If you have difficulty saying no, override your needs to please others, or are bothered by someone who is demanding, controlling, criticizing, pushy, abusive, invasive, pleading, or even smothering you with kindness, it’s your responsibility to speak up.
Types of Boundaries
There are several areas where boundaries apply:
- Material boundaries determine whether you give or lend things, such as your money, car, clothes, books, food, or toothbrush.
- Physical boundaries pertain to your personal space, privacy, and body. Do you give a handshake or a hug – to whom and when? How do you feel about loud music, nudity, and locked doors?
- Mental boundaries apply to your thoughts, values, and opinions. Are you easily suggestible? Do you know what you believe, and can you hold onto your opinions? Can you listen with an open mind to someone else’s opinion without becoming rigid? If you become highly emotional, argumentative, or defensive, you may have weak emotional boundaries.
- Emotional boundaries distinguish separating your emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s. It’s like an imaginary line or force field that separates you and others. Healthy boundaries prevent you from giving advice, blaming or accepting blame. They protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s negative feelings or problems and taking others’ comments personally. High reactivity suggests weak emotional boundaries. Healthy emotional boundaries require clear internal boundaries – knowing your feelings and your responsibilities to yourself and others.
Boundaries are learned. If yours weren’t valued as a child, you didn’t learn you had them. Any kind of abuse violates personal boundaries, including teasing. For example, my brother ignored my pleas for him to stop tickling me until I could barely breathe. This made me feel powerless and that I didn’t have a right to say “stop” when I was uncomfortable. In recovery, I gained the capacity to tell a masseuse to stop and use less pressure. In some cases, boundary violations affect a child’s ability to mature into an independent, responsible adult.
You may not believe you have any rights if yours weren’t respected growing up. For example, you have a right to privacy, to say “no,” to be addressed with courtesy and respect, to change your mind or cancel commitments, to ask people you hire to work the way you want, to ask for help, to be left alone, to conserve your energy, and not to answer a question, the phone, or an email.
Think about all the situations where these rights apply. Write how you feel and how you currently handle them. How often do you say “yes” when you’d like to say “no?”
People often say they set a boundary, but it didn’t help. There’s an art to setting boundaries. If it’s done in anger or by nagging, you won’t be heard. Boundaries are not meant to punish, but are for your well-being and protection. They’re more effective when you’re assertive, calm, firm, and courteous. If that doesn’t work, you may need to communicate consequences to encourage compliance. It’s essential, however, that you never threaten a consequence you’re not fully prepared to carry out.
It takes time, support, and relearning to be able to set effective boundaries. Self-awareness and learning to be assertive are the first steps. Setting boundaries isn’t selfish. It’s self-love – you say “yes” to yourself each time you say “no.” It builds self-esteem. But it usually takes encouragement to make yourself a priority and to persist, especially when you receive pushback.