I’ve recently started my counselling training and this is a subject that came up in the session. I won’t go into detail about my classes, but the topic, that we can definitely go into.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are limits we set with the people we interact with, these can be friends, family or co-workers. Examples of this include setting boundaries in regards to personal space, your time/energy, possessions or your sexuality. What these look like is up to you, what are you comfortable with? What do you not what people to do or say to you?
Why are the benefits of setting boundaries?
Firstly and in my personal opinion the most important benefit of setting boundaries is that you’re protecting your mental health. They can help you avoid burnout, allow yourself body autonomy, helping you determine your identity and protect that identity. When someone ignores your boundaries it can lead to strong emotional feelings, and over time damages your mental health. Just think of a time when someone has pushed your limits, even when you’ve told them to stop, how does that make you feel? If it continues over time, it can be extremely detrimental to your mental and physical health.
What can happen if you don’t set boundaries?
If you’re reading this you probably already have an idea of what can happen without boundaries, but we’ll go over it anyway. For many of us, we’re the really helpful ones, the dependable ones, the ones who always have time for people when they need it, the yes friend. Saying no is hard, I know I feel guilty for saying no, even when I have every right to.
Not setting boundaries can lead to feelings of dread, to an increased level of anxiety, especially in response to the phone ringing or messages coming in. You know there may be a request coming, that someone wants you to do something and that thought fills you with dread, but so does the guilt of not answering their messages or calls. It’s conflicting. It can also lead to feelings of resentment, frustration and irritability, and even feeling out of control. Anxiety and stress, often brought on by taking on too much, can lead to physical symptoms such as migraines, stomach issues, and problems with sleep patterns. It can also make it harder to set boundaries because it can be difficult to deal with people who don’t acknowledge them, who outright ignore them or who become aggravated at being expected to accept them.
Setting those boundaries
In order to set boundaries, you need to make a few realisations, the most important is that you can’t fix everyone. In fact, you can’t fix anyone, only they can fix themselves, so stop trying. It is not your job to make people happy, you’re not a failure for not being able to make them happy or solving their problem.
Sometimes helping them, is actually not helping them, when we do things for other people, even when we don’t want to, we can stop them from learning to do it for themselves, so remember, you might not actually be helping, by helping.
Using up more of your time and energy won’t solve this, because you’re already using up too much of your time and energy by not having those boundaries. Agreeing to lend things, letting people turn up unannounced, when you’re not happy doing it, won’t make it better, it will just make you feel worse.
Decide what boundaries you need, maybe you have decided that you won’t be taking work calls out of hours, unless you work on call, you do not have to answer that call from your manager. It could just be that you don’t want to answer calls after a certain time, most mobile phones will give you the option of setting up “do not disturb” after a set time and you can have exceptions should you need them. Below are just a few ideas of boundaries that may help you identify some boundaries you need to set.
- Having certain topics off limits, this might be situational, like not wanting to discuss politics in a work environment, or not wanted to discuss your sexuality with family or friends – especially if they’re not open or supportive of your choices.
- Restrictions on physical contact – if you’re not comfortable with physical contact, having boundaries is incredibly important. State what kind of contact you’re comfortable with, if you want people to ask before they touch you, that’s perfectly allowed. You’re not obliged to let people into your personal space.
- Emotional Support – we all want to be there for the people we love, but it’s important to be able to say when you’re not in the right place to help them. It could be that its just not been a good day for you and you’re too exhausted to help them.
- Reciprocation – This is not to suggest you can only do things for friends who pay you back or reciprocate, we all want to do something nice sometimes, just because. That said if they only take, if they’re only in contact because they need something from you, that isn’t a friendship.
These are just a few examples of boundaries that could be put in place, look at your life, what makes you feel stressed and anxious, could it be that you need to put some boundaries in place to help you take care of you. One thing out teacher did say, that I feel would be useful here, is about phrasing things, avoid assigning blame (“you make me feel…”) and choose “I” phrases, for example “I feel stressed when I get work calls out of hours, I need to have a healthier work/life divide so won’t be able to take work calls outside of my working hours.” Or something to that effect, showing a level of assertiveness without aggressiveness or anger.
Say No. That’s right, learn to say no, this is something I need to work on, in a lot of aspects of my life, I am terrible at saying no, even when I know I will struggle to do what I’ve agreed to. Whatever the situation, you have a right to say no, ask yourself if you are able to do what they’ve asked, if you even want to do the thing they’ve asked. If you don’t have to do it, and you don’t want to do it, don’t. Be prepared to stand your ground when dealing with someone who is persistent in their request, again using assertive, non-aggressive wording where needed. No explanation is required, you may wish to give one, but be aware of people who will attempt to counter your reasons in order to push you into doing what they want. These people will ignore and push past your boundaries, it’s up to you to stand by them.
Here are a couple of sites I found useful for reading up on boundaries, I am by no means an expert, I don’t even do a good job of setting my own, but we can learn together, so learn with me.