Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity

and your right to choices ~ Gerard Manley Hopkins


Very often in our lives, we all feel that we are getting less respect, less importance than others even when we deserve better. We continuously believe that people will walk over us, use us.  We struggle when we are not able to say ‘no’ to people. We feel that people take advantage of us, our goodness, don’t understand their limits and don’t understand where to stop. We feel that we are always the givers in a relationship.  We feel drained, exhausted – not only physically and mentally but emotionally too. We feel hurt that people don’t understand our needs or respect them. Did the thought of why all this happens to us ever cross our minds? Have we ever wondered why we can’t say ‘no’ to people? It’s because we have mental conditioning that stops us from doing so.  This brings us to the requirement of setting boundaries for ourselves, setting limits for ourselves and others and the use of the powerful word, ‘NO’.  Let’s understand how healthy boundaries are created.

Boundaries are nothing but limits that are mental, physical and emotional which we impose upon ourselves. They help draw a line and create an emotional separation between ‘self’ and ‘others.’  Boundaries help us decide what comes in & what stays out.  They help us decide what we say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to, while protecting our personal self by clearly defining what is me and what isn’t.  A lack of boundaries opens the door for others to determine our needs.  Boundaries are our own invisible force, and only we oversee its protection.  As important as this may sound, we still have a difficult time setting healthy boundaries around us.  It becomes difficult for us to identify when our boundaries are being crossed or stepped on. 

Importance of Boundaries

Imagine yourself living in a house which is totally open, has no fence, no walls, no doors, no locks.  How would you feel living in a place like that?  If you look at it from an outsider’s perspective, it would appear to be open, accepting, welcoming, embracing, inviting etc. etc.  But if you look at it as the resident, it would appear to be unsafe, scary, invaded, overwhelming and having no privacy.

In contrast, imagine yourself living in a house which is totally locked, having no windows, locked doors, no ventilators, high fenced; how would you feel?  For the resident, the feeling is of protection, safety, privacy, ownership, and security – but for an outsider, how does this appear?  It would seem isolated, having no connectivity; lonely; aloof; without an element of trust; self-absorbed.

That’s what happens to humans as well. When we have very low boundaries or no boundaries at all, others think we are open, accepting and welcoming – but for us, it’s tantamount to having no privacy, or feeling overwhelming and invaded.  Similarly, when we have rigid boundaries, we may secure our privacy, safety and security; but to others we appear isolated, lonely, self-absorbed, and perhaps rude or unapproachable.

In relationships, there are three types of boundaries –

  1.  Porous (Thin) Boundaries – Boundaries which can be crossed & ignored easily.
  2. Boundaries become porous when we give up our needs to take care of others
  3. Habitually SAVING people and FIXING their problems
  4. Exhausting ourselves by giving too much
  5. Saying YES, but wanting to say NO

Characteristics

Other people’s thoughts, emotions and behavior affect us easily.  We get hurt, upset, angry, sad or let down by others.  We can’t stand up for ourselves when needed and often blame others for our abuse.  We might also find it difficult to be respectful of others’ boundaries and get upset when they refuse us. Resentment, bitterness and disappointment come easily.  We might swing to the other extreme and draw more rigid boundaries which lead to withdrawal, emotional shutdown and mistrust in relations.

  • Rigid (Thick) Boundaries – Very high boundaries which no one can cross or reach out to
  • Boundaries become rigid when we have gone through a lot in life
  • Formed when facing constant rejection/hurt/disappointment
  • Consequence of not receiving as much despite always giving
  • Having said YES despite wanting to say NO

Characteristics – 

No one can get close to us physically or emotionally.  We find it difficult to trust others, tend to be defensive, fail to create deep and meaningful connections with others. We are unable to express our vulnerability and talk about our needs openly.  Lots of isolation and lots of withdrawal, self-defense, protection from the outer world sums up people with rigid boundaries.

The question arises here – what is the best way?

The best way is to balance between porous and rigid boundaries; balance between what we allow in and what we don’t.  Our boundaries need to be firm enough that our needs are respected, and we feel emotionally safe.  At the same time, boundaries should be permeable enough that we allow love and intimacy to flow mutually, with the right level of protection of our own needs.  The need is to create Healthy Boundaries. 

Healthy boundaries are those boundaries that are set to ensure our mental and emotional stability. Healthy boundaries can serve to establish one’s identity. More specifically, healthy boundaries can help us define our individuality and indicate what we will and will not hold ourselves responsible for.

Psychological research says that the inability to draw healthy boundaries comes from two strong emotions –

  1. Guilt – You might hurt others by saying NO
  2. Anxiety – You might lose relations if you say NO

These emotions are the results of our upbringing, belief systems, values, early life experiences, social conditioning, family systems, culture, peers and our environment.  The need of the hour is being assertive in our relations.  People who are assertive experience less anxiety, and are more likely to get their needs met.  Assertiveness can lower levels of stress and depression.  Assertive people enjoy greater respect, trust, and long-term happiness in their relationships.  They can easily manage healthy boundaries around them.

Pointers to draw healthy boundaries

  1. Recognition that boundaries are healthy – It’s ok to say no, it’s ok to give importance to ourselves.  We need to take care of our own needs before taking care of others.  Remember, one can’t pour out of an empty cup for long.
  • Avoid people and situations that drain us emotionally – Recognize that when we say YES to others, we usually say NO to ourselves.  Check if we are doing things out of fear or guilt.  Avoid people who take advantage of us, it’s not selfish, but self-care. Ask – what can happen if I continue to drain myself like this, is it really worth it?
  • Building healthy boundary beliefs – Understand that we have the right and responsibility to take care of our needs.  We have the right to say no without feeling guilty or fearful.  We have the right to express our boundaries and limits with respect and compassion.  We have the right to be loved for who we are and not for what we do for people.
  • Accepting that drawing healthy boundaries is not selfish – It’s the biggest act of LOVE.  It’s not only self-care and self-love but is also loving others around us.  It’s important to have better relationships with people in a longer run rather than draining relationships.

Setting boundaries is not about denying and saying ‘I don’t care’ – it’s the mentality, ‘I care a lot and from that space of care and love, I won’t be able to fulfill all your needs.  Because if I do this, it will be out of fear and guilt and I won’t be able to create a loving bond with you.  If I do it today, I won’t be able to say ‘no’ to it tomorrow as I will be setting expectations for then.’

Setting healthy boundaries is a crucial part of life and an important aspect of any self-care practice.   Someone who’s not used to setting boundaries might feel guilty or selfish when they first start out, but setting boundaries is necessary for mental health and well-being.

Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves

even when we risk disappointing others ~ Brene Brown

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