Madeline always prided herself in being "a nice girl." As a child, she was taught that being kind to others was a virtue; she grew up paying special attention to the positive feedback she received for being nice and pleasing others. She derived much of her self-worth from putting the feelings and needs of other people well above her own.
At 31, Madeline could not understand why her co-workers dumped extra work on her; why her family constantly intruded on her personal space; and why men who she had dated years ago continued trying to be part of her life, even after she told them she had started seeing someone else. Stressed and burned out, Madeline finally reached her wit's end after her boyfriend of two years ended their relationship because she couldn't stop responding to suitors out of kindness. Madeline knew it was time for a change—she needed stronger boundaries.
Boundaries can be defined as the limits we set with other people, which indicate what we find acceptable and unacceptable in their behavior towards us. The ability to know our boundaries generally comes from a healthy sense of self-worth, or valuing yourself in a way that is not contingent on other people or the feelings they have toward you. Unlike self-esteem (which some research has found to be strongly related to the relatively fixed personality dimensions of high extraversion and low neuroticism), self-worth is finding intrinsic value in who you are, so that you can be aware of your:
- Intellectual worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own thoughts and opinions, as are others)
- Emotional worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own feelings to a given situation, as are others)
- Physical worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your space, however wide it may be, as are others)
- Social worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own friends and to pursuing your own social activities, as are others)
- Spiritual worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own spiritual beliefs, as are others)
Knowing our boundaries and setting them are two very different hurdles to overcome. Setting boundaries does not always come easily. It's often a skill that needs to be learned. As renowned psychologist Albert Bandura noted, much of human social learning comes from modeling behavior, so if we do not have adequate role models whose behavior we can encode through observation and later imitate, we are at a loss, often left fumbling and frustrated.
In Madeline's case, although she had high self-esteem, she derived her feelings of self-worth from people-pleasing, which was unhealthy and, if unchanged, would cost her the relationships and future she wanted. In addition to finding a strong sense of self-worth that existed apart from the value judgments of others, she also needed to learn how to set boundaries.
To start setting your boundaries straight, try these four things.
1. Know your limits.
Clearly define what your intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual boundaries are with strangers, work colleagues, friends, family, and intimate partners. Examine past experiences where you felt discomfort, anger, resentment or frustration with an individual. It may have been because your limits had been crossed. Create a 'Boundary Chart' which outlines each boundary per each relationship category and fill it in with the boundary criteria you feel comfortable and safe with, and vice versa (I don't feel comfortable when work colleagues ask me about my childhood illness/dating life/parents' divorce).
By creating this sort of template you have a benchmark to assess when someone may be overstepping your boundaries. Your boundary criteria will evolve over time, so be sure to continuously update your chart with your growing experience and resulting needs.
2. Be assertive.
Creating and stating boundaries is great, but it's the follow-through that counts. The only way to truly alert others that your boundaries have been crossed is to be direct with them. Being assertive, particularly if you are unaccustomed to doing so, can be scary. So start small with something manageable and build up your assertive skill to larger tasks like these:
- Did the waitress get your order wrong? Ask her for what you actually ordered.
- Did the cashier over-charge you? Ask for a correction to be made.
- Are unwanted romantic suitors messaging you? Explain that you are not interested and would appreciate it if he or she stops.
- Is a distant cousin intruding on your dating life? Say that you'd rather talk about something else.
- Is a work colleague pushing his or her work onto you? Remind them that it isn't within your scope, you are busy with your own work, and direct them to someone who will be of better service.
- Did a friend do something to hurt you? Ask them to meet you for lunch and explain why their words or actions hurt you.
3. Practice makes perfect.
When you first start acting assertively, if it is a departure from your habitual state, you may be afraid that others will perceive you as mean or rude. But affirming your boundaries means that you value yourself, your needs, and your feelings more than the thoughts and opinions of others. Being assertive does not mean that you are unkind, it only means that you are being fair and honest with them (and, thus, kind to them in the long run), while maintaining your peace, dignity, and self-respect.
After all, not informing someone that they have crossed a line only leads to resentment on your end and confusion on theirs. The only way to set better boundaries is by practicing how to tell someone that they've crossed yours.
4. If all else fails, delete and ignore.
Voice your boundaries first, then follow with action. As long as you have tied up loose ends and given family members/friends/ex-partners or whoever it may be closure from any promises you may have made, you no longer owe them anything. If you have asserted yourself and made it clear to another person that he or she is not respecting your boundaries, it is okay to ignore correspondence from that point forward. Remind yourself of your own worth, and that no one has the right to make you feel uncomfortable or take your self-defined space away from you.
© Mariana Bockarova, Ph.D.
Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1963). Social Learning and Personality Development (Vol. 14). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Watson, D., Suls, J., & Haig, J. (2002). Global self-esteem in relation to structural models of personality and affectivity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(1), 185.
Whitfield, C. L. (1993). Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting, and Enjoying the Self. Health Communications, Inc.