Setting Healthy Boundaries

‘Whoosh! Beep! Beep!’ A large bus speeds through an intersection in front of you, cars honk angrily, passers-by pause at the intersection. You are standing on a busy city street. Crowds of people rush past, in a hurry to get to their next meeting, catch their train, or pick up their children from school. Each person is moving through the crowd, darting a bench here, avoiding a stroller there. This crowd is made up of numerous distinct individuals. Despite the hustle and bustle, is very clear to see where one person ends and another begins. Now imagine what would happen if these lines were blurred, if one person’s arm melted into another’s backpack, or a group of friends standing close together began to morph into one being. How confusing everything would be! In reality we all have our own physical bodies, and there is no doubt about where we end and the person next to us begins. However, if we were to look into each individual’s private inner life, these boundaries would not be nearly as clear.

When it comes to mental and emotional boundaries, many of us struggle to establish healthy ones. Some people prioritize the needs of others over their own, defining their happiness in relation to those they care about. Some internalize the emotions of those around them, and others allow their peers to act rudely towards them or treat them in a derogatory manner. Because they have not set limits with others (and themselves), their internal states become messy and full of chaos.

In order to maintain an inner sense calm and balance, healthy boundaries need to established. But before we can establish them, it is important to understand what boundaries are and why we need them at all.

What are boundaries? Boundaries are divides, borders that separate one thing from another, such as ourselves from those around us. Boundaries serve to protect us from internalizing all the thoughts and emotions around us. This creates a strong sense of self as well as a feeling of safety and security. When we have healthy boundaries with others, we can address our own needs and help others without sacrificing too much of ourselves. When boundaries are unclear (or nonexistent), we become anxious, nervous, and insecure.

Let’s look at a classic example of a physical boundary. If you lock your house, no one can enter (unless you welcome them in voluntarily). On the other hand, you can decide to leave your door wide open. Now anyone can enter, from nosy neighbors to insects to homeless people to teenagers looking for a house to party in. Since there are no rules established or enforced, everyone will come in and out of the house as they please and do whatever they wish. You can imagine how much of a mess this house could be in within just a few days! The house will not be properly cared for and may collapse or become uninhabitable very quickly.

Personal boundaries are just as important as physical ones. If we don’t communicate to others how we can and cannot be treated, our mental and emotional states will be quite unstable. In order to maintain self-esteem and separate your own feelings and emotions from those of others, these limits are crucial.

So how do you go about setting healthy boundaries with others?

First, it is important to ask yourself several questions:

  • What do I need?- Take an inventory of your personal needs. Do you require several hours of time to yourself to recenter at the end of the day? Do you need more help from your spouse or roommates with household tasks? Whatever it is, make sure that you are aware of it.

  • What do I value?- Consider what is important to you in terms of principles, morals, etc. Are you living life in accordance with them?

  • How do I want others to treat me?- All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Are the people closest to you treating you in this manner?

Once you have established what you need and how you would like to be treated, observe how your day-to-day life compares. Do you allow others to treat you disrespectfully? Are there people in your life that demand more than you can give? Do you often find yourself taking care of others so much that you neglect your own needs? Once you identify what you would like to be different, brainstorm some ideas of how to make  necessary changes. This could mean saying no to a friend’s request, confronting a coworker about an inappropriate joke, or having a conversation with a close family member about how their behavior negatively affects you. Be gentle yet firm with others in communicating your needs. Some people will be unhappy with these changes, especially if their intrusion on your boundaries is beneficial to them. This is okay. Over time, people will get used to it and you will be happier and feel freer to express your own needs and opinions. Not only will this increase your self-esteem, but it will likely gain you more respect from others as well. If you treat yourself kindly, others will follow suit.

Helpful Tips:

  • Start small- Make small goals and work on achieving them. For example, if you wish to respect your own needs more, start by saying “no” to one request for help when you are too tired or busy.

  • Be assertive- When setting limits with others, be clear and speak confidently. Be firm about your needs, while being respectful of the other person.

  • Prioritize self-care- Tune in to your body and its needs, and honor them! There is no need to feel guilty about taking time for yourself. If you are taken care of and happy, you will be much better able to be there for others. This is a skill that takes time and practice, so remember to be kind and patient with yourself.

Just as any other endeavor, setting healthy boundaries takes time and practice. The line between honoring our needs and the needs of others is often difficult to find, but that is okay! As long as you keep going, you will eventually find a healthy balance.

Good luck and please share your own experiences with setting boundaries on Twitter @yogatailor and in the comments section below.

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