Healthy people set strong boundaries
A few weeks ago, I got into a conflict with one of the most manipulative people I have ever met. It seemed that this person who would stop at nothing to be right and to come out on top, and I was completely caught off guard. To them, stonewalling, lashing out, lying, gaslighting were all on the table, and an open, two-way conversation was not.
Let me tell you, it felt bad to be on the receiving end of all that. It felt really bad for about a week, as I tried over and over to compromise and resolve the situation, but was met with resistance each time. While I typically deal with stress by sweating it out at the gym, exercise just wasn't an option for me this time. I lost my appetite, my energy, and my mental focus. I felt anxious and tense. At one point, I tried going on a run, but I had trouble breathing and was forced to stop.
The most disappointing part was that this was someone I barely knew and didn't actually care much about. So why had I let them get under my skin? I knew I needed to create some distance and establish some boundaries - stat.
When you hear the word "boundary", you might think of physical fences or walls—physical demarcations that separate one thing from another. The types of boundaries we set in our personal and emotional lives are less visible but even more important. They are the rules, limits, and codes of conduct that we establish in order to protect our time, emotions, mental health, and indeed, our physical wellbeing. These boundaries act as an inner compass, guiding us towards self-preservation and self-care.
Healthy boundaries empower us to clearly define and honor our needs and priorities, even when they conflict with those around us. They enable us to turn down invitations, commitments, or requests that could harm our emotional or physical wellbeing. When we don't set firm boundaries, we leave ourselves vulnerable to exploitation, burnout, and stress—a state of affairs all too familiar to overworked and overcommitted high-achievers.
Your values should inform your boundaries
So how do we determine the boundaries that we need? Before we even think about boundaries, we need to take some time to look inward and examine our personal values. Think about the last time you were angry, I mean really angry about something. It's likely that something that happened or something that was said really violated your personal values and triggered an intense emotional response. Whenever this happens, you can learn a lot about yourself by taking the time to dig deeper and asking why.
For example, imagine that you've just completed a big project with your team at work. However, during a presentation to stakeholders, your team lead takes sole credit for the project's success and neglects to mention the contributions of the other team members. If you value humility, this would upset you, as the team lead displayed arrogance and dismissal of the collaborative efforts by you and your colleagues.
Now, imagine that you're catching up with a group of friends at the bar on Friday night. One of your friends shares that they have just gone through a tough breakup. They express feelings of deep sadness and disappointment with the group. However, instead of listening and showing understanding, another friend in immediately downplays their feelings, suggesting that they should "just move on" or "find someone new." If you value empathy, you would be taken aback by this dismissive response, as it demonstrates failure to recognize and validate emotional pain.
It's crucial to know our values, so that we can identify what we are and aren't willing to tolerate. Our values reveal why certain situations, people, or demands cause discomfort, anxiety, or resentment. We all have different thresholds, and knowing these thresholds is the first step toward protecting our peace and asserting our autonomy. While it isn't possible to avoid all circumstances in which your values are violated, you will almost certainly find opportunities to align your environment to the life you want to live.
Once you can clearly articulate your values, you can use them to set appropriate boundaries. Boundaries are explicit standards of behavior that you set for yourself and others. They define what you find acceptable and what you don't. Here are some examples:
- If you value your personal time, a boundary might be that you need an hour of alone time every evening to decompress and recharge.
- If you value physical health, a boundary might be choosing to limit situations where you're likely to engage in binge drinking.
- If you value respect, a boundary could be that you will not tolerate being yelled at or belittled in any kind of relationship, personal or professional.
- If you value honesty, a boundary could be avoiding relationships with people who are dishonest with you. This means distancing yourself from former friends who consistently lie to or deceive you.
- If you value work-life balance, a boundary might be not checking work emails or taking calls outside of office hours. This protects your personal time and mental well-being.
- If you value personal growth, a boundary might involve dedicating specific hours each week towards learning a new skill or pursuing a hobby.
These boundaries not only help guard your values but also cultivate self-respect by making your needs and standards clear to yourself and others.
Communicating and enforcing boundaries
Developing self-awareness and defining our boundaries is just the start. Healthy boundaries need to be communicated clearly and directly. This can be a significant hurdle, especially when we fear conflict, rejection, or simply upsetting others. It's common to feel guilty for prioritizing our needs, but it's also important to remember that boundary-setting isn't a negotiation—it's a necessary declaration of self-respect.
Not only can it be difficult to communicate our boundaries in the first place, but it can also be difficult to enforce them. Not everyone is going to readily accept and respect the boundaries you establish. In fact, some people may have no problem crossing them at all. In these instances, it is vital that you stand your ground and have a plan of action. Some steps to consider include:
- Reiterate your boundaries. If someone crosses a boundary, it's essential to clearly communicate that to them. Use "I" statements to avoid sounding accusatory, such as, "I feel uncomfortable when you make those kinds of comments. I'd appreciate it if you could respect my feelings in the future."
- Discuss the implications. Explain why the boundary is essential for your wellbeing and the relationship's health. For instance, you might say, "It's crucial for me to have downtime after work, as it helps me recharge and be more present with you when we do interact."
- Seek support. If you're having difficulty enforcing your boundaries on your own, reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional. They can offer advice, provide reassurance, and help you come up with strategies to assert your boundaries effectively.
- Decide on consequences and follow through. If your boundaries continue to be disrespected after communicating them, it may be necessary to implement consequences and do so consistently. For example, if a friend disregards your request not to call late at night, you might decide not to answer their calls after a certain time.
- Reconsider the relationship. If someone consistently violates your boundaries even after you've communicated your needs clearly, it may be time to reconsider whether the relationship is worth maintaining. It's important to surround yourself with people who respect and support your needs.
Remember, setting boundaries isn't about punishing others or trying to control their behavior. Instead, it's about creating a healthy environment for yourself where your needs are respected and fulfilled and you are worthy of having that.
Boundaries safeguard our mental and emotional well-being, foster authenticity in our lives and enable us to build mutually respectful relationships. Admittedly, it's not always easy to stand our ground. We may fear others' reactions or question our own judgments. However, in those moments, remember that you are the architect of your life and your boundaries are the blueprint. You owe it to yourself to act in a way that reflects and protects your values. In doing so, you will not only earn the respect of others but also cultivate respect for yourself.