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Why are Boundaries Important?
Why are Boundaries Important? How Do I Set Boundaries in My Relationships?

Healthy boundaries are essential in every relationship to honour your own needs as well as respect the needs of others. They are essential to help you to protect your well-being, define what you are comfortable with and how you would like to be treated by others. Setting boundaries is a form of self-care. Without boundaries, people may take advantage of you because you haven’t communicated how you expect to be treated. To set effective boundaries, you must know yourself (what you need physically, emotionally, sexually, intellectually, financially, etc.), clearly communicate this to others in your life, and then follow through with consequences if these boundaries are not respected.

Boundaries aren’t just the hard no’s. They are also the maybes and the yes’s, with limits, like “I’ll do that later” or “I’m not sure if I want to attend that event. Let me see how I’m feeling later today”. Boundaries can also change over time, across situations and vary in different relationships. There isn’t a recipe to follow. It’s about your gut and what feels right, based on what else is going on in your world and what works for you. Boundaries help you feel safe and secure in a world that is usually anything but. They become your foundation.

If you are recovering from a narcissistic or toxic relationship than you know the boundary formation was interrupted and prevented due to your partner’s controlling and manipulative behaviours. In that relationship and perhaps others, you have respected others’ boundaries, but allowed your boundaries to be infringed upon, to please others or maintain a relationship where the other person needed to have more control. Ultimately, this meant a breach of your own boundaries.

If boundaries are a foundation and you realize that your foundation needs some work, putting in some support beams now may help change patterns from continuing in hurtful relationships or when starting new.

Many of us are afraid that expressing our boundaries will push others away or make people do things they don’t want to do. Generally, the opposite is true. We have choices, and so do others. When we do not set and maintain boundaries, we end up resentful and withdrawn from relationships and that is what leads to a relationship’s eventual breakdown.

So where do we start? Positive healthy boundaries are different for each person and there is no “one size fits all” way to establish them. We can look at ourselves and start conversations that we haven’t had before, and this has the power to make changes in our lives. This is life changing work as you design the relationships you want to have in the future.

Boundaries are physical, emotional, time-related, and behavioural aspects that define many of our values. They can be rigid, loose, or non-existent and healthy boundaries often fall somewhere in between. Learning to show compassion and kindness to our core selves is crucial for positive mental health, and healthy relationships.

For individuals who have difficulty establishing boundaries with others, this may have been the result of growing up in a family system where they were taught not to question others, not to challenge others’ decisions, or where saying no was not an option. Saying no would mean risking punishment, disapproval, a devaluing response and/or severing the connection with the parent or caregiver they were striving to have a positive and intimate connection with. We were and are ultimately wanting unconditional love, around an instinctual need to attach to our primary caregivers. Many in this environment may feel they do not have their own identity or don’t know who they are, what they want or need. So, with the lack of trust in themselves, they often look outside of themselves, to others to define who they are, and that often includes the lack of boundaries as we try to be flexible. And we feel that if we set boundaries then we are being selfish and we feel guilt. The questions are then “how do we learn to create boundaries?”. “How do we begin to form our identity and manage that guilt as we start to focus on ourselves rather than the people around us”?

Setting boundaries becomes a challenge because we held ourselves responsible in toxic relationships or we were blamed for everything. We know narcissistic personalities can never take responsibility for anything that they’ve done, even in the face of evidence. And at times when we’ve tried to hold them accountable, it was turned back on us and we were made to feel a variety of things such as worthlessness, unattractive, stupid and especially crazy. Healthy boundaries are a crucial component of self-care and self-respect. It makes sense that if we don’t have healthy boundaries it can lead to many challenges such as burnout, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and ultimately the feeling of distress. In other words, a lack of healthy boundaries can negatively affect all aspects of our lives.

The benefits of having healthy boundaries include communicating needs in a relationship, making time and space for positive interactions, and setting limits in a relationship in a way that is healthy for us rather than for everyone else. Autonomy is so important in terms of our self-care. At work, if we are constantly saying yes to all the different tasks that we are being asked to complete, it puts us in a state of overwhelm and may not help us get the work done. That can lead to dissatisfaction and resentment where we resent our superior, and we may also resent ourselves for saying yes. That attacks our self- identity to its core. When we talk about this in terms of our relationships, when we spend all our time things for our partner, our children, our extended family network, and friends, this leaves little to no time for us to take care of ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. That drive to please others and great need to be seen and valued by others is overwhelmingly strong and we mistakenly believe these acts of kindness will fill us up and be enough.

Ultimately given our past unhealthy relationships or trauma, the coping strategy we’ve developed is that we don’t often ask for our needs to be met. Perhaps there were past experiences of feeling guilt which may have resulted from toxic comments in past relationship. But the other feeling that is often ignored is the building feeling of resentment and anger. Resentment, deep down inside, is that you shouldn’t have to ask for help when others should just know that you need help and offer it. But then if you muster up the courage to ask for help, and are met with an unhelpful response, rather than feeling angry or upset with that person, you internalize it, and then comes that guilt. And the internal critic starts to say how selfish you were for asking. Our self-talk may say that we shouldn’t be upset or that our own needs are not the priority. However, we must look after ourselves to feel better in all aspects of our lives. Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves at this time in our lives. Once we can take care of ourselves, we will know what to ask of others, so that we can also be taken care in a healthy balanced way, rather than by dependency or externalizing.

There are 8 types of personal boundaries which may be helpful to consider when making small steps and learning to establish boundaries for yourself.

1. Physical boundaries: that involves touching others or others touching you.

2. Property boundaries: this deals with the things we own or lay claim to. For example, our homes, clothing, and other items.

3. Sexual boundaries: these include the physical and emotional aspects of sex as well as acceptable language, jokes, and offensive comments.

4. Emotional Relational boundaries: We respect these boundaries through how we care for others and by letting them have their own emotional experiences. It is also about not taking responsibility for other people’s emotions.

5. Intellectual boundaries: These are our thoughts, beliefs, and ideas and how they are then respected.

6. Spiritual boundaries: These are about our belief systems, how we practice them and what we choose to share around these beliefs.

7. Financial boundaries: These boundaries are all about money such as borrowing or lending, joint vs individual bank accounts, what purchases you make, spending money, paying bills, savings, vacation spending, financial goals, retirement savings, etc

And lastly:

8.Time boundaries: These are boundaries regarding one of our most precious resources the expenditure of our minutes, hours, and days.

Some experts advise to say “no” simply but firmly to something you don’t want to do. If your personality finds this overwhelmingly difficult initially it may be easier to find a way to “lovingly say no”. When learning to set healthy boundaries, find your own strategy or style that feels the most comfortable to honour yourself. Repeating a short simple sentence like a broken record might help. The other advice that’s given around setting boundaries, is not to over-explain your rationale for saying no. And I know for many who have experienced emotional abuse, there is a strong urge to explain and justify anything and everything. But as we know and have experienced, explaining and over-explaining are not met with any kind of positive reaction from a narcissist. Instead, a narcissist revels in putting us down and weaponizing every word that we provide as an explanation or excuse.

Often individuals who begin to test saying no, or setting a boundary, are surprised when they were met with acceptance and respect.

The first step I would suggest is to check in with yourself when something arises that you need to decide about. Practice tuning into yourself and what their body is telling you. Many people spend most of their life ignoring or silencing those internal nudges and thoughts because they might then bring on feelings of unbearable feelings of guilt and shame. We often silence that voice because we want to please others and don’t want to let people down. And we don’t even consider that what the other person is asking of us or doing is unreasonable or that they are taking advantage of us. We don’t want them to think that we’re not capable of doing the task. And the truth is that we may be incapable of doing it all but we are worried about what people think of us and we want them to like us and think of us as dependable, so we agree. We want so desperately to be accepted, acknowledged and appreciated because those are the things we have lacked in our significant relationships with narcissists.

Tune into that inner voice and turn up the volume. Listen objectively to what your inner voice is saying and whether it is positive or negative. Question if it is valid or accurate. Listen to what your gut is saying. Are they aligned? Once you can acknowledge the individual messages and sometimes conflicting conversation in your head you might hear one voice saying “I can’t let anybody down” “I’ll show them that they can’t survive without me” and the other voice that’s probably very softly saying “I don’t like it and I want them to stop”. That battle leads to us feeling bad about ourselves. Our inner critic jumps up and down and says “You must do it. Are you crazy for thinking that you shouldn’t do it”? And underneath is that very strong feeling of fear that you will be disliked, judged, criticized or worse, rejected. Now this conversation probably happens subconsciously but once you bring it to consciousness you can begin to alter that conversation bit by bit.

Once you can hear the negative voice, you can start to combat it logically and rationally. And I say that because when we start to feel anxiety, guilt, and shame (that we have been programmed to feel), we’re not thinking logically and rationally. We go into fight or flight, where panic sets in if we decide to renege on something we’ve promised or the critic inside of us makes us feel “selfish because we don’t want to do it”. And then being able to have that conversation on a more conscious level, where we can reason with ourselves. You can begin to objectively listen to that voice to analyze if it is one that is a best friend or worst enemy.

Take some time to begin practicing small boundary changes. Often the ones that only involve us can be a great place to start. Behaviours you control. So, for example, not answer work calls after 6 p.m. so that you can have some downtime after a long day of work. This one doesn’t usually upset people, so it is great to feel in control of your work life and create some balance. As you are reinforced, often internally, you will feel a little more confident to try out something else.

Existing boundaries can also be a response to past experiences. It is a natural reactional but beware that you may over-correct for boundaries that were once permeable and are now rigid. for example, refusing to go on a date with anyone after being in a narcissistic relationship because of your fear of repeating patterns. We are the product of all our experiences and if we have had painful experiences in the past, it entirely makes sense to overcorrect to protect ourselves in the present and future. Overly rigid boundaries may provide us with a sense of safety and security in the short term because they help insulate us from situations that scare us, but that isn’t the point of boundaries. Boundaries are designed to provide a safe passage through life, not as a tool for controlling every environment we are in and every person we interact with.

The benefits of setting boundaries include improved mental health, healthier relationships, clear expectations for others on how to treat you, decreased stress and drama, improved self-respect and confidence, respect from others, and improved self-care.

When you learn to first honour, respect and take care of yourself than you will be able to build and grow healthy relationships with others.

Education and awareness is just the first step on the path to a healthier, happier life and relationships. Get support and guidance from a licensed therapist. Sonya Gandhi and her team at Four Seasons Counselling have the expertise and training to help you move forward with your life.

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Blog by: W M Hope

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