Simply put, boundaries are limits that we put in place to help us assess what is our responsibility and what is not, and it also defines what our limits are. Ultimately, boundaries teach people how they are allowed to interact with us and when we set boundaries with ourselves, it teaches us accountability and how to tap into our sense of agency.
In my experience as a therapist, I've found that many folks struggle with setting and maintaining personal boundaries. Many people (particularly women and femmes) have been taught that saying no is mean or selfish and that being selfless and passive makes you a good and nice person. But if being "nice" causes you harm by taking on too much while constantly putting other people first (among other potential consequences), then you are not being nice—you are being a people-pleaser.
Having healthy boundaries help us to strengthen our relationships because they allow us to meet others' needs while being able to meet and respect our own. The reality is we cannot be everything to everyone, and our boundaries help us take care of ourselves while simultaneously caring for others. So how does one get started on setting boundaries? Here are two key places to start.
How to set healthy boundaries: two places to start today
1. Define your values
Our values are the things that are important to us, and therefore we hold them in high esteem. Values are not just thoughts and feelings, they are behaviors. We act out and respond to the things that are important and valued to us.
So why are values important when setting boundaries? Because too often, people find themselves living out of alignment with their values by saying yes to things that are either not important to them, or out of alignment with the things that are meaningful to them. Understanding what your values are creates a starting place for you to set boundaries that best support you.
For example, if you are not a fan of spontaneous pop-ups and gatherings, then you might want to inform your mother-in-law that showing up unannounced is not acceptable. Or if spending time with your family during dinner is important to you, then you might have to decline that invitation for a Zoom hangout call with friends that is happening at the same time.
Our values inform our decision-making, and often, when you feel a sense of regret, it can be the result of you abandoning yourself and your needs in order to be everything to everyone else.
2. Stop letting your feelings control you
Emotional maturity is when we have a healthy relationship with our emotions that allows us to approach them through a lens of non-judgment and not allow them to dictate or control our behaviors. When we learn to feel our feelings, we can be less controlled by them.
This is important when setting boundaries. One of the biggest emotional obstacles people face to setting boundaries is the feeling of guilt, an emotion that typically tells us, I did something bad. By having this belief, we assume that we should not be doing what we think is best for us because it feels uncomfortable.
Learning to work through discomfort is vital for setting boundaries because sometimes doing the right thing will not feel good, but just because it doesn't feel good doesn't mean it shouldn’t be done. This is a process that takes time (and practice!) but some helpful strategies to work through your feelings can include journaling, meditation, breathwork, talk therapy, or confiding in a friend.
The most important thing to remember here is that having boundaries doesn’t make you mean or selfish. It simply means you are a human with limits. The wonderful thing to know is that all humans have limits, and as such, we all need boundaries.
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