Your identity and relationship with boundaries are inextricably linked. Those with poor boundaries often struggle with them because they have never truly reflected upon what it is that they want. On the other hand, rigid boundaries are a sign of fear and insecurity about the world and its potential for causing pain to us. Our identity forms the basis for our values, and our values are instrumental to our boundaries. Only by cultivating an awareness of what our values are can we start to build healthy boundaries.
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How do you have good relationships?
Part of it is having good boundaries.
How do you have good boundaries?
You take responsibility for asserting your needs, wants, and limits.
How do you know what your needs, wants, and limits are?
You know yourself.
A boundary issue is ultimately about identity.
It’s about understanding who you are as a person, and all of the shapes and contours that make up your personality, your values, your unique set of likes and dislikes. But if you have boundary issues, this may not seem like an easy thing to figure out. You may have put others’ needs ahead of your own for so long that you don’t even know what you want or don’t want. You may need to take some time to firm up your preferences or, in some cases, you may be finding all of this out for the very first time!
Your feelings are a clue. Your heart and body can alert you to your values and inner boundaries, even if you’re not consciously and mentally aware of them yet. Remember that nobody else can tell you what you are comfortable with—only you know that. First of all, understand that you, as a human being, have human rights that are never allowed to be violated.
Even if you have low self-esteem, you can rest assured that you have the right to say “no” without guilt, the right to respect, the right to have needs, and the right to make a mistake and learn from it. For some people, it can be incredibly healing to simply acknowledge that they have a right to have boundaries in the first place. They need to constantly remind themselves: I matter. What I want and don’t want matters.
Next, check in with your gut. It’s true that a lifetime of poor parenting, bad relationships, and faulty cultural programing can result in people who feel very weakly connected to their own boundaries. But if you become quiet and check in with your body, you can still hear the voice of your intuition. Notice how your shoulders tighten when your boss enters the room. Becomes curious about that heavy feeling at the back of your throat when your partner insults you. Examine that awful sensation in the pit of your stomach when a family member is shaming you for something. These are all your body’s way of saying, “That went too far. That crossed a boundary.”
Ask yourself (often!) who you are and what you stand for. Your identity informs your values, and your values inform your boundaries. If you know that you are a kind and compassionate person, then you automatically know that one of your values is to protect and care for animals. This, in turn, tells you that one of your boundaries is, “I will not tolerate anyone hurting my pets, and I will never hurt an animal myself.” Now, if a family member or friend kicks your dog one day, you can act immediately and decisively. You put down a boundary and mean it: “Nobody hurts my dog. If you do that again, you are no longer welcome in my house.”
Without a clear idea of your identity, it’s harder to settle on firm values and you’re likely to set boundaries that are not as relevant, or are maybe just the expectations and pressures you’ve absorbed from others! As you work on your boundaries, take the time to convert your value statements into boundaries that can be practically asserted.
How much do you really want to sacrifice—i.e., how much time, energy and other resources do you have? What makes you uncomfortable? What matters most to you and what are absolutely not your priorities in life? Are you placing enough energy and attention on your priorities? Is your focus primarily on your own needs or on others’? Boundaries are not black and white—what is nonnegotiable for you and what can you be a little more flexible on? What things are you happy to compromise over?
Too many people wait until their boundaries have been crossed to start looking at these boundaries and improving them. But most of the good work of boundaries happens long before you encounter another person and their behavior. For example, someone may know that they have boundary issues at work.
Historically, this has always been the case for them, so when they start a new job, they take the time to outline a proactive strategy. They look carefully at their values, priorities, and available time and energy, and decide on a hard limit of work hours beyond which they are not comfortable committing to. Knowing this in advance, they are prepared the next time they are pushed to work overtime on a public holiday.
They use carefully phrased “I” statements to politely, but assertively, state their boundary, and then follow through. In this way, the person affirms their right to their own preferences and communicates to others that their time and well-being are important. Such a person may find with time that it becomes easier to be assertive this way.
Oftentimes, you will also be faced with unforeseen situations where you need to think on your feet and decide whether something violates your boundaries. Say you’re out with your friends and one of them suggests doing something that you’re uncomfortable with, but the others aren’t. It could be a prank, drugs, or something else.
You might think to yourself that some flexibility in your boundaries might be warranted. Yet, you might just be falling prey to peer pressure in the moment. In such instances, it is imperative that you respect your needs and comfort above appearing cool and easy-going. If the thought of doing something makes you uncomfortable, actually doing it will likely not make you feel any better. The more difficult a particular boundary area is for you, the more detailed your planning and strategy may have to be.
You may decide, in dating, that you are simply not comfortable having dates that sprawl on longer than an hour because you find them draining. You may decide that you won’t answer online dating messages or texts during work hours or when you’re with your family. You may decide that no matter what anyone says, you are not comfortable dating outside of a particular age range, for example. Your boundaries may be more abstract—if a date flops or someone turns out to be rude, you make a promise to yourself to not allow that negative energy to seep into the rest of your life.
You draw a boundary and tell yourself, “No matter what happens, I’m not going to get cynical, or respond with rudeness myself. I won’t give up, but I also won’t allow any dating disappointments to bring down my mood.”