Give Yourself the Gift of Self-Affirming Boundaries

During the holidays, lines of demarcation between oneself & others often blur.

Posted Dec 19, 2016

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Healthy boundaries are essential to self-care. During times that are more stressful, anxiety-provoking, or otherwise emotionally charged—for example, the holiday season that includes Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, and New Year’s—attention to taking care of oneself is especially important. These holidays are a time to more consciously appreciate the ways in which we are connected to others and to the world around us, and to celebrate that connection. However, given the intensity of expectations that this time of year tends to create (both self-imposed and those of others), it can be easy to fall prey to spreading oneself too thin—financially and emotionally.

Boundaries can be thought of as imaginary lines between you and others that distinguish what belongs to you from what doesn’t, and applies not only to your possessions, money, and body, but also to your thoughts, feelings, and needs. It can be helpful to think of your boundaries as a bottom line of sorts. Our boundaries are the limits we set and adhere to in our relationships that define what we are willing to accept and what we are willing to do. They are based on the usually unspoken “rules” and principles you live by, what you will or won’t participate in, and what you will or will not allow for yourself in different areas of your life.

Sometimes, our needs and interests coincide with others people's, but often they don't. Personal boundaries affirm where you end and other people begin, making it possible for you to separate your own needs and interests from those of others.  This equips you to take responsibility for what you think, feel and do and not take on responsibility for what others think, feel, and do. If you feel resentful or victimized, and are blaming someone or something, it may mean that you haven’t been setting healthy boundaries for yourself.

There are three fundamental types of personal boundaries:

Material boundaries relate to whether we give or lend things, such as our money, car, clothes, DVDs, books, food, etc.

Physical boundaries pertain to our personal space, privacy, and body. These include our needs and rights in regard to sexual touch and activity—what, where, when, and with whom.

Emotional boundaries set our emotional needs and rights. They distinguish our emotional responses—and responsibility for them—from someone else’s. Emotional boundaries also include how we allocate our time and energy—how we spend it and with whom.

Interpersonal boundaries assume four main styles:

Soft/Weak—people with soft or weak boundaries are essentially unprotected. They have difficulty defining and asserting their own rights and confuse their responsibilities with those of others. It is as if there is nothing really separating them from others. They often share too much too soon. People with weak boundaries tend to be highly emotional and reactive, and are vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.

Rigid/Inflexible—people with rigid or inflexible boundaries are closed off so nobody can get close to them either physically or emotionally. They are overprotected, invested in protecting themselves at all costs. Rigid boundaries are like a solid wall—nothing can get in or out. This is often the case if someone has been physically or emotionally abused.

Permeable/Porous—permeable or porous boundaries are a combination of weak and rigid boundaries. People with permeable boundaries are unsure what to let in and what to keep out. As a result, boundaries are set and enforced inconsistently.

Flexible/Healthy—flexible or healthy boundaries effectively protect the person who has them. The person chooses what to let in and what to keep out on a situation-specific, case-by-case basis. People with flexible, healthy boundaries are difficult to manipulate or exploit, and form the foundation of healthy relationships.

Which of these four styles most accurately describes your own personal boundaries?

Boundaries are learned. If people in your family of origin had weak or rigid boundaries, then your ability to develop healthy boundaries was limited. Any form of abuse violates personal boundaries, including name-calling, out-downs, or even teasing. Guilt-tripping and other manipulations that subtly coerce people into doing what they do not want to do are also boundary violations. When such experiences occur repeatedly over time, particularly during childhood, the ability of people to understand that they have a right to their own boundaries is adversely affected—often long into adulthood.

If your boundaries weren’t respected growing up, you may not know how to assert them or even believe in your right to them. However, by virtue of being human you have many rights. Among others, you have the right:

To say “no”
To be addressed with courtesy and respect
To privacy
To change your mind
To ask for help
To be left alone
To conserve your energy and not spread yourself too thin

Moving toward healthier, more effective boundaries

It’s not unusual for people to say they have previously tried to set boundaries with others, but it didn’t work and nothing changed. Attempting to set boundaries in anger or by nagging makes them much less likely to be heard and respected. It’s valuable to keep in mind that setting and enforcing boundaries is not meant to punish anyone; rather healthy boundaries are for your well-being and protection, as well as that of the other person(s).

When you set boundaries with others it’s important to do it in as matter-of-fact and respectful way as possible. It’s helpful to be clear and firm with regard to what you will and won’t accept. Neither long explanations nor justifications are necessary.

Your responsibility is to communicate your boundaries. You are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundaries you set. If it upsets him or her, that is his or her responsibility. When you set boundaries with people who are controlling or manipulative, or are simply unaccustomed to it, you can expect them to test the new boundaries. Be prepared to communicate the potential consequences (the actions you will take) for the other person if he or she violates the boundaries you’ve set.

The importance of follow through

When you communicate consequences, you need to be ready to follow through on them as necessary. This is a situation where it’s essential that what you say is consistent with what you do. If the boundaries you set are ignored, tested, or otherwise violated, and you don’t follow through on consequences you’ve communicated, the other person learns your words are meaningless, and he or she will be even more likely to disrespect any boundaries you set. Similarly, if your behavior does match the boundaries you set—if you don’t practice what you preach, so to say, you send mixed messages that confuse and undermine your boundaries. This also makes it less likely your boundaries will be respected.

Many people for whom setting boundaries is new feel uncomfortable, anxious, or guilty. This is natural and normal. Learning to set and stick to healthy boundaries is a process that takes time, practice, and support. Work on developing a support system of people who appreciate and respect your right to assert boundaries. It frequently takes encouragement to make yourself and your needs a priority and to persist—especially in the face of pushback from those with whom you are setting boundaries.

There are many benefits of establishing healthy boundaries. When others try to blame you for something that isn’t your responsibility, instead of apologizing, arguing, or needing to defend yourself, you can simply say (whether to yourself or aloud), “I refuse to take responsibility for that.” With practice this becomes easier and more comfortable. You will experience greater self-respect, receive more respect from others, and find that your relationships generally improve.

Setting and enforcing personal boundaries isn’t selfish. It’s self-care.

Copyright 2016 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain