Boundaries – do you need them?

Boundaries don't cross

Boundaries are a very important part of life, and because they are tricky to implement, are usually something we tend to ignore.  Boundary setting within relationships is an essential aspect of our mental wellbeing, involving emotional maturity and assertive communication.  In this article let’s explore what setting boundaries mean and how we can succeed in ‘setting’ them with others.

If another person’s opinions, values or actions feel out of sync with yours or if you start feeling resentment towards them, this is an indication that a boundary needs to be made.  Having differences of opinion with another is usually ok for the majority of time as we are all allowed our opinions.  However, there may be one person who pushes their needs or perspective too far and this oversteps where your line is of what is acceptable to you and what is not.

Some typical examples of boundary lines are:

  • Lion’s share of housework tasks done by one person
  • A workmate shirking their job and leaving jobs for you to complete
  • Making a date with a friend and they regularly cancel at the last minute
  • A friend or family member expect you to be at their beck and call
  • A family member, friend or colleague has such strong opinions that theirs is the only one that can possibly be correct

Boundary Avoidance

We excuse ourselves from making boundaries (and sticking to them) for a number of reasons, the main one being fear of conflict.  It’s natural to avoid conflict, particularly in the workplace when you wish to retain your job.  Usually, prior to setting boundaries, the person setting them has thought long and hard about the situation they wish to change.  The person on the receiving end has been unaware of the dissatisfaction of the boundary setter and is therefore usually surprised when a boundary is made. 

But before you decide to make a new boundary with another, there are some things to be aware of.  Have a think about who or what is causing you grief.  Are you part of the problem?  This might look like you doing all the cooking and cleaning and feeling resentful about this.  Have you asked for help or refused help when offered in the past?  When someone else does help do they do it incorrectly?  The solution may be as simple as stating you are feeling tired and need more help with meal preparation, or showing someone how you want them to do the job.  You may need to accept that if you are assisted by a family member, they may not do the job to your rigorous standards, and this is ok.  Evaluating our own beliefs and values can assist with clarity in boundary setting.

Internal and External Boundaries

We have two main areas for boundary setting, and these are external boundaries, where we need to set the line of acceptable conduct with others.  This has been discussed in the text above. 

The other boundary line we need to be aware of are our internal boundaries, where we set the limits of our own behaviour with others.  What does this look like?  It could be something like offering to help a family member move house when you know you are actually too tired to do this onerous task.  Instead of helping with the move, perhaps you could make a pasta dinner and deliver it at the end of the day.  Doing and saying things that conflict with your sense of self are breaches of your inner boundary line.  Do you divulge personal information to people who may not be trustworthy then feel uneasy?  This is a breach of your inner boundary line.  Essentially, internal boundaries are what we choose to do with others, and external boundaries are what others do or ask of us.  They are intertwined and so it is a tricky concept to grasp.  You may need to set boundaries for yourself if you know that some of your behaviours are not serving you.

Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries

When wanting to set a boundary with another, it is important to be calm and considered and not in a state of fight or flight.  Pick a time for the boundary conversation when it is relatively peaceful and not time pressured.  Then the topic may be introduced in a natural way and not seem like an agenda.  We can practice setting boundaries with minimal conflict by using assertive communication.  Here are the steps to set healthy boundaries for yourself:

  1. Understand your feelings and the situation so you can then frame what it is you wish to say.  For example, telling a demanding friend (let’s call them ‘Friend’) that you can support them within the other commitments in your life.
  2. Have in mind the place and time you wish to discuss this.  Sometimes it doesn’t feel right at this ‘set’ time and so wait until it feels like the right time for you, in the next catchup for instance.
  3. Practice saying what you want to say.  Write it down, say it to yourself or to a person you trust.  Remember, assertion is stating your needs without anger.  The next time your friend wants to talk for hours on the telephone and you have things to do, you could say something like….  “Friend, I only have 10 minutes free right now.  I have an hour free on Thursday morning, shall I ring you then, or we can have a coffee at the Bakery?”  This sets the parameters of what time you are willing to give without making up excuses, or continuing to be endlessly available.
  4. It is important to be prepared for the other person’s response.  Your friend may be puzzled by the change in availability.  They may express dismay or annoyance with this ‘sudden’ change in the relationship.  They may take it on the chin and say great, let’s talk on Thursday.  The worst case scenario is that they take offence and your friendship suffers.  If you know your friend well, you can guess their response and be ready for it.  Your reply for all of these options is to remain calm and state your case again.
  5. Remember – this is a reasonable thing you are doing for yourself.  It is valid for you and you are practicing self care in putting in a healthy boundary when before there was an unhealthy one.  The pushback you may receive when putting in a boundary with another is because the earlier situation suited them much more than it suited you, and this is what they wish to return to.

Long term boundaries

The key to lasting change when putting boundaries in with someone is to observe your future interactions with this person. Remain aware of where the line of acceptable behaviour is for yourself and others, and if and when your boundaries are breached again, you continue to stand by your boundary.  You could choose to use clarifying statements such as … “I only have Thursday mornings off and enjoy our time together as well as going to Zumba so that’s all I have time for.”  This lets your friend know you are making time for them but also have other needs and commitments.  Sometimes stating your needs a few times over a period of weeks or months lets the other person know that this boundary stuff is here to stay.

Please contact Breathing Space Counselling if you have any queries or comments regarding this article: thebreathingspace@bigpond.com

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Janice White

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