Why do healthy boundaries matter?
I am not sure about you but I never have learned to set healthy boundaries as a child. I grew up in a family with toxic dynamics that violated my boundaries many times. Nobody in my family knew or talked about boundaries. As a result, I did not know how to set healthy boundaries as a young adult.
If we have experienced childhood abuse, it is common that we don't know how healthy boundaries look like. Setting boundaries might have resulted in physical violence or other negative repercussions. Therefore, it might have been an adaptive coping skill to not set boundaries. While this behaviour was helpful in our childhood, it doesn't allow us to create healthy relationship as adults. Therefore, it is important that we improve our skills to set healthy boundaries.
Healthy boundaries are the foundation for healthy relationships with others and a healthy relationship with ourselves. While we cannot control how people behave towards us, I can learn to take care of our boundaries to protect ourselves. Having healthy boundaries is not a one-time event. It is a daily practice and a continuous growth process.
What are boundaries all about?
Our boundaries act as a fence and have several functions in our lives. First of all, they protect us from harmful behaviours that are not ok for us because they support us in keeping those behaviours outside of the fence. They also allow us to set a standard for our lives by setting a standard about how we want to be treated. They also define who we are as individuals. Furthermore, healthy boundaries support us in letting go of relationships that aren't good for us anymore. Last but not least, healthy boundaries help us manage our energy levels and time commitments and protect us from burn-out.
Overall, setting healthy boundaries is an act of self-respect. Having healthy boundaries is an art we need to learn as adults. It reduces our risk for burn-out, stress, fatigue, and health problems and increases our well-being.
“It is necessary, and even vital, to set standards for your life and the people you allow in.” Mandy Hale
What is important to know?
- Boundaries are personal.
Each of us is unique, therefore we have different boundaries. And that’s ok. We need to learn to accept, respect and embrace our differences. For example, I have never in my life liked yelling because it is not ok for me. However, it might be ok for another person.
- Boundaries need to be communicated.
Since our boundaries are unique and different, other people cannot know them because their boundaries might be very different. Therefore, we need communicate our boundaries.
- They depend on the relationship and the context.
Our boundaries may often also be different depending on the relationship and the context. There is no one-fits-all recipe for boundaries that can be used for every relationship. We need to be flexible and adjust them to the specific relationship and context.
- They may change over time.
Boundaries may change throughout our relationships as well as through personal growth.
What are generally harmful behaviours?
While each person has individual behaviours that are not ok for them, there are certain behaviours that in general violate our boundaries. These behaviours include:
- Any kind of abusive behaviour, whether it is physically, sexual, or emotionally abusive behaviour from another person.
- If you are the target of manipulative actions or bullying.
- Any behaviour that intends to overpower you, e.g. you are confronted with a person who has an “I win, you lose” mentality or a “my way or the highway” mentality
- In case that another person takes advantage of you or doesn't appreciate you.
- If you are the target of contempt, ridicule, mockery, and sarcasm.
- Whenever you are exposed to heavy judgments and constant criticism.
- If you are the target for any racist or discriminative behaviour.
While these behaviours violate our boundaries, we can also take specific actions to strengthen them: Boundaries are in our bodies, so our bodies will signal us where our boundary is. We can strengthen our boundaries when we say no when our inner sense is no and when we say yes if our inner sense is yes. Furthermore, we improve our boundaries if we respect our feelings and our intuition. We also empower ourselves if we stand up for ourselves if our boundaries have been harmed. Last but not least, we can take care of our boundaries if we are curious about ourselves and find out who we are.
Our emotions are usually a good indicator of boundary violations: Some people experience anger if their boundaries have been crossed. Some people may experience resentment, confusion, or irritation.
For some people, it can also be a sign that their boundaries have been violated if they constantly blame another person or if they find justifications for behaviours that are not ok for the.
Challenges in setting healthy boundaries
Sometimes, we have unconscious patterns that prevent us from setting healthy boundaries.
- Shame and guilt
Both emotions often cause us to abandon ourselves and neglect our boundaries. Sometimes, there are complex interdependencies between shame and guilt and past traumatic experiences. It may require some healing to work with these patterns.
- Fawn response
The fawn response is a trauma-response where we abandon our needs to avoid conflict, criticism or disapproval. While this was an adaptive coping response to past traumatic experiences, it may not serve us well in current relationships. Therefore, it can be necessary to ask for professional help to overcome this pattern.
- Painful childhood experiences or childhood trauma
Childhood abuse - whether emotional, physical, or sexual - violates our boundaries. However, as children, we often need to find adaptive coping skills to survive in these situations. As adults, it may be necessary that we do some deeper healing to increase our capacity to set healthy boundaries. It is ok to ask for professional help. You are not alone in this.
How do healthy boundaries look like?
Often, we don't fully know how healthy boundaries look like. So, how do we know what we should work towards to? Here are some symptoms that indicate that you have healthy boundaries:
- Emotional well-being
Your boundaries are healthy if you experience emotional well-being. This includes that you feel good about yourself and that you have an optimistic perspective on the future. You can manage stress well and experience happiness and satisfaction.
- Embracing your uniqueness
If you have healthy boundaries, you have a strong sense of your identity. Also, you know who you are and who you are not. Furthermore, you take responsibility for your life and can hold people accountable for theirs (e.g. you don’t need to rescue them). Additionally, you know what is yours and what is not yours. Apart from this, you are putting yourself first, even if you risk to let somebody down. In addition to this, you stick to your values and stay in integrity even if you fear to be rejected.
- Accepting our differences
If we have healthy boundaries we see that we are unique individuals but we can also accept our differences. We respect each other while we allow us to be who we are. For example, I am a cat lover and some of my friends don’t like cats. And that is ok. I respect that she does not like cats and I tried to keep my cats away.
I am curious how you feel about the quality of your boundaries after reading this article? Which areas are you feeling confident about? Which areas would you like to improve?
Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash