I don’t know if any of you watch “The Dog Whisperer”, but Caesar Milan often talks about giving our dogs boundaries and limitations, but it’s not just dogs who need them as we do too. In fact, it’s vital to our mental health for us to have boundaries with other people put in place.
Boundaries for dogs is all about not pulling on the lead, being housetrained and coming when called, whereas boundaries for us is very different. Our boundaries are about the ‘line in the sand ‘ in our relationships such as what is ok and what is not. They show people who we are and how we like to be treated.
If we have good boundaries then we feel protected, and if we don’t, we often feel anxious or we become compulsive resulting drinking or eating too much, for example. Our boundaries are based on our beliefs, values and morals, the choices we make, the life we want and what we need from others.
Many of us know our boundaries but we do not keep to them all the time or we let them lapse – often to please people. When we are prone to behaving like this, we can be really sensitive to other people’s comments, and we could find ourselves unable to identify what we need as we have no real sense of self due to the fact that we have merged with the other person in the relationship. We find ourselves involved in other people’s lives, trying to ‘fix’ people and their problems, being a perfectionist or just taking on too much. We are basically trying not to be alone with ourselves as we do not know who we are as we have no limits.
For others, the boundaries become too tight and too strict, and this is a great way for us to avoid connecting and being intimate with others. Loneliness, emptiness and depression often follow and yet we crave to be close, but our boundaries stop us from talking a risk.
So, what are the signs that our boundaries need adjusting (either way)
- People pleasing all the time
- Unable to say no, despite the cost to ourselves
- Being responsible for other people’s emotions
- Unable to make up our minds
- Putting everyone else’s wants and needs in front of our own
- Being so tired because we have just taken care of or tried to guess what everyone else needs
- Looking for the quiet life or ‘just going with the flow’ all the time
- Being unable to identify our feelings
- Being unable to ask for what we want
- Allowing people to say or do things we don’t like but never asking them not to (being bullied)
- Avoiding intimate relationships or things that make us feel vulnerable
- Going past empathy into taking on people’s emotions
- Giving for the sake of giving
Boundaries have to depend on the situation/person we are dealing with, so they have to have a level of flexibility. We may, for instance, have the one friend who is always bossy and controlling so going “with the flow” with them will get us doing things they know we don’t want to do. Or we may be in a relationship with someone with an addiction, where we need really strong and solid boundaries with them to ensure we are safe.
To set healthy boundaries we have to believe in ourselves and trust that we know what is best for us. We have to be fully aware of what our wants and needs are and how they can be met. We have to trust and believe in ourselves because only “I know me” and “only you know you”. We are the highest authority on how we feel, what we want and what we need. We need to know we are important; we are as important as everyone else, we can care for others, but we must be as important as them. We have to learn to say “no” , and stick to “no”, but for some of us that may seem selfish as it is not it’s the key boundary. Finally, we must know and feel we have the right to boundaries, and it is not selfish but necessary for our emotional, spiritual and even physical well-being.
Setting boundaries can be difficult for us when we first start, but some easy things to remember are:–
- Staying away from judgement – we can be compassionate but not fix people
- Stop judging ourselves – be self-compassionate too
- Let people know how we feel – being open and telling others how their actions make us feel.
- Learn who and what drains us and being able to limit our time with those people and their activities
- Stop and breathe when the urge to do what we would normally do or say “yes” to something we don’t want to do – try using phrases like ‘let me think about it and get back to you’. Giving ourselves time and space to be honest with ourselves about where our boundaries are.
Finally, how do we explain our boundaries to other people especially if this is a new thing for us? There are some key phrases we can use to explain our boundaries: –
- I am not comfortable with…
- Not this time …
- Please don’t do that
- It’s not appropriate for me…
- I can’t do that…
- Not now
Remember if we are setting our boundaries for the first time, we should be confident, respectful and have planned what we need people to know. Others will found our new boundaries difficult at first especially if our lack of boundaries got them a pay off like being cared for or getting their own way. We need to be aware of the impact of having boundaries and be prepared to be pushed back for a while.
If boundaries are a struggle for you, you will need help from someone to set them a counsellor will know how to help you to find out what your values, needs and beliefs are to set your boundaries around them.
Elaine Bond is a counsellor and runs a business in Gedling.