The dictionary definition of a boundary is a line which marks the limits of an area; a dividing line. Similar to this, establishing boundaries for social interactions with others can involve setting constraints within our personal, romantic, family or work lives, in order to safeguard ourselves from manipulation, negativity, or violation by others. Setting boundaries is a crucial aspect of looking after our mental health and wellbeing, and is a form of self-compassion.

While boundaries can be psychological or emotional, for instance letting someone know they have made you feel uncomfortable by what they have said or done, boundaries can also be physical; for example, declining physical contact from particular people is a form of boundary setting.

As mentioned previously, establishing boundaries can be a healthy and necessary form of self-care. If we refrain from setting boundaries where they are needed, we can begin to feel depleted, taken advantage of, taken for granted, or intruded upon. Poor boundaries can contribute to feelings of resentment, hurt, anger, and burnout. By giving ourselves permission to say "no" when we feel we need to, we help take care of ourselves. For example, by saying "no" to working late or attending a social event because you are tired, you are prioritising your need for rest; or by blocking a phone number of someone who you feel has been harassing you, you are looking after your own emotional wellbeing. 

Signs our boundaries may need reviewing

Sharing too much too soon or prying into others' lives

Boundaries are the invisible line we draw around parts of ourselves we're willing to share with others and what we like to keep private. We can cross a boundary by prying into parts of others' lives that they don't want to share, and we can also overstep a boundary by sharing a part of ourselves that makes others feel uncomfortable, and vice versa.

Closing yourself off and not expressing your needs or wants – feeling guilty for saying 'Yes' or 'No'

Often when we are beginning to set boundaries, we can experience feelings of guilt and rumination about the consequences of setting the boundary. Sometimes the intensity of the feelings of guilt or rumination can lead us to refrain from setting boundaries at all and we stop expressing our needs or wants in fear of the consequences that could arise. This could look like saying 'yes' even when we don't feel comfortable or simply don't want to do something, or perhaps not communicating when we feel hurt by others actions or comments.

Not feeling that you have a real sense of your own identity - allowing others to make decisions for you; consequently, you feel powerless

If we are always saying 'yes' to things, even when we want to say 'no', we can lose sight of what we want, need, or even like. Having a strong sense of personal preference is a building block for identity formation. When our boundaries are too loose or even non-existent, we risk losing our sense of self. This can be a highly distressing feeling that can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety.

Signs our boundaries are healthy

We can share information gradually, in a mutually sharing and trusting relationship.

We are able to be assertive with our needs. We can confidently say YES or NO and be okay with others saying NO to us.

We can recognise that our boundaries and needs are different from others, and this is okay.

Setting boundaries can be hard

Debuting new boundaries is not always an easy and straight forward task, and can leave us feeling extremely uncomfortable when we are so used to being the one people 'rely on'. However, it is necessary and important for us to establish and enforce what we need and want, even if there is push back from the people in our lives.

There is a chance that people may try and test your limits, and see how serious you really are about your boundaries. In these moments, we may feel the most uncomfortable. It is important to remind yourself that you aren't doing anything wrong by letting people know what you feel your boundary is, and being as clear and consistent as we can will help the people in our lives adjust to the new way of interacting.

Some steps that can be helpful when beginning to set boundaries:

1.Clearly identify your boundary – if you aren't clear about what your boundary is, it'll make it harder to able to communicate your expectations.

2.Understand why you need the boundary – this will act as the motivation for setting the boundary and enforcing it.

3.Be straight forward – Try not to be vague in your communication of the boundary, even if it is in order to spare someone's feelings or avoid conflict. The kindest and most successful approach is to be direct. 

4.Don't apologise or give long explanations – this kind of behavior undermines your authority and gives the impression you're doing something wrong that requires an apology or justification.

5.Use a calm and polite tone – try to avoid setting boundaries in the middle of an argument. Yelling, sarcasm, or a condescending tone can put others on the defense and distract from the real issues.

6.It can be helpful to start with tighter boundaries – it's much easier to loosen up tight boundaries than it is to tighten loose boundaries.

7.Address boundary violations early – don't wait until someone's violated your boundary a dozen times before you speak up, it's not fair to assume that others know your boundaries until you've explained them.

8.Don't make it personal – setting a boundary isn't a personal attack, it can be helpful to use 'I' statements when communicating a boundary e.g. 'I feel uncomfortable when you joke about this'; instead of, 'You are so inconsiderate and like making me feel bad'.

9.Lean on a support system – creating and enforcing boundaries is tough! Having trusted people you can lean on can make a huge difference.

10.Trust your intuition – slow down, and tune into yourself. Pay attention to what you're feeling, what is your gut telling you? If it feels wrong, make a change.


Image from Unsplash by Michael Rosner-Hyman​

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