boundaries will completely change your life and the way you engage with people at school, work, home, etc. And you will be in less and less complicated, vague situations if that’s not what you actually want.
Thanks for reading. The next post will be about the psychological impact of the War on Drugs on our communities.