What comes to mind when you hear the word BOUNDARIES? Do you think of a fence? Wall? Border? Etc. If you do, you are absolutely correct!
In this context however, we’d be referring to psychological boundaries. Like fences, psychological boundaries help us define our personal space, territories and what/who we allow in and out of our lives. There are several definitions of the term but simply put, A boundary is a limit you can set on what you will accept of another person’s words, actions or emotions. They are rules you put in place to protect yourself from emotional or psychological harm. They define where you end and others begin.
For a moment, pause and think. Would you rather stay in a fenced/gated apartment around a secure, safe environment or just any building with no fence/gate located in an unsafe area?
While thinking of that, what are some boundaries we have to set up?
- Physical boundaries
- Material boundaries
- Mental boundaries
- Emotional boundaries
- Business/official boundaries etc.
What boundaries are not: Boundaries are not:
- Opportunities to make you feel entitled or insensitive.
- Standards you can’t keep when dealing with others.
- Rules you can break when it’s not convenient for you.
- Put in place to make you invulnerable with the right people.
- Walls/guards you put in place to lock EVERYONE out of your life. When this happens, it becomes a toxic boundary.
Why are healthy boundaries important? Healthy boundaries help to:
- Protect your mental/emotional health.
- Develop yourself, values and priorities in order to know who/what to let in.
- Make you seen, heard and understood.
- Allow your assertiveness when the need arises.
- Snap you out of codependency.
- Become self-aware.
- Develop your communication skills knowing that you are responsible for your happiness or unhappiness. Therefore, stating clearly and precisely what we want or don’t want is key.
- Create healthy, clearly defined relationships.
- Allow us say NO without developing negative feelings like betrayal, anger, hatred, shame, guilt etc.
- Avoid the habit of people-pleasing.
- Identify the thin line between persuasion and aggression.
- Define the terms of your friendships/relationships.
Similarities between the physical fence and the psychological boundaries
Like the physical fence, boundaries are put in place for the following reasons: To:
- Keep toxic* persons and situations out of your space.
- Clearly mark out your space or territory either at home, work or with friends. This defines your identity.
- Beautify your space: Your good qualities stand out when you are your true, authentic self.
- Make you feel safe and secure: We are in control of who we can let into our space and how far they can go.
- Regulate your life and relationships.
Unlike the physical fence however, psychological boundaries are a bit tricky because in most cases, there are no clear cut signs or demarcations to define them. Likewise, the process of breaking the boundaries can be so subtle (infact, a manipulator may make it seem like breaking the boundary is in your best interest!) it takes a lot of self awareness and self-love to identify when it’s happening. Therefore, we have to communicate clearly and politely when these rules are broken and if possible, take steps to enforce the boundaries.
How to set healthy boundaries at work/business
- Contracts should be documented and signed by the parties involved.
- Any ambiguity/grey area in contracts should be clarified.
- Relationships at work should be clearly defined. Your colleague is NOT your “friend”. Your boss is not your “daddy” or “mummy”… Unless conscious intentional effort is put in to develop any relationship that gets beyond the work place and, that takes time.
- No matter how difficult, proper documentation of events or conversations (emails, voice messages etc.) is necessary to avoid verbal conflicts.
- Roles and duties should be clearly spelt out.
- Be professional and avoid mediocrity.
- Keep your personal life and business out of the workplace.
- Avoid office gossip, slander or drama.
- State your expectations clearly and have conversations around them.
- All relevant legal/professional/official registration(s) should be constantly updated.
- Don’t bear the burden of “office secrets” or burden others with “secrets” that may lead to blackmail, tension, discomfort or hatred.
How to set up other boundaries
The most important thing to know about boundaries is it takes a lot of self-love, self-respect and self-trust to take this step. So, have you developed all of these? You should love yourself enough to know what you’d allow or not. Respect yourself enough to define your values and trust yourself enough to set up your standards. Then, your boundaries will be built around your values knowing that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this and that there are various aspects of our lives where boundaries are applicable.
Remember, also, there are some toxic persons who do not respect boundaries, do well to stay away from them if possible or deal wisely and professionally with them. Here are some hints to let you know those who may have been benefitting from your lack of boundaries. They:
- Become enraged when you set and enforce boundaries. They may say: “You are too sensitive!” “Can’t you even take a simple joke?” when you call them out on their deeds.
- Try to invalidate/minimize you.
- Try to make it seem like you (the one setting the boundaries) are crazy and point out to how “strange” you’re acting now.
- Start trying to isolate you from others with lies or slanderous stories about you.
- Bully you with threats or blackmail, make you feel guilt or shame for thinking of setting up boundaries in the first place.
One of the best ways to deal with this is to firmly maintain the boundaries and avoid or minimize contact with such ones without trying to explain or justify yourself. Your boundaries are for YOU. So, instead of saying for instance, “you need to stop bothering me with your requests” try saying “I need some time now, I’m afraid, I can’t attend to your request” etc.
Sometimes though, it is difficult to set boundaries especially if you’ve had a pattern of people pleasing or codependency. Good news is you can take baby steps or seek needed help.
Are your boundaries weak or non-existent? Here are some tips to make a checklist. You:
- Explain most of your actions or justify your decisions
- Feel it’s your responsibility to make your relationships work – whatever it takes.
- See there’s usually one form of drama around you or close to you.
- Are constantly drawn to toxic people.
- Work hard to “earn” love and respect.
- Mostly react rather than respond to situations.
- Sometimes accused for what you know little or nothing about.
- Generally feel like you have to “save the world”.
- Assume responsibility for how others feel and take on their emotions.
- Are always available to listen to your friends and bear their burdens but they’re hardly ever there for you.
- Are not grounded.
- Have friendships that starts out as really close or intense then, degenerates into chaos.
If 5 or more of these hints apply to you then, you need healthy boundaries.
Fun facts about boundaries
- A boundary that applies to one person may not apply to others.
- You may have a particular boundary in place for someone and have an excellent relationship with that person.
- As it’s said, good fences make good neighbors (Robert Frost) so good boundaries make good relationships.
You may ask, won’t setting boundaries let some persons out of my life? Well, that depends on those who are there now. It’s noteworthy that healthy boundaries only get rid of relationships/friendships that shouldn’t be or wouldn’t be healthy. Also, some persons or situations will fall out of your space when you start setting and enforcing boundaries. You may feel lonely or even miss them sometimes but, the real question is, what do you want? Healthy relationships with trust, respect and positive feelings or toxic relationships that breed insecurity and negative emotions? As you may know, sometimes, good things fall apart for better things to come together.
Personally, I know you deserve a feeling of safety and security in your psychological, emotional and mental space. Over time, your boundaries will help you maintain excellent, healthy and positive relationships. So, guard your mental health today, Set healthy boundaries!
*In this article, the term “toxic” refers to difficult persons like narcissists, energy drainers, manipulators, negative influences etc. And the environment they create. It equally refers to people or behaviors not in alignment with you or your positive values.
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Ochuko Ebiuwhe is a Human Resource Personel, a Mental Health Advocate/Counsellor and a Relationship Coach. In her free time, she enjoys working on excellent Interior Designs or gets involved in wholesome, edifying activities.