Many of us have difficulty with boundaries in relationships and might not even be aware of the problem. If you often feel resentful, drained, unfulfilled, or taken advantage of in your relationships, poor boundaries could be the reason. Having boundaries with others means you can verbalize or act to enforce your limits and maintain your sense of self. Areas of interpersonal boundaries can be physical, mental/emotional, or resource-based.
Physical Boundaries: How others comment on your appearance, limits related to physical intimacy and touch
Mental/Emotional Boundaries: Autonomy in one’s opinions and beliefs, not feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings
Resource Boundaries: Limits on how much time you are available, how much money you contribute, what you are willing to do for the other person
How to Start Setting Boundaries
Establishing healthy boundaries in your relationships starts with being in touch with your own needs. We can become so used to putting others before ourselves we don’t even recognize what we need, let alone have the capacity to assert those needs! Start by noticing where you feel resentful, drained, unfulfilled, or taken advantage of in your relationships. These feelings are a sign of your unmet needs and can be used to identify where you would benefit from establishing healthier boundaries.
If healthy boundaries were never modeled for you, it can be a scary thing to try. Sometimes we are so used to automatically saying ‘yes’ we feel afraid to say ‘no’ and this becomes a resources issue. If this is the case for you, start by identifying a different response such as”‘let me think about that and get back to you”-this will allow you time to think things through and check in with yourself to determine if you genuinely want to say ‘yes’ or would be doing so out of obligation or fear.
Similarly, sometimes we are so used to focusing on others’ needs and emotions we become uncomfortable looking at our own. We have developed the false belief that meeting the needs of others will keep us safe while meeting our own needs is unsafe. In reality, fulfillment and regulation (safety) comes from being attuned to our own needs – our true self – and asserting those needs in our relationships.
It is important to note, not all boundaries need to be verbalized. Sometimes the most effective way to establish a boundary is through your behavior, and the other person might not even be aware of it. In situations where we do communicate our limits to someone, boundaries are not ultimatums or ways to try to control the other person. The goal is to be clear on our limits and become responsible for our needs in relationships, while also respecting the limits of others. When first starting this process, try writing out what you want to communicate to the other person first. Consider the relationship and what you think is beneficial for the other person to know regarding your boundary. Remember, we do not owe an explanation for our needs, but it can be helpful to communicate the ‘why’ depending on the situation.
Expect to feel uncomfortable when you start this process, as with most changes we make, but sometimes it can feel too uncomfortable to do on our own. Because many of us were taught to have unhealthy boundaries in childhood, the reasons behind these difficulties are often deeply rooted and difficult to address without support. Working with a mental health professional can provide guidance in understanding our difficulties with boundaries and help us navigate healthy changes.
LePera, N. (2021). How to Do the Work. Macmillan Publishers, p. 179-205.
-Laura Gross, LMSW
Laura Gross is a Clinical Therapist with Marsh Psychology Group.
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