Start With Who You Are
We live in a world where everyone has boundaries, strong or weak. As such, we must be mindful of not only our own boundaries, but also those of the ones around us. If someone has overly rigid boundaries, they might end up stepping over our own. Alternatively, if we have loose boundaries, we might be subjected to abuse from those who enjoy controlling us for their own benefit. Anyone who repeatedly violates our boundaries despite being warned is likely being abusive, and must be dealt with appropriately.
“I” statements are an invaluable tool when it comes to communicating your boundaries to others. These statements aim to convey how particular actions committed by others make us feel. If, say, we are annoyed by our spouse not doing their share of chores, we might tell them “I feel anxious and taken for granted when you…”.
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Know yourself and know what you want and don’t want. Then, allow yourself to set a boundary. Ask what you’re trying to achieve with this boundary—is it to protect yourself? Is it to maintain more life balance or communicate more self-worth to others? Once you’ve set your goal, think about realistic and practical ways to assert and defend your boundary if necessary. And though it seldom comes to it, you need to consider what you will do if people don’t respect your boundaries.
Boundaries involve other people, but they are primarily about you. When you formulate boundaries, keep yourself and your needs in the center.
We’ve seen that it can be tricky to assert your own needs without trampling on the rights of others. This is especially hard for people who initially over-accommodate and then reach their breaking point all at once and lash out, long past the point at which their boundary was crossed.
Phrase boundaries in terms of your feelings, values, needs, and limits, and not what the other person does or doesn’t do. This will help you get a sense of control and responsibility over your own emotional well-being, all the while never implying that others are responsible for it. Along with this, you can either suggest an arrangement that you feel will be more suitable for both of you, or specify what you would like the other person to do to help ameliorate the situation.
“When you ask me to do the washing up when it’s your turn to do it, I feel anxious and taken advantage of, because it feels like I am not valued. I feel happier when you complete your share of the chores when you say you will.”
“When I work on weekends, I feel run-down and resentful, because my family is more important than my job. I need to be able to have my weekends free of work obligations.”
“When others make comments about what I’m wearing, I feel attacked and judged. What I need is for people to give me respect to be as I am without commenting on it.”
If someone asks you to do their chores for them, asks you to work on the weekend, or makes a snide remark about your clothing, you can simply say “no” or remove yourself from the conversation. If you’ve spent the time understanding and communicating your needs, your values, etc., you may be surprised to find that people seldom press the issues, anyway.
They will naturally sense what your limits are and believe you! If you can politely and calmly say “no” to someone gently pressing your boundary, you will only strengthen their esteem of you (and a person who doesn’t respect it has immediately shown you that they are not a person you need to be around).
However, there are some instances where “I” statements may not work. They can often be perceived as veiled accusations, which only ends up inviting a defensive response that ultimately does not solve the underlying issue. Take the first example mentioned above.
The person being asked to complete their share of the chores might easily choose to focus on only the first half of the statement, “I feel anxious and taken advantage of.” That person could feel that you’re saying that they intended to take advantage of you or make you feel anxious. In such cases, it might be helpful to be slightly vulnerable in the emotions you choose to express and the way you form the “I” statement. Say you’re annoyed by your spouse repeatedly coming home late and not eating dinner with you.
Instead of saying that you feel disrespected or unappreciated, expressing the fact that you felt lonely or unwanted might help you deliver your message in a more constructive manner.
You in Relation to Others
Once you know who you are, you can begin to see yourself more clearly in relation to others. It begins to seem more and more obvious to you what is right and what is wrong, comfortable and uncomfortable, healthy and unhealthy. An unintended side effect, unfortunately, of developing better boundaries and self-worth is that it will immediately show you who complements you regarding anything other than these terms. By saying “no,” you may reveal all of those people who always expected a “yes.”
Sometimes, it can be quite shocking to see how others respond to your growing sense of confidence and self-compassion. You may be surprised to see just how invested others were in having you be just exactly what they wanted, regardless of your needs or well-being—and you may see some poor behavior designed to guilt, frighten, or shame you back into poor boundaries again. Whenever we grow, there will be some areas of our lives that no longer fit us anymore. Those who care about you as a person will welcome and celebrate your healthier boundaries; those who merely enjoyed what you could do for them will not be pleased, and will call you selfish and mean.
What is the state of your relationships right now? Not only can examining our relationships with others be valuable in itself, it’s also an exercise that can mirror back to us our own problematic boundaries. Whether it’s a colleague or boss, romantic partner, family member, or friend, and whether it’s current or a relationship from the past, our involvement with others can show us loudly and clearly what we think of ourselves.
What were your boundaries like with your parents, the people who were your first caregivers and role models for all subsequent human relationships? Were they too rigid? Too loose? Many people can look into the past and see the roots of poor boundaries with parents that were too demanding, too intrusive, too enmeshed. Can you see any echoes from your earliest relationships today? If you’re having trouble identifying anything concrete, you might phrase the question differently: What lessons did you learn as you grew up about who you were, what you were here for, what your value was, and what your rights and responsibilities were? Every family has its unspoken “rules” about love, worth, and belonging—what were yours?
As you move closer to the present, look at the key people in your life and the quality of your connection with them. You can probably think of some people who deliberately stepped on your boundaries, but are there any more general patterns you can spot? Self-help literature abounds with descriptions of “toxic people,” but the truth is that no person is an island, sitting alone, toxic all by themselves.
Rather, what is toxic is a relationship, a dynamic, a story that two or more people agree to tell together. Have you played a role in any toxic stories? Maybe you were always the victim, or the rescuer, or the people-pleaser, or the wallflower who never spoke up. Or, maybe, you were the person who was “hurt too many times” and withdrew completely, building a high wall and daring anybody to care enough to try and climb it.
Though our discussions on these topics tend to describe such traits and situations as straightforward or easily discernible, we as humans are great at being insidiously toxic without realizing it. A mother who steps on her child’s boundaries purely out of love and care is still being toxic due to her unwillingness to respect her child’s desires above her own. As such, identifying harmful patterns and toxicity will invariably require serious thought and reflection into the nature of our relationships. If we discover that we were the ones being toxic, we must be humble enough to be able to admit it and try to improve to the best of our capabilities.
What about your romantic relationship right now (if you have one)? It can be hardest of all to spot unhealthy boundaries here because much of what we’re taught as a culture is normal is really not normal. People in love songs sing about not being able to live without the other one, Valentine’s day cards claim, “You complete me,” and we think that the couple who does everything together is cute. We tell young girls that jealousy proves a man’s love for you, or watch rom-coms where the male lead is basically a stalker.
Poor boundaries in a relationship don’t always look like abuse and drama. Some of the less obvious signs include a partner constantly “checking up” on you, getting angry that you don’t text or call often enough, being nosy, verifying where you are and asking precisely when you’ll get back… the unconscious message seems to be: “You need to be available for me and my needs, always.” It’s a boundary violation on one’s time and it’s controlling. However, when in love, we can easily mistake these for signs of love and strong attachment due to our faulty impressions of what it means to be a good partner.
If one of both of you cannot seem to make a decision without the other, it suggests enmeshment and a sense of identity too wound up in the relationship. You need to be able to confidently know what you want, independent and irrespective of what the other wants. Similarly, a partner who is “protective” may seem great, but it can go too far—you should never feel infantilized, dependent, or helpless. This can also be a ploy to control, i.e., “I’m just doing what’s best for you,” or, “I only crossed that boundary because I’m trying to help you.”
It’s an enormous red flag if they invade your privacy (go through your phone, your personal belongings, your journal, etc.). If one or both of you is insecure and needs constant validation and reassurance, this is also a sign of boundary issues and can quickly set one of you up as the nurturer or rescuer. Watch out for drama and a sense of all or nothing, high-stakes thinking. Everyone misses their partner when they’re gone, but your world shouldn’t fall to pieces if your partner goes away for a few days!
Finally, watch out for a partner who forgets about everything else in their life except for you, or encourages you to do the same, for example, demanding you stop seeing friends and family. These are all red flags that a relationship dynamic is unhealthy.