Boundaries: A Guide to Making Essential Life Decisions

Learning when to say yes and when to say no to others and yourself.

Posted Jun 04, 2019

"If you want to live an authentic, meaningful life, you need to master the art of disappointing and upsetting others, hurting feelings, and living with the reality that some people just won’t like you.” —Cheryl Richardson

Linda Esposito, used with permission
Source: Linda Esposito, used with permission

Establishing boundaries is one of the best ways to preserve your emotional energy and define who and what you allow in your life. Most importantly, you internalize the message that you teach people how to treat you.

What is a boundary?

A boundary is an invisible line you draw around yourself to identify what is acceptable behavior, and what is unacceptable behavior. The beauty of boundaries is that they are fluid and ever-evolving; for example, looser limits around extending yourself to others is easier when you’re younger and childless. As you age and gain insight, you'll get a quicker read on energy vampires and narcissists.

Some people love boundaries because they represent structure, order, and rules. Others see limits as an unyielding set of laws where there are no gray areas, only black and white. A critical part of a healthy psyche is deciding on the right tension for your life. Psychological distress results from overly rigid or overly loose limits.

Boundaries come in many forms:

  • Physical boundaries relate to your personal space, privacy, and body. What is an acceptable distance between you and another person? Are you comfortable with affection, or are you more reserved? Do you shake hands upon meeting someone? What does your home decor reveal? Are you organized or prone to clutter?
  • Mental boundaries apply to your thoughts, values, and opinions. Are you capable of having an open mind and a flexible attitude? Signs of weak mental boundaries include reacting in an overly emotional manner, such as being defensive, rigid, and combative.
  • Emotional boundaries exist when you can withstand different opinions from yours. Healthy emotional boundaries suggest you don’t need to dispense advice or try and “fix” someone else’s problems. You also recognize that you’re not to blame when other people get upset. You don’t let guilt get in the way of your decisions, because you recognize that you have a choice in every situation and relationship.
  • Financial boundaries include how you spend, save, give, and budget money, and how and what you dole out on material goods and experiences.
  • Moral boundaries exist when you know what behaviors align with your core values. For example, not accepting intolerant attitudes from others, or refusing to put up with lying and cheating.
  • Sexual boundaries mean you understand your comfort level around physical touch, intimacy, and sexual behaviors.
  • Spiritual boundaries define your religious beliefs (or lack, thereof), whether this pertains to God, another deity, or a supernatural being.

If you were raised in a household where your parents and caretakers were overly harsh or overly permissive with discipline, chances are, boundaries are a challenge. Exposure to childhood physical and psychological trauma is another cause for tolerating unhealthy behaviors from others. The good news is you're no longer that terrified 5-year-old hiding in a corner when your parents fought, but an adult with agency over your life. In order to make the proper adjustments to your limit setting, it's important to understand where your boundaries template originated and the typical signs of unhealthy behaviors.

Common Reasons for Unhealthy Boundaries

  • Boundaries were not taught to you as a child. When your needs and wants were not respected by your parents/caretakers/family members, you may have internalized that you are not important.
  • You’re a people-pleaser or the "good girl" or "good guy." You don’t want to offend anyone or appear that you’re not up to the task at hand, so you take on too much.
  • You were the caretaker or the "parentified" child. When your role growing up was to take care of the needs of others, your needs were put on hold. To do something for yourself meant you were "selfish."

3 Types of Boundary-Challenged Behaviors

  • Emotional Vomiting. When every emotion is worn on your sleeve. You assume others are comfortable with the intimate details of your life, your sexual dalliances, and your innermost thoughts, wishes, and failures. Social cues are often missed as self-awareness is lacking.
  • Immediate Intimacy. The assumption of closeness upon meeting someone for the first time. Think indiscriminate friendships and love interests. It’s about meeting your “soul mate” one week and feeling bereft the next, because you were abandoned, once again.
  • All-or-Nothing Relationships. The act of being completely consumed with another person. For example, the college roommate who spent four years in one or more continuous relationships. It’s nearly impossible to make plans or to count on this person since they are joined at the hip with their love interest.

Getting firm on your boundaries takes time and practice, but it's well worth the effort. Resentment builds when you allow others to infiltrate your mind, your time, and your physical space. You feel taken advantage of, and you rebel. Behaviorally, this could be a tantrum, a scream-fest, and saying and doing things you later regret.

A guilt hangover follows because constantly doubting yourself means you're stuck in a cycle of indecision, avoidance, analysis paralysis, rumination, and compensating behaviors towards the recipients of your anger.

Boundary-building Techniques

  1. Establish your limits. You have to know what you stand for and what you value in order to set solid boundaries.
  2. Get comfortable with "no." If this is difficult, practice in the mirror until you get the hang of sounding confident and in control. You don’t need to yell or scowl. Think cool, calm, and collected.
  3. Be direct. You may have been taught that direct is synonymous with aggressive, insensitive, or brusque. While cultural boundaries should always be respected, clear communication is key.
  4. Say goodbye to fear and guilt and hello to safe and self-assured. Fear about what others say and think will keep you awake at night, and stuck in the cycle of self-doubt. Guilt sets you up for overextending yourself and being used.
  5. Check in with your gut. If someone rubs you the wrong way, trust your instincts. If certain behaviors or individuals make you unhappy, it’s probably because they don’t respect you. Ask yourself, “What am I going to do to make this situation favorable?”
  6. Remember that there are always options in life. If a job, a relationship, or an opportunity doesn’t work out, remind yourself that now is not the right time. Take the situation for the learning experience it was, and move on. You’ll never be stuck so long as you keep moving.
  7. Befriend "reciprocal." Too many people with loose boundaries do way too much to maintain relationships. Ask yourself what you’re willing to give, and what you need to get, in order to continue this partnership.
  8. Beware of Passive-Aggressive Pat and Patricia. It may be habitual for you to pick up the slack in order to keep peace at home or at work. Unless there’s a gun to your head, you’re choosing to overcompensate, which leads to feelings of exhaustion and being taken advantage of. As a recourse, you may "forget" to pick up your partner at the airport, or "accidentally" burn the brownies for the PTA luncheon.
  9. Be a role model for your children (or your inner child, if you don’t have kids). What behaviors are you modeling? What are you teaching about self-respect, independence, and problem-solving? When you take care of yourself, you model appropriate limits on mental and physical energy. And when you practice self-compassion, you’re mindfully present for others.
  10. Don’t over-explain yourself. The key is to communicate with clarity, confidence, and brevity. Extra words, lengthy explanations, and backtracking are signs that you don’t really buy what you’re saying.
  11. Think small. If this is difficult for you, take it slow. Practice boundary-setting incrementally and build up from there.
  12. Know when you’re being sold. Financial transactions are ripe for being taken advantage of. Just because the baby-faced mortgage broker flashes that megawatt smile, don’t be fooled by the bottom line. There’s nothing wrong with negotiating. Remember the person on the other end of the sales desk usually needs you more than you need them.
  13. Wait on important decisions. We don’t make sound decisions when we’re under stress, tired, hungry, or emotional.

Having clear boundaries is essential to a balanced life and healthy relationships. Here is a random list to get you started, or to reinforce your boundaries framework:

  • Drama is best left for the stage.
  • Anxiety is not always a bad thing.
  • Children have one shot at childhood.
  • Nobody ever died from their feelings.
  • The opposite of indecision is confidence.
  • Sometimes fences make the best neighbors.
  • When lost, remember you’re never far from home.
  • “I don’t have time” is the cousin of “You’re not important.”
  • Feeling sorry for people hijacks their ability to figure it out.
  • A narcissist cannot invade your space unless you open the door.
  • You create your reality through your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
  • The simplest way to get a read on someone is to observe their behaviors.
  • A good attitude is the easiest way to avoid unnecessary time on the couch.
  • You have a finite amount of emotional energy every day, and unused minutes do not roll over.
  • Embracing vulnerability is difficult but essential for emotional growth and deeper relationships.
  • “I’m not the cause, and I’m not the cure” is a great internal script when dealing with mean people.
  • Belief in abundance over scarcity reassures that there’s enough money, romance, and opportunities and to go around.

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For additional support with developing boundaries that stick, check out Holisitic Healing for Anxiety: A 28-day online course.

See you on the calm side!

Copyright 2019 Linda Esposito, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author.

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