Do you often find yourself feeling taken advantage of by others? Are you a yes man (or ma’am)? Do you feel resentment because you are so busy with everyone else’s demands that you don’t have time for yourself? Instead of facing conflict, do you avoid expressing your needs out of fear of losing someone’s love? If so, you may be facing boundary problems. Here are a few guidelines for having helpful boundaries.
- Having good boundaries is a necessary part of healthy living. You are responsible for yourself (your own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and whatever consequences result from those) and to others. The Golden Rule still rings true at this point: treat other people the way you want to be treated. Boundaries help you keep track of where your limits lie in relation to other people. Like it or not, we don’t have control over anyone but ourselves, though at times we have ourselves convinced that we do.
- It is not mean or selfish to have boundaries, but actually respectful and responsible. Practicing “no” and honoring yourself and your values are important ways to differentiate yourself. When you are saying “no” to something, that means you are also saying “yes” to something else. It’s good to keep that in mind when monitoring your own energy and time levels. It is possible to be so focused on other’s needs that your own get neglected. Boundaries actually give us permission to have limits – you cannot do everything, neither are you supposed to.
- There are consequences to not establishing boundaries. The principle, “you reap what you sow,” demonstrates boundaries in action. However, this principle can go greatly awry if you are “helping” someone to the point that they don’t experience their rightful consequences for their own choices. If your teenager consistently forgets their lunch for school, but you rescue them by bringing their lunch to school for the fifth time that week, it will not encourage them to work any harder to remember their lunch the next time. If they forget their lunch and don’t have anything to eat that day, they will be much more likely to remember it the next time.
- Expect some resistance at first, especially if you are just beginning to set boundaries. Other people in your life may be surprised when you start having healthy boundaries and saying “no.” That’s OK, too. They don’t have to like it, but they do need to respect you. It will be an adjustment, but with practice you can find the middle ground of healthy boundaries.
- You will have different boundaries for different people. For example, you may not be so willing to lend your assistance to your always-demanding family member, but be more willing to reach out and support a friend experiencing a recent crisis. Here’s another example: if you are exhausted from a long day and your friend calls at 1:00 AM, you may choose not to pick up the phone, but you may decide to call her back the next morning. Different situations require different boundaries; only you can define where those limits need to be, based on what you are comfortable giving of yourself.
For a deeper understanding of the topic of boundaries, I suggest starting with books by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Their work, Boundaries, is a good general starting point, but they have also written specifically on boundaries within marriage, with children, and in dating relationships.