Boundaries

Do you say yes to things that you know you really don’t have the time for? Do you put other people’s needs above yours? Do you feel pressure to do things you don’t want to do because you don’t want to disappoint someone? Yep, I’m looking at you, kid. You have problems with boundaries. People who have problems with personal boundaries are the people that are focused on the needs of others and not on themselves. In other words, people pleasers.

It sounds nice to put others first, doesn’t it? It’s a virtue instilled in us at a very young age. Your needs don’t matter, other people’s do. But personal boundaries are what allow us to have happy, healthy lives and good relationships with others. Boundaries can be defined as the physical, emotional, and mental limits we set with other people to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated. They indicate what we determine as acceptable and unacceptable behaviors toward us.

It’s human nature to step on another’s boundaries. Our brain wants people to do what we want them to do so we are in control. You push other people’s boundaries and they push yours, and that is normal. But that doesn’t mean it feels healthy.

Boundary issues are often related to our self-worth—if we struggle with self-worth, we may find it more difficult to draw boundaries with people. Don’t confuse that with self-esteem. I had high self-esteem that I derived from my ability to please other people. I was really good at being a people pleaser, so I had high self-esteem but low self-worth. If I wasn’t being or doing what others wanted or if I tried and didn’t please them, I felt worthless. My self-worth was defined by others. After spending a life of impressing other people, the person who was the least impressed by me was me. I wasn’t true to myself. I didn’t take care of my needs.

Setting boundaries with people is first about knowing your own limits of what you are willing to accept. Think about situations you were in when you felt discomfort, anger, resentment, or frustration. Think about what the behavior was that made you feel that way, and that is the starting place for a boundary.

The second step is drawing the boundary—telling the people who stepped over the line where the line is or deciding you aren’t spending your time or energy that way. Hear me when I say this—if you want to know who the experts are at crushing your boundaries, it’s your family. I’m betting that if you figure out what your limits are, you’ll realize your family members are the ones most likely to trample over those limits. Setting boundaries with family is really hard, so you may want to start with co-workers, friends, and other acquaintances before working your way into close relations. If you’re ready for the challenge of your life, start with your family. It will change the way you draw boundaries in all parts of your life, but it isn’t for the faint of heart.

If you have a coworker or superior who always interrupts you when you are talking, in a calm, but firm voice, say, “Please let me finish.” If you have a friend who is always asking for too much of your time, attention, or stuff, say, “This is all I can give.” If you find yourself always feeling horrible after spending time with someone or doing a certain thing for someone, stop spending your time that way. Don’t apologize for asking for what you need and letting people know what is more than you can do. You have the right to ask for this. When you start flexing this muscle, you’ll start to see so many situations in your life where people are stepping over your boundaries.

CAUTION-once you draw a boundary with someone, be prepared to redraw it at least 100 times. Understand that your new behavior is not what people expect from you, and they may react poorly. They’re used to getting what they want from you, and this may be off-putting for them. Bummer for them. Keep drawing the boundary. Family members will especially push back at this. They have the longest patterns of behavior with you. They may say you are mean, acting selfishly, etc. Be ready for this. It’s normal, and it means you are doing it right. It’s important to stay as calm as you can when drawing boundaries because others will likely not be.

Pushing boundaries is one thing, bulldozing is another. You will come across people who are bona fide boundary smashers. Some of them you can draw boundaries with, and others you can’t. Depending on the severity of the behavior and how it makes you feel, you must also come to terms with the fact that you may have to let that person go from your life, at least for a time. That sounds dramatic, and it is. This is not most people, but some are so stuck in their destructive patterns that your only option is to stay away. That doesn’t mean you hate them or wish them ill will or don’t forgive them. That means that they aren’t at a point in their lives where they can mind your boundaries and not hurt you. Maybe some day they will, just not right now. They may not even be able to hear or process your request if they are in the grip of addiction, a mental health crisis, etc. You can let them know that you are still there if things change, but do not accept the abuse.

It’s your right as a human to not accept abuse. This can be challenging to do, but essential for your own peace and safety.

Woohoo! Doesn’t this sound fun? It isn’t. It’s really hard. Psychologists tell us that a lack of healthy boundaries can affect all aspects of a person’s life and are essential to our mental health. Examine your feelings, figure out your limits, and let others around you know that you respect yourself and they must as well. Healthy boundaries with others are a gift you give to yourself every day.

Sandy Eichel is a happy ex-should-er.

Photograph provided by Sandy Eichel

Check out our video podcast series with Sandy, After Should, at madisonessentials.com .