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Personal Boundaries and Why We Need Them.

Boundaries can be a tricky area to manage, especially at times of great change.

Life is shifting in new directions and previously established boundaries can seem to dissolve. The great news is, placing new healthy boundaries into life can be achieved and once in place can help you feel back in charge of your own life.

What is a personal boundary?

A boundary is a set of rules, limits or expectations that we use to define what we accept from other people; how they should treat us or how they behave around us to keep us feeling safe and secure. When our expectations aren’t met there are usually consequences which become clear as well, such as irritation, upset or disappointment amongst others.

We should all have boundaries around every area of life such as our time, our personal space, our emotions, our relationships, our ideas, our bodies and material possessions.

The question is, have you established your own boundaries, and do you communicate them to the people in your life?

A simple example could be, when you arrange a meeting and the other person doesn’t tell you they can’t make it, you’re likely to feel negative emotions such as irritated or very uncomfortable.

When you feel uncomfortable with someone’s behaviour towards you, a boundary is being pushed or crossed and it’s likely that it’s conflicting with one of your core values. Think about times when another person’s actions have caused you to feel negatively. What could you do to re-establish that boundary with that person without causing a drama?

In the example above, it’s likely the person who didn’t show up didn’t take into consideration the other person’s time, or the importance of the meeting to them so several negative feelings could have come into play.

The Three Boundary Styles

Using the example above, here’s how the three boundary styles could play out:

1. Weak boundaries:

“It’s ok that you didn’t turn up. I don’t mind at all! Let’s try again and I’ll make myself available for you” or worse still, say nothing and ignore it.

Weak boundaries aren’t well defined and shift to accommodate other people’s poor behaviours. If you have weak boundaries, you can leave yourself open to accepting poor treatment or abusive behaviours. You would tend to comply with unreasonable requests to avoid rejection, or to be liked and are likely to find saying ‘no’ to people a real difficulty. You could become dependent on the opinions of others and may not recognise your own core values.

If you have too many weak boundaries, you communicate that you undervalue your time, your possessions and most of all, yourself.

2. Strong or rigid boundaries:

“I’m so angry that you didn’t turn up! I don’t want to hear any excuses from you. I am DONE!”

Rigid boundaries are clearly defined and do not move at all. If you have these types of boundaries, you could tend to be overly protective of ideas, possessions and can even seem distant or detached from people.

You’re likely to be afraid of rejection and use this as a coping mechanism to keep distance and protect yourself. This can lead to avoiding intimacy and not having many close relationships. You communicate that you’re the most important person in any relationship and may be described as arrogant.

3. Healthy boundaries

“My time’s valuable and being kept waiting irritates me. I feel disrespected and that you don’t take me seriously. What happened? You should’ve let me know you couldn’t make it. Why didn’t you try to call?”

Healthy boundaries are well defined and usually driven by your values. When you have healthy boundaries, it’s likely you understand your core values and know how they make you feel comfortable and secure across different relationships and situations, from personal to professional.

Your values aren’t compromised by anyone or any situation. You know your inner feelings around situations and manage your expectations well.

You’re likely to be seen as flexible, reasonable and a good communicator.  You’re not afraid of rejection and understand that when someone says ‘no’ to you, it’s not necessarily a personal rejection against you. Other people appreciate the opportunity to be able to respond and talk about the issue raised.

All three of those boundary styles take place in different situations all the time, and each one will give the same situation a very different outcome.

Which boundary style do you notice playing out in your life, by you and by others? Is it one you’d like to keep or adjust?

Why are Boundaries Important?

Well-defined, healthy boundaries keep you feeling good about any situation – be it a tricky personal situation or one in the work place. Your expectations are clear and are much more likely to be respected by others.

When you have weak boundaries, others will consciously or not, see how far they can push you. Your self-esteem can then tumble because you’re allowing other people to take more importance in your life and can make for lack of positive decision making and cultivate unhealthy relationships.

When you have strong or rigid boundaries, people can feel unwanted or unwelcome around you. They would often describe you as cold or ‘having a wall up’ and could lead to them staying away and as a result you could have few healthy relationships.

We all need to build firm, but flexible, healthy boundaries which are created in line with our personal core values.

When you start to bring boundaries into your life you’ll see immediate effects. That’s not to say it’s always easy though! Like all change, you’ll experience resistance whether people realise it or not.

The friend who’s always late may not like you shining a light on the fact, but it’s up to them to either start letting you know they’re running late so you can plan your time, or they could try harder to be on time because they know you appreciate it, or they may not want to meet up as often. All are valid responses according to the way they live and it’s up to you to decide which feels right for you.

In unhealthy relationships the resistance may be much stronger. That person may use tactics to make you feel unreasonable for bringing the boundaries in. They may cause you to doubt your decision making and criticise you for your new way of being, or be abusive as a reaction to your boundaries. It’s at this point you can look out for how this behaviour plays out in this relationship and look at how you can be firm, yet fair in communicating your needs going forward.

There is nothing wrong with you for starting to take control of your life and beginning to communicate your feelings and needs during periods of big change. Being able to articulate these needs is a sign of strength and allows the people in your life to see where you could use some help and where they can be available for you in a healthy way that sits well with you.

By placing healthy boundaries in your life, you’ll soon see that:

  • Feelings are never wrong. They’re there as a result of your current experience and you can trust what you feel when you get to know yourself fully.
  • You’re only responsible for your own feelings and actions. You can’t control or be responsible for anyone else’s.
  • You can feel liberated by understanding yourself, and both your confidence and self-esteem will blossom as a result!

The first step is to explore your core values and get comfortable with your feelings. Sit with them a while when they come up and don’t ignore them if they feel uncomfortable. Consider what they’re telling you about yourself and think about why you’re feeling them, not just the trigger that made them show up.

Next it’s time to explore what personal boundaries will help this feeling going forward and to not allow a sense of guilt to drift in.

Whenever these boundaries start to feel compromised it’s your opportunity to practise enforcing them. It takes conscious effort, but you can get there firmly and in a way that doesn’t leave you emotionally fraught.

Throughout this time, don’t forget to look after yourself and establish some good self-care. Looking after yourself and your wellbeing is crucial to any time of change.

Working with a coach can help you identify your core values and assist you through the process of establishing boundaries that support you as you move forward in life. If you’d like to have a conversation about how coaching could help you at this time, contact the office and the team will put you in touch.

Victoria James

September 2018

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