As we venture out into the world to discover what it has to offer and what we are capable of, it helps if we feel safe. If we are fearful we become defended and this prevents us from accepting help, trying new things and keeping an open mind so that we can spot opportunities. It takes away our ability to experience ourselves “in the moment”. We cannot expect others alone to keep us safe – this is our responsibility.
Much of what we need to keep ourselves safe from is hurt from other people. This is why we need personal boundaries – we set the bar for how others treat us. Human beings don’t come with a manual and each of us has a unique set of needs and vulnerable parts. People aren’t mind readers so it’s our task to signal to others what we need and what hurts. Sometimes others simply don’t care that we are hurting, they don’t want to attend to our needs. They feel their needs are more important. If we operate good boundaries we will spot those people early on and learn to avoid them.
So, how do we know when we need to put a boundary in place?
Our emotions are there to guide us. Let’s say for example we have a friend who could do with a bit of help. Because we are kind and compassionate and it doesn’t put us out too much we are happy to offer that. Over time we begin to notice that their decision making keeps them in a place of needing help. In addition, we discover that they have been criticising us to others, while maintaining a friendly facade to us. We might feel used, hurt, angry. All of these emotions are useful as they are trying to tell us that we now need to look after our own needs.
N.B. It’s useful to reflect on whether our feelings are based on fear/fantasy or evidence from the current situation, otherwise we might become over-boundaried and closed off to others.
Why do people struggle with boundaries?
We learn about boundary setting from our parents. I’m often asked by clients, “Why do I seem to attract bullies/Narcissists?” If for example we have a parent who continuously neglects their own needs in order to please others we will copy that, especially if the other parent is selfish and hurtful. We don’t want to be like that parent. Or, if our physical and emotional boundaries are violated or ignored, this becomes our norm and we lack awareness of our own needs. Sometimes we are told that our attempts at boundary setting mean that we are being unkind/neglectful. This creates self-doubt. The reality is that we aren’t, we are simply being kind to ourselves and attending to our own needs as well.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are like a line in the sand. They indicate to others that we are no longer prepared to entertain their behaviour. They are an indicator to ourselves of how much/little we are prepared to give. Boundaries can be conveyed in many ways:
- Withdrawing to a place of physical/psychological safety (sometimes we can’t physically remove ourselves from a situation)
- Telling someone that we are no longer prepared to put up with this
- Believing our own evaluation of ourselves so that we refuse to accept others projecting their own unwanted parts onto us
- Saying no to yet another request for help
- Deciding in advance how much time/energy/money we are prepared to give to something and sticking to it
- Allowing our facial expressions and tone of voice to reflect what’s really going on for us rather than hiding it
When we are sure of our boundaries we feel calm and empowered. Our body language and facial expressions reflect this so we might not even have to tell someone we’ve had enough. Sometimes new boundaries come as a surprise to the other person, the goal posts have changed. They might then up the ante to try and restore the status quo, after all, they were benefitting from this. We were falling over ourselves to meet their needs. We were doing the feelings they didn’t want and were projecting onto us. It’s important then that we are courageous and stick to those boundaries.
Boundary setting is like a muscle, it becomes easier the more we exercise it. It embraces changing needs and nurtures self-trust. Even better, our children learn from the modelling we provide, so they too benefit.