Asserting your boundaries can be a frightening and scary prospect, especially for those of us who have never done so before. We may be afraid of conflict, or terrified at the possibility of being disliked by others who might not agree with our boundaries. Despite the initial reluctance, it is nevertheless crucial for us to express and communicate with others things that are not acceptable to us. This helps us to develop a positive self-esteem and attract healthy relationships in our lives.
We tend to think that boundaries make us selfish, that we won’t be well-liked by others if we enforce them, or that it is somehow overly demanding of others. None of these are true. Learning how to create and maintain boundaries is an important skill that is useful for everyone.
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An Important Definition
It’s Christmas day and a little girl is told to kiss her grandmother on the cheek and wish her a Merry Christmas. The girl is shy and turns her face away, saying she doesn’t want to. The mother admonishes her: “Don’t be mean to granny! Go on, give her a kiss!” and pushes the child towards her grandmother.
What lesson is learnt here? In this all-too-normal occurrence, we see the seeds of poor boundaries being sown. Every human being undergoes a period of socialization in life. We all need to learn to respect ourselves and others, to give and take, to talk and listen. But often, the balance isn’t quite right, and we can carry incredibly damaging beliefs about ourselves from childhood into adulthood.
Many people will barely spend any time figuring out exactly what their boundaries are. They assume that each context or situation will tell them how to behave, or they simply default to the dominant cultural or relational messages they’ve adopted purely by habit. But how well do you really know yourself and what you need? Have you ever really taken the time to outline your own set of core personal beliefs, needs, individual perspectives, wants, limits, and values?
Boundaries are not just for people leaving abusive relationships. They’re for everyone.
They’re important because they help you say “no,” calmly and confidently. They let you live an empowered life that you feel in control of. They attract respectful, caring people into your world and allow you to have deeper, more mature connections with them.
You’ll have more physical, emotional, and spiritual energy, you’ll speak up when wronged, and you’ll feel more valued and appreciated in life. You’ll understand your needs and therefore have a greater chance of fulfilling them. You’ll be emotionally balanced, self-aware, and have rock-solid self-esteem that gives you the courage to be exactly who you are to your fullest potential.
Shouldn’t all of that put healthy personal boundaries at the top of your priorities list?
Many people who were socialized as children to be “nice” have developed the idea that having boundaries and a sense of self-respect is “not nice;” that good people always say “yes” and never put themselves before others. Isn’t this crazy? Fortunately, choosing whether to set boundaries is not a choice between being a doormat or being selfish. These misconceptions speak to a fundamental misunderstanding of what boundaries are. Before we continue, let’s address some of these ideas now to dispel any myths and assure you that developing healthy boundaries will not transform you into a bad or selfish person!
Boundaries are not selfish
It’s OK to value your own personal well-being and to protect yourself—you are valuable and deserve respect! You are not obligated to serve others in order to have worth—you have it already, and certainly do not lose any when you fail to bend to others’ demands, especially if those demands are unhealthy for you. Setting boundaries is an act of self-love, not of selfishness. Think of someone you love—wouldn’t you want them to behave in a way that respects their value?
If your best friend comes to you saying that their significant other has been mistreating them in some way, what do you think you would advise them to do? Would you advise them to continue tolerating unacceptable behavior, or would you encourage them to communicate their feelings and try to ameliorate the situation? The answer is most likely the former, and we must apply the same principles in our own lives.
It is not uncommon to be accused of selfishness when you begin to take the way you’re treated seriously. You might be surprised by the people who choose to undermine this positive step in your life, but it is imperative that you stay firm on what you consider nonnegotiable. This will help you not only to build confidence and self-esteem, but also to attract other individuals who respect you for choosing to maintain healthy boundaries.
Boundaries are not about shutting down intimacy
Boundaries related to intimacy tend to be either extremely rigid or overly lax, especially in romantic relationships. Some of us believe that our partners ”deserve” intimacy, even at our own expense. You might be worried that drawing a line in the sand means that people can’t be close anymore, that you are somehow being cold or aloof. You needn’t worry—people with healthy boundaries have them because they are a prerequisite for healthy, mature relationships. They lead to better relationships, not worse ones. Would you rather have a relationship based on guilt, fear, obligation, and coercion, or one built around mature trust, respect, joy, and appreciation for one another?
Having said that, it is easy to use boundaries to shut down intimacy. Say you’re someone who refuses to engage in any form of sex before marriage. Are you using boundaries to shut down intimacy? The truthful answer is that it depends. You might be in what can be called a ‘defended state,’ wherein you shut out any and all intimate interaction due to past trauma.
Or, you might be enforcing such a boundary due to religious or moral beliefs. It is easy to mistake a defended state for a genuine boundary. Regardless of why you refrain from intercourse, you are within your rights to do so if it brings you discomfort. Yet, the former is almost certainly psychologically unhealthy, as it closes you off from new experiences.
In such cases, it is helpful to ask yourself why you choose to set up and defend a particular boundary. Are you genuinely uncomfortable with being intimate in certain ways, or are you trying to protect yourself from pain due to past experiences?
Boundaries won’t make you unlikable
Here, we encounter more of the unfortunate social conditioning that women typically receive, even as little children. Everyone wants to be liked. But that sense of belonging and approval should never come at the cost of your well-being. Compromising your own values or hurting yourself in order to acquiesce to someone else’s needs doesn’t make you likeable—it makes you usable. In fact, a person who has boundaries is sending a powerful message to the world. That message is, “I have value, and I behave accordingly.” That is an attractive, healthy, and admirable quality. And it’s also true! Most healthy people will be drawn to an attitude of mature, calm confidence.
And the people who do dislike you for setting up a boundary? They are not the sort of people you want to impress. These are the kinds of people who will not see you as the valuable and unique human you are. They will only see you as a tool, as a means to get what they want. Do you really want to appeal to such a person?
Boundaries are not about who is right and who is wrong
That said, a person with healthy boundaries needs never divide the world into sinners and saints. It makes little difference if there are narcissists or “energy vampires” out there. All that matters is that you know who you are, what you want, and what you will tolerate, and that you need never willingly be in a situation that doesn’t serve you. This attitude also removes any question of who is right and wrong.
A boundary can never be wrong. This means that you don’t have to justify or defend or explain it to others—if it works for you, it works for you. Don’t worry about doing it right. You don’t need to rigidly think of the world in black and white terms, or be pressured to adopt boundaries in a way that you don’t genuinely resonate with. If you’re ever unsure, come back to yourself—ask how you feel and what you value. Then, go from there. And remember, there’s no rule that says you can’t change your mind! Nothing is set in stone, so don’t take things super-seriously and beat yourself up if it takes some trial and error.
You are bound to make mistakes, especially at the beginning, as you go about enforcing your boundaries. As long as you’re respectful and polite but firm, allow yourself any unintentional errors.