I’ll start off with this – setting boundaries can be tough. When you’re used to putting others’ needs and comfort before your own, establishing your boundaries with people feels terrifying. It’s perfectly normal to be anxious about this. This article series on boundaries is going to help!
Compassionate reminder: The “relationships” mentioned in this article apply to any and all relationships: friendships, family members, romantic partners, colleagues, and other professional relationships, even the public, social media, and our communities.
Here’s the problem
Society grooms us to be well-behaved, contributing members of our community. We’re taught to be nice, polite, and easygoing. We strive to make others feel good about themselves and delight others with our company.
Women and those of us from diverse backgrounds especially are also instructed to not “misbehave”. We need to “prove” our worthiness by being kind, helpful, and making others happy. We can’t cause any problems, inconvenience, or else we’re devastatingly viewed as mean, rude, or “a bad person”. Instead, we must be the ones to remove friction and relieve others from uncomfortable situations (even of their own creation).
Our people-pleasing personality can make us great friends, partners, colleagues, and members of society. Due to our upbringing, we developed deep levels of empathy, compassion, and acceptance of others. We care (sometimes, way too much), are considerate, and can be extremely tolerant, especially when others display troublesome behaviors or personalities.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are personal limitations we set for ourselves and those around us. It establishes what is acceptable and not tolerated within the relationship. This includes behaviors, access, shared activities, comfortability, and limitations.
Setting boundaries allows the parties involved to understand the responsibilities and perimeters of the relationship. Establishing boundaries allows you to communicate your needs and how you prefer to be treated. Therefore, it is a healthy practice and a good attempt of keeping someone in your life at a capacity you are comfortable with.
Establishing and affirming boundaries can be scary for a few reasons. This is especially true when you’re new in a relationship, already function in an unhealthy dynamic, or are unsure how to set and advocate for your boundaries at the risk of the connection. That said, having boundaries is a necessary part of maintaining a healthy relationship and self-care.
Failure at setting boundaries can lead to unhealthy relationship dynamics, including accepting or enabling toxic behaviors, codependency, and undesirable outcomes like developing resentment.
Boundaries can be set at any time within and by all parties in the relationship. Once a boundary is communicated, it is expected for the intended person to respect said boundary and modify any necessary behavior changes. If the other party disrespects and violates the boundary, you can remind them of your boundary (or boundaries) and establish consequences if they continue to transgress the boundary.
Consequences are set by the individuals establishing the boundary and can vary based on the degree of misconduct. Consequences involve changes in the access, capacity, dynamic, and limitations of the relationship. It includes reducing or removing access to you, your property, information, and/or trust. It can go as extreme as limiting to ending communication and the relationship altogether.
Naturally, everyone’s boundaries and consequences vary based on the relationship dynamics, such as proximity, closeness/intimacy, length of the relationship, vulnerability, the role they have in each other’s lives, and even loyalty. That said, respect, compassion, and empathy should be the foundation for all relationships.
Why boundaries are so hard to set?
Our lack of boundaries becomes problematic when we put other people’s needs before our own.
We end up jeopardizing our own happiness and well-being to maintain this likable image. Because we are conditioned to maintain this unrealistic standard of being nice, easygoing, and forbearing, we struggle internally. We quickly become doormats, pushovers, and operate under the will of others.
When faced with situations where confrontation is avoidable, we struggle with standing up for ourselves and our needs at the risk of our positive reputation. We devastatingly fear rejection because this could lead to a loss of valued relationships. This triggers a deep fear that upsetting others can damage our heavily curated reputation and degenerate our identity.
We were conditioned to draw our value and worth from our relationships with others. When our validation comes from the approval of others, this creates a fragile foundation that supports our self-image. Because of this, being rejected by others severely damages our sense of self.
We know that if we don’t say anything (set boundaries or speak up about a concern), we will continue to suffer from others’ behaviors and the choices they make. That said, our fear of causing friction in our relationships or the lives of others paralyzes us. This dilemma causes internal anguish as we agonize over how to delicately approach the conflicts in our lives. Oftentimes, we lose this emotional battle, due to the discord and extreme discomfort we feel, and try our best to tolerate problematic behaviors, forget about them, move on.
We try so hard to keep the peace, only to suffer internal chaos to the detriment of others and our inability to stand up for our own needs.
Honoring your needs doesn’t make you a bad person
Simply put, we need to prioritize our needs.
It’s a big ask for someone who’s always put others first and feels a great sense of guilt or shame when doing something for themselves. That said, when we continue to pour into others’ cups without refilling our own first, we give ourselves (time, energy, bandwidth, and love) away and fail to retain enough for ourselves.
The more we give to others without first caring for ourselves, the more we create pressure on the relationship. This develops a build-up of expectations and animosity. We wait and hope they will go out of their way as much as we have them. We expect them to respect us as much as we have respect for them. Then, when we don’t get it, we get upset and/or blame ourselves.
PSA: Any relationship that lacks respect is not a relationship worth investing in.
We continue to invest, initiate, and support the unbalanced relationship. So when the other person/people don’t reciprocate, we start to build resentment towards them. Because we are taught to be giving, kind, and easy-going, we internalize those negative emotions. We critically judge ourselves, fostering high levels of self-rejection for not behaving the way we were conditioned to. Thus, furthering the dissonance and internal identity conflict.
Breaking the pattern
Taking time to take inventory of your needs, desires, and expectations in all your relationships is the first step to set better boundaries.
It’s important to reflect on your own goals and well-being first before considering others’ needs. Prioritize your needs and schedule them first. Feel free to apply whatever system that works for you. Then, you can plug in other obligations and commitments.
Be mindful of how you allocate your time, energy, and bandwidth so you don’t overwhelm yourself.
Here are some great questions to ask yourself:
- What do I need to prioritize at this stage in my life? How can I better prioritize my health, well-being, and needs?
- What can I do to take care of myself before, during, and after doing what I need for others?
- What are my needs, desires, and deal-breakers in my relationships?
- What feelings come up when my needs are unmet and how do I react? Common feelings may include nervousness, anxiety, resentment, guilt, shame, self-rejection, anger, frustration, and disappointment. Explore these emotions to better understand why you feel this way and how you can modify your relationships to reduce experiencing these less than favorable feelings.
- Moving forward, what kind of interactions, connections, and relationships do I wish to engage in? What do I no longer wish to engage in?
It’s important you take the time to find/create a safe space to answer these questions. Be honest, open, and curious when approaching these questions. Attuning to your emotions and reflecting on your behaviors will allow you to determine the next steps: setting boundaries.
Be intentional about honoring and satisfying your needs first. Only then, you will be in a better mental and physical place to take care of what’s most important to you. After that, you can then allocate your remaining time to other obligations, responsibilities, and relationships.
We will dive more into setting and upholding boundaries in our Boundaries series. Do not rush this set as it’s important you determine your needs, wants, and expectations first before diving into other areas of boundary settings.