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When It Hurts to Set Boundaries

Seven steps to setting and upholding healthy boundaries, even when it's painful.

Source: Pixabay

Humans function within boundaries—some of our own making, and some that are outside of our control. We are built to recognize, understand, and operate within the boundaries relevant to our lives. Without grasping the limits placed in the way, motivation to achieve larger-than-life goals would be nonexistent, and there are instances when pushing the boundaries is a precursor to accomplishment.

Conversely, knowing when it is important to respect boundaries and following through on that realization is elemental to maintaining healthy relationships and appropriate self-care. Many people are pros at establishing limits with strangers and acquaintances, but paradoxically struggle to set boundaries within intimate relationships, begging the question of what to do when it hurts to set boundaries?

Boundaries are a fundamental need in relationships

In many ways, boundaries come naturally. Whether physical, spiritual, relational, sexual, or emotional, boundaries function as a line in the sand for self-preservation, protection, and promotion. Boundaries can be both abstract and concrete, easily recognized and difficult to identify. Research is clear that perceiving the need for boundaries and then communicating those boundaries to others in a healthy way is one of the cornerstones to flourishing relationships.

Relationships without boundaries sweep away their participants, erase the uniqueness of the individual, and often leave danger and hurt in their wake. Intimate relationships—whether romantic, platonic, or familial—are at high risk of falling prey to boundary violations. The very nature of intimacy opens a door to vulnerability, and without solid boundaries, vulnerability can become victimization.

Is love a blank check?

Is love a blank check? Does loving someone equal a right to impose your will and ask them to do anything that brings you pleasure? Can you love someone else unconditionally and still expect them to respect your personal boundaries? All relationships go through different stages of push-pull that help the people involved find their footing, establish some ground rules, grow closer together, and take it to the next level (or choose to end it). Finding the balance between caring deeply for another human while simultaneously implementing healthy boundaries is challenging, to say the least, and for many relationships is the impetus for their termination.

Healthy interpersonal functioning does not exist without some form of boundaries—although these are different for everyone. Love, in any form (as well as friendship), is not a blank check that allows others to cash in whatever they desire at the expense of others. The main players in any type of relationship must first be aware of their own boundary needs and also be able to execute these, while respecting the boundaries of the others in the relationship, in order to build lasting and loving connections.

Establishing healthy boundaries is always a work in progress. Boundaries and limits change as we go through different stages in life, grow into self-actualization, and experience new things. Although it creates dissonance, boundaries can be both fluid and firm at the same time, and communication is the key. Humans cannot be expected to read each other’s minds, but they can be expected to listen when boundaries are set up and follow them when requested to do so.

What happens when people choose not to follow your boundaries? Whether it is accidental or purposeful, all individuals will at some point in their lives encounter challenges with upholding their own boundaries. Many choose to allow minor violations for long periods of time, often leading to major breaches that result in pain and the loss of relationships. Others elect to stringently enforce their personal limits to the point of no return, without communication or resolution. Though both extremes tend to elicit the same outcomes, there is a meeting point where boundary violations can be discussed and resolved—with very clear consequences outlined if it continues.

Source: Pixabay

Taking a stand with someone who you have deep affection for comes with many risks. There is a risk of hurting them, a risk of disappointing or angering them, and potentially a risk of losing them. The dread of these impacts increases exponentially with the intimacy of the relationship. Enforcing boundaries in these situations can lead to catastrophic changes for all involved.

Steps to take when it hurts to set boundaries

It can be a monumental task for an individual to firmly set and uphold a boundary that could create interpersonal disruptions. Parents may have to sacrifice enjoyable activities, put their own desires on hold, and at times even lose contact with grown children in order to fulfill their boundaries, and parents who have set boundaries for safety, health, or well-being and are subsequently ostracized from their adult children’s lives suffer immense pain and guilt. Comparably, individuals who walk away from romantic relationships or friendships because their partner or friend will not respect boundaries they have established and communicated often feel as if they have unfairly forfeited their own happiness.

For self-preservation and fortification, there are simple steps that can help alleviate some of the guilt and shame that often walk hand in hand with boundary setting:

  1. Be cognizant of your own boundaries. Get to know them inside and out, be able to recognize why they are important to you, and hold back nothing from yourself when examining what boundaries are necessary. If you do not know the meaning of your boundaries, it is unfair to expect others to understand their significance.
  2. Take into account how your boundaries may impact people you care about. Think deeply about the potential ramifications of setting a boundary before you do so—to ensure you are comfortable with those consequences if they occur. If you feel the boundary can be adjusted to safeguard your relationships while still guaranteeing your own safety and well-being, modify it. Always be very cautious to examine this as neutrally as possible, so you can be content that modifications were made for the right reasons.
  3. Once your boundaries are firmly established in your own mind, communicate them directly, clearly, and lovingly to the people they will affect. Don’t skip this step out of fear or anxiety—and if you know the boundary could hurt other’s feelings, be candid in a respectful way when discussing it. Share your reasoning behind the boundary, encourage conversation about it, and be open to hearing other’s reactions.
  4. Communicate deal-breakers upfront. If there is a boundary violation that you will not be able to adjust to or resolve, convey it right away—don’t wait until it happens and then try to function from guilt.
  5. Embrace the gray areas. Don’t shy away from them—relationships are fluid, ever-changing, and malleable. Your boundaries may need to flow with these changes at times as well, as long as you are respecting the underlying need for that boundary to be in place.
  6. Don’t be afraid of resolution. Healthy communication is not always easy, but it is safe. If you can safely discuss boundary violations that occur (and they will, no one is perfect) and set up resolution steps to keep it from repeating, consider that a win—unless the boundary violation was a deal-breaker for you.
  7. Give yourself permission to step away when boundaries are violated and cannot be resolved. Healthy self-care involves addressing your own needs without doing so at the expense of others. If this cannot be done, and you have followed the steps to setting boundaries, it’s time to walk away. Recognize the hurt that you knew could potentially happen, work through it, and come out on the other side.

Relationships that are functional and intimate are a beautiful experience. They breathe life into our days, give us a spark of joy, and provide impetus to keep putting one foot in front of the other when the path gets rough. Although many times we love others unconditionally, we can do so without sacrificing our own safety and security. At times, everyone will experience the ache of setting boundaries that impact important connections, and during these times, loving someone from a distance will be the best response you can have when boundary violations cannot be resolved.