Setting Boundaries is a Form of Kindness
If you’re like me, you’ve probably been told a million times that you need to establish better boundaries. Maybe this was suggested by a friend, colleague, family member, or even a therapist. Perhaps you’ve even told people around you that they need to start setting boundaries …
But what exactly does this mean and why is it so important?
Well, first and foremost, boundaries are a crucial form of self-care. Boundary setting allows us to communicate our wants and needs effectively, it sets us up to develop healthy relationships rather than toxic ones, and it allows us to develop our own identities.
Boundaries are also a form of establishing safety, especially if you’re in situations where you’re giving too much of yourself at the risk of your own well-being. I like to think of boundaries like guardrails on an interstate. They clearly mark where one thing ends and another begins. They provide safety and organization to traffic. Imagine if those guardrails weren’t there. The traffic would be hectic, and there would always be those people hopping over into oncoming traffic to push limits, placing themselves and others in danger.
I know what you’re probably thinking … This is nice and all, but setting boundaries is hard and I don’t know where to start.
I recognize the difficulty of establishing boundaries. Remember, you can’t expect yourself to know something you were never taught. Most of us weren’t taught how to set healthy boundaries growing up. In fact, if you think back to your interactions with others, you were probably taught the exact opposite, right? There are so many boundary violations around us that disguise themselves as kindness and compassion. This can be true sometimes, but in moderation! We are used to hearing things like:
“I’ll bend over backward for this person.”
“I’ll give you the shirt off my back if you ask for it.”
“You call me anytime you need something.”
The above statements imply going to the extreme. I’m not saying this is “bad” or “wrong.” I’m simply saying we have to watch out for ourselves as well. Make sure that you are setting yourself up for situations that leave you feeling refreshed and not situations that leave you drained and resentful.
So, for starters, what are some types of boundaries?
Physical boundaries relate to our body and space. We set physical boundaries to dictate how much, or little, touch we want from another, who we feel comfortable touching us, how close we want others to be in our bubble, who we want in our private spaces such as houses or cars, what type of contact is appropriate in various settings, and what we do to our bodies. These boundaries allow us to say what food or drink we put in our bodies, what artful modifications we make to our bodies, what clothes we wear, etc.
Emotional and intellectual boundaries relate to our emotions and thoughts. It allows us to choose the amount and content of what we share with others. We can ask ourselves who we feel comfortable confiding in during certain situations. You may have certain folks that support you well when you are feeling sad, but notice they don’t’ validate or respond effectively if you are angry. These boundaries allow us to gage our capacity for supporting others and when we should take time for ourselves. Emotional and intellectual boundaries also help us in sharing pieces of ourselves to others. We determine how much to share during the formation of relationships. For example, sharing small pieces of personal information with a potential partner rather than dumping everything on them all at once.
Time boundaries are seriously overlooked and deeply undervalued in our culture. Here's the real deal: Your time is valuable! These boundaries honor that and allow us to prioritize tasks and decide what we want to dedicate time to. Healthy time boundaries show up when we set aside appropriate time to accomplish tasks. For example, giving enough time for sleep, meals, work, homework, chores, or time with loved ones. Time boundaries could also mean we turn off electronics after a certain point to promote a healthy work-life balance, or we say “no” if someone is demanding too much of our time.
Sexual boundaries. Having healthy sexual boundaries means we establish expectations when it comes to the sexual encounters we are comfortable with. Setting boundaries around our limitations or desires allows for the building of safety and open communication with partners. When there is mutual respect surrounding sexual boundaries, we honor consent, share the things we enjoy or want to eliminate during sex, engage in conversations about which types of contraception we want, request disease and infection testing from our partners and offer it ourselves, and speak up when someone is making unwanted advances or pressuring us into unwanted sexual contact.
Material boundaries relate to our material possessions such as clothing, money, food, vehicles, etc. Having healthy material boundaries means we have limitations on what we share and who we share with . We avoid giving so excessively that our own needs are not met. We take steps to protect and preserve the material possessions that are meaningful to us. It also means our possessions are not stolen or pressured away from us.
Ok, now that we have a better understanding of exactly what types of boundaries there are, it's important that we assess how well we are doing in each of these different areas.
We can start to figure out if we are where we ideally want to be with our boundaries by exploring if we are too rigid or too loose in some ways, whether we block everyone out or let everyone in, and how we apply boundaries differently based on our own personal experiences and expectations. This can be done by thinking through our current and previous relationships, where our time and money is being spent, how we feel at the end of the day, and whether we feel drained or refresh by interactions with others. It can be a bit overwhelming to sort all of this out and look for patterns, but a well trained therapist can walk alongside you and help you get there!
Even though it's pretty terrifying at first to set limits with others, it's important to remember that there are so many benefits to establishing and maintaining healthy, helpful boundaries.
Here are a few of those benefits:
We have more time and energy because we’ve already established clear and consistent expectations. We don’t have to spend time in every situation arguing with others or explaining our decisions.
We’re able to communicate more effectively. This means we can be more direct and hopefully avoid miscommunications, which can lead to resentment.
Boundaries encourage us to look at our own limitations, which we are not always aware of.
Our confidence will grow when we find ourselves being assertive about our boundaries. Even if it feels awkward at first, repetition will help us feel increasingly comfortable communicating our wants and needs to others.
We’re able to use mindfulness, being more present and intentional in the moment. We don’t’ allow ourselves to go on autopilot and open ourselves up to people doing whatever they want. We exercise some control by pulling ourselves into the moment with boundaries to be an active participant.
We don’t have to fly with uncertainties all the time! Having boundaries means we can have a script in our minds. If X happens that I’m not okay with, then I will respond in Y way. Reduces some anxiety, right?
We have healthier relationships, which essentially speaks to the above points about healthier communications and established expectations. It feels good in relationships to know others are aware of our boundaries. Likewise, boundaries that others set for us means we are able to operate with some direction in our interactions with them.
Boundaries promote healthy self-care, because we are caring for ourselves. Setting boundaries can be hard. It’s one of those self-care things that is not all pampering and chocolates. It’s a kind that has incredible benefits but requires work and pushing through the discomfort.
If you think your boundaries need work, I challenge you to look at the types of boundaries above. Identify one small area you can work on, then break that down into specific action steps. Start implementing those changes today. Therapists are here to help if you need some extra support! We can help you identify areas in your life that need boundary work and assist in laying out steps to strengthen these areas. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean weakness or inability to deal. It simply means we care for ourselves enough to honor limitations, show self-compassion, and make changes, even when they are difficult.
Kiana Harlan, LCSW works with folx ages 16+ who have non-normative cultural identities and want to work on symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma, and who would like to regain connection to themselves and others. Kiana works with both individuals and couples.
She uses Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and is engaged in a Level I Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy certification course to increase her skillset in working with trauma and attachment wounds. You can read more about Kiana here.