I am a recovering people pleaser.
True story, I used to buy my classmates bags of chips and candy from the school cafeteria in an attempt to get them to like me more.
I laugh about it now, but thinking back, my understanding of personal boundaries was non-existent for the better part of my youth and even into young adulthood. If other people were happy, then I felt like I was happy…even if it came at the expense of my own mental/physical/emotional wellbeing.
If others were unhappy, then that automatically meant that I was unhappy too. How others felt had such a significant impact on my own mood. Because of this, I always went out of my way to make sure others were happy.
It wasn’t until I asked myself why I was feeling burnt out and resentful I was able to start looking into my own boundaries, or lack of boundaries, as was the case with me.
What are personal boundaries?
Having healthy personal boundaries basically means that we set limits with other people as to what we find acceptable versus unacceptable behaviour towards us. This tells people what is and isn’t okay. Boundaries also give us guidelines as to how we respond when someone crosses our boundaries.
Knowing our boundaries typically comes from a solid sense of self-worth, or valuing ourselves in a way that is not dependent on others.
Boundaries are not static and they are not meant to put up walls. There can be boundaries for certain situations in certain contexts (maybe you don’t mind doing a bunch of baking for friends/family around Christmas time but to be asked to do it for all special occasions and holidays is asking too much).
There are also varying layers of boundaries, ranging from soft to rigid, with the ideal being more on the flexible side. Soft would be someone whose boundaries merge with other people’s boundaries and is easily a victim of psychological manipulation. Rigid would be someone who is closed off so that no one can get close either physically or emotionally. Flexible boundaries are similar to rigid boundaries except that the person exerts more control. The person decides what/who to let in and what/who to keep out.
Of course, many people don’t purposely cross our boundaries, and this can be especially true when we haven’t actually established one and made it known to others. So how can we tell if we need boundaries?
How to tell if you need boundaries
Having a strong sense of self-worth and self-compassion will go a long way when doing the work of figuring out if we need boundaries in a certain area of our life. A great read on self-compassion that I recommend to pretty much everyone is a book called Self-Compassion (of course) by Kristen Neff, PhD.
The easiest way for you to determine where a personal boundary might be needed is to think about a time where you felt resentful, angry, and/or overwhelmed with the demands of your life.
For me, I find I start to feel a bit resentful and overwhelmed when I say “yes” to too many social events in a row with little time for myself in between. It has taken some major introspection on my part, but I have discovered that I need at least 1hr of alone time everyday in order for me to feel grounded. This doesn’t have to be all at once, and I’ll often take 30min first thing in the morning and another chunk at some point throughout the day.
How to set and keep healthy boundaries
Figure out what your own boundaries are
Sit down and really think about what your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual boundaries are when it comes to people in your life: intimate partners, friends, colleagues, family, acquaintances, strangers, etc. Think back to a time when you felt angry, resentful, hurt, and/or overwhelmed with an individual. It’s possible that your boundaries were getting crossed.
Make those boundaries known
Figuring out your boundaries is a great start, but it is actually the follow-through that really counts. The only way to let others know about your boundaries is to let them know when they have been crossed by being direct with them.
Being assertive, especially when it doesn’t come naturally (and this is very much something I struggle with), can be a daunting task. The best way to work on this is to start small and slowly build up.
Practice keeps it fresh
Having solid boundaries only works if you keep up with asserting them when they’ve been crossed. It’s not something that comes naturally for many of us, and one of my biggest fears is coming off as rude or insensitive whenever I have to assert myself in a situation where a boundary of mine has been crossed.
There is a way to do this, however, without coming off as rude or insensitive. I am honest with people when it comes to this. Especially if I am close to them. If someone wonders why I am saying no to a particular activity or event, I will explain that I need some time to rest and recover and that saying yes to this would put me in a situation of taking on too much.
Of course, there are always exceptions, and that’s why it’s important to have a more flexible than rigid boundary. My social calendar is a lot busier in the spring and summer than the winter.
If all else fails, say goodbye
As a recovering people pleaser, I have a hard time letting go of relationships, even if that particular relationship is toxic. If you have made a boundary clear to someone and they continue to cross it, then it’s time to say goodbye. This person doesn’t respect you and don’t deserve to be a part of your life.
Of course, there are situations where this is out of your control (family, colleagues) but limiting interactions as much as possible would be ideal. This all comes down to how you value yourself and acknowledging that no one has the right to make you feel uncomfortable or push your boundaries.