Adjusting and Maintaining Personal Boundaries for Our Health
It is easy to go into auto-pilot mode when traveling familiar roads. We know the way, but we can easily get lost in our thoughts, lose track of where we are, and realize that we are not where we need to be.
This happens as we move through our lives too. We get used to the routines in our days and give them little thought. We keep moving from one task to another and from one day to the next without quite realizing it. Things keep moving along just fine-- until they don’t. Sometimes a single event shows us that we are not fine, sometimes it is a slow build-up.
Things change. Changes happen within ourselves and changes happen that are outside of our control. Some changes are big and others are small. The time will come when we realize that we need to make adjustments in order to keep moving forward in the right direction.
One of the most common reasons that we feel like we have gotten off track can be traced back to our personal boundaries. When the boundary between what we find to be comfortable and acceptable has been approached or crossed, we enter a mode of psychological distress. Often, this distress is our first signal that something is wrong, but we can evaluate and establish our boundaries to get ourselves back on course.
Healthy boundaries serve as a protective force for all people, and especially for those working to manage anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
What is a Personal Boundary?
The term boundary is defined as a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something. In the case of personal boundaries, we can imagine a line between what we are comfortable with and what we are not comfortable with in regards to our actions, personal space, emotions, and relationships. Personal boundaries are personal- each person’s boundaries are unique. You may not be able to control the way that other people act or treat you, but you can control the ways that you uphold and maintain your boundaries.
When we think of boundaries, we often imagine them as a wall or fence- something that is fixed in place that needs to be broken down to move. It can feel like it will take a lot of work to build and maintain boundaries or that it will create a divide between ourselves and those that we care about. Fortunately, this is not personal boundaries work at all. Personal boundaries are fluid: evolving, changing, and fluctuating as we grow and our circumstances change. It may be more useful to compare personal boundaries to those created by water. Water can take many forms, changing states based on the conditions. Sometimes water can provide a barrier such as a river, but at its essence water is what sustains life and allows for growth.
It is important for us to work to understand and uphold personal boundaries in order for us to maintain our overall well-being, mental health, and positive relationships.
Each person is different in what they are comfortable with and that is okay. These differences can be influenced by past experiences, health, cultural norms, and countless other factors. Boundaries are individual and personal. Each person is made uniquely and has different thresholds of comfort. Just because someone else is comfortable with something or believes a certain thing, doesn’t mean that we have to as well. The converse is also true: just because we are comfortable with something or have a particular belief, doesn’t mean that others should feel the same way.
We cannot allow others to tell us what our boundaries should be; boundaries are something that we must evaluate for ourselves.
Pushed Boundaries, Crossed Boundaries
It can be hard for us to fully understand our own boundaries, though we know the unease and discomfort of having our boundaries crossed or disregarded. This is often the most recognizable sign that a boundary has been approached or crossed.
Signs a Personal Boundary Have Been Crossed:
Feeling depleted or taken advantage of
Feeling anger or resentment to others
Feeling disrespected or undervalued
Feeling confused, frustrated, and unsure of what action is right
Feeling physical discomforts such as tightness in your chest, nausea, or headaches
Feeling pressured into doing things that you are not comfortable with
Feeling a general sense of unease, stress, or anxiety.
It is human nature to look out for ourselves. People are made to push our boundaries and test our resolve as they try to get what they want. It is up to us to communicate our boundaries and others should be respectful of these boundaries, but we also need to consistently uphold our boundaries. We can think of children in this regard. They will test your boundaries and if you give in, they will try the same thing again. The more that you allow a boundary to be crossed unchecked, the easier it will be for others to disregard it.
Evaluating Our Personal Boundaries
There are many types of personal boundaries that touch all elements of our lives, whether we notice them or not. Boundaries influence our work-life balance, the way that we approach household chores, the rules we set for our children, our personal relationships, and the ways we interact with others.
The subject of personal boundaries is incredibly broad and complex, so for now, we will just focus on beginning to understand physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, and moral boundaries.
Physical boundaries relate to the physical space around us and our bodies including, our need for personal space and our sense of privacy or modesty. Physical boundaries can be some of the easiest to recognize, but they can be some of the most difficult to communicate and maintain.
Common Encroachments on Physical Boundaries:
Someone standing too close
Uninvited guests in your home, room, office, or other personal space
Unease with crowds or groups of people
Discomfort with casual touching including, pats on the back, handshakes, touching a shoulder or arm
Discomfort with close touching including hugs or kisses (even with family members or close friends)
Unwanted or inappropriate touching of any kind, by anyone
Discomfort with changing clothes around others or having them change clothes around us
Discomfort with being alone with someone
While physical boundaries are personal, they can be influenced heavily by culture and upbringing. This can make it difficult for us to communicate with strangers. In some cultures people kiss cheeks as a greeting, others shake hands. Some families consider themselves to be “huggers” while wave or shake hands.
It is always important to ask others before we touch them and it is always okay to decline. We shouldn’t force our children to hug people and we should not feel compelled to hug people. We all have our own levels of comfort and our physical boundaries often flex based on how we feel or who we are with. It is okay to say, “I just need a little space right now.”
We can avoid some uncomfortable situations by stepping back to allow more space or waving instead of touching. If someone crosses a physical boundary and makes you uncomfortable, you can say, “Hey, I am not really comfortable with…)
It is important to note that when someone knowingly and repeatedly pushing a boundary, is harassment. If you are being harassed, work to remove yourself from the situation and seek help.
Emotional boundaries relate to our tolerance for addressing the emotional needs of others without taking on their feelings as our own. Those with healthy emotional boundaries are able to recognize that other people’s problems are their own and that we are not responsible for “fixing” the problems of others. Healthy emotional boundaries mean that we understand that we are not to blame when others get upset and do not let the fear of feeling guilty drive the decisions that we make in our relationships.
When we notice that we are feeling the pain and stress of others we can evaluate our roles by asking ourselves if the problem is within our control or responsibility. Though we can support others when they are facing challenges, we also need to maintain our own emotional health in the process. We cannot provide effective support if we are too emotionally involved and over-extended.
Setting and Reinforcing Our Emotional Boundaries:
Remind ourselves that we cannot make choices for other people and we cannot force anyone to take a particular action
Offer empathetic, but limited responses when other people try to draw us into their emotional drama. For example, “Ugh. I am so sorry that you are having to deal with this.”
Take time to define the ways that you are able/willing to help and the ways that you are unable/unwilling to help a person.
Limit or avoid contact with people who try to draw you into their problems
Healthy emotional relationships are not draining, depleting, or anxiety-inducing. While we can provide important supports, we cannot fix other people. We cannot do the work of others, take on their responsibilities, or take on the burden of their choices. We can support healing, but only if we work to maintain our health and well-being.
Moral boundaries relate to our core values and sense of right and wrong. Core values are our intrinsic beliefs of what is acceptable and what is not. Healthy moral boundaries can include avoiding topics with people when we know that we disagree, distancing ourselves from those who actively challenge our values, speaking up when we see something wrong, or refusing to practice behaviors that go against our morals.
Frequent challenges to our sense of right and wrong can lead to internal conflict or encroachment on our physical and emotional boundaries.
Common Challenges to Our Moral Boundaries Include:
Lying, dishonesty, or omission of information
Beliefs related to parenting styles and discipline
Acceptable treatment of others and willingness to take a stand
What is believed to be appropriate within a relationship
Beliefs related to substance use
As previously discussed, boundaries can be fluid. As we grow as people, learn from others, and understand the world around us, we often make adjustments to our beliefs and morals. These changes come from within and cannot be forced on another person.
Moral boundaries and beliefs are entwined with all of our other boundaries, so when people frequently or forcefully challenge our moral boundaries we often find that several boundaries have been approached or crossed.
Moral boundaries are deeply rooted in our sense of self, self-confidence, and identity. Having our moral boundaries challenged or crossed can cause us great pain and psychological distress. We can find comfort in those that share our beliefs and work to set appropriate limits with others. We learn so much from those who do not share our beliefs, but healthy relationships remain mutually respectful.
What Can be Done to Establish, Adjust, and Maintain Boundaries?
It is up to each of us to communicate our boundaries to others. We get to determine what is acceptable or unacceptable, what we tolerate, and what we do not. We can even change our minds. We can discover that something that we thought wasn’t a big deal, actually is a big deal. We grow and evolve as people and our boundaries will change with us.
The first thing that can be done to establish and maintain healthy boundaries is to understand that you are worthy of your boundaries. You are in charge of taking care of yourself and you are worthy of that care. You deserve to protect yourself from things that make you uncomfortable and give you distress. You never have to do anything that makes you feel physically, emotionally, or morally compromised.
Though we can hint at our boundaries or avoid situations where our boundaries will be challenged, in order to firmly establish boundaries we will have to communicate them verbally to others. This can be an uncomfortable prospect for many, but rehearsing what we will say and finding someone to support us will help.
Phrases to Establish or Adjust Boundaries:
I am not able to do that right now
I have enough on my plate right now
I am commitments elsewhere
This isn’t working for me.
If this is going to work, we need to make some adjustments
I am not comfortable with that.
We need to make some adjustments.
It makes me uncomfortable when....
Unfortunately, we will encounter people who actively ignore, disregard, or try to tear down our boundaries. These people are often not healthy themselves and it is not our responsibility to help them. Often these people are struggling with issues beyond our control. We can only control ourselves and work toward our own health. However, it is important to reiterate that when someone knowingly and repeatedly pushing a boundary, is harassment. If you are being harassed, work to remove yourself from the situation and seek help.
We Own Our Boundaries
Our boundaries are our own. They are not for other people to determine. We know what we believe is right and wrong and we also know what we are comfortable with and what we are not comfortable with. Physical, emotional, and moral boundaries exist in all aspects of our lives and all relationships that we have.
We can fortify ourselves by being firm in the knowledge that we cannot live in fear of disappointing others. The only people that will be upset when we uphold our boundaries are the people that consistently benefit from crossing them. It is up to you to maintain your boundaries. It can be hard work, but you are worth it:
Your feelings matter.
Your boundaries are important.
You deserve to be respected.
You are worthy of care and compassion.
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