Boundaries are hard, and they are something I’ve always struggled with.
However, until recently, despite having an obvious difficulty with them, I didn’t actually really know what the term “boundaries“ meant.
I had a vague understanding, but it had never been an idea I had consciously taken the time to solidify in my mind. It wasn’t until I participated in an online “Coping Skills” course a short time ago that I realized my true understanding was woefully inept. As a result, it was no surprise when, looking back over my life, I’d seen that I’d lost myself so frequently.
Whether it’s been a job or a relationship, overall, I’ve struggled to have my needs met, and at the same time, have been left drained by the experience. I don’t mind hard work, but when you’re being left depleted with no discernible gain, it’s a big red flag that something’s wrong somewhere.
And one of those could be your boundaries.
Knowing how much I struggled with them historically, but also then finding out I didn’t really know what they were, or how to implement them—it’s become a bit of mission of mine to learn more.
I’m not going to lie: the reason why we need boundaries, psychologically, is a complex one, a heady mix that touches upon formative childhood experiences, validation, self-esteem, and the mutual respect you need to make any adult interaction—either personally or professionally—work.
It’d take me days to pick through all that. So, instead, I’m going to share five relatively straightforward quotes that act as the perfect primer. They’re all ones that have helped me, and—although they can’t substitute for studying this area—they’re also a pretty good window into the world of boundaries.
The most obvious question to start with is, “What is a boundary?” Again, I could give you the textbook answer, but this is, honestly, better than any I’ve found:
“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to decide how to use them. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.” ~ Anna Taylor
The key phrase is, “Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how to use them.” It’s not just about saying, “No” a lot more—although that’ll inevitably be a part of it. It’s not just about what you’re not willing to do for someone else—though, again, you’re going to face that (let’s be honest, the biggest issues you’ll probably face when it comes to boundaries are when they come into contact with other people’s).
The central idea at the heart of the idea of boundaries is the simple fact that it’s not really about other people: it’s all about you. Your boundaries aren’t there to keep others out or annoy them; they’re there so you can do what you have to do, so you can live a meaningful life.
As this couldn’t be more important. Here’s a second quote—along similar lines—to ram the message home:
“I didn’t set this boundary to either please or offend you. I did it to manage the goals and priorities I have set for my life.” ~ Danny Silk
It’s all about protecting those valuable and finite supplies of time and energy—so you can manage your life.
What those actual boundaries are, and what form they ultimately take, couldn’t be more personal. For example, a lot of mine revolve around safeguarding my mental health, which, right now, is primarily focused on rebuilding my self-esteem. Anything that adversely affects that, such as people invalidating how I feel, or not even discussing something with me that actually affects me or my life, is now monitored quite closely. Not being heard, or even spoken to, is a grim, demoralizing experience, and it unquestionably had a knock-on effect elsewhere.
Sadly, I recently had to remove someone from my life entirely as they repeatedly crossed this boundary, despite me telling them—over a number of years—this was happening. It was a pretty excruciating event, but I don’t regret it. The energy I spent battling that person is now better being used on rebuilding me and my life.
My time and energy (and my mental health) are precious; my newfound boundaries help me protect them all.
However, it’s not just about being selfish—it’s about self-love and self-care. It’s about knowing what you have to do so you both deliver on the responsibilities you have, and try to live a life that fulfills you. But, although you have to make yourself central to this, everyone else benefits too.
If you can, at least, try and move toward a life that fulfills you. Then, you’re actually going to be a far more effective parent, friend, sibling, partner, or employee. Far from being self-centered, having boundaries also enables you to be more selfless: the more fulfilled you are, the more everyone else is going to benefit.
Also, they avoid resentment.
“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say ‘no’ when they need to, and when they say ‘yes’ they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” ~ Brené Brown
And nothing eats away at any relationship like resentment. It’s insidious, and slowly erodes joy. “They always expect that of me, but they never give it back in return…” Sound familiar? Simply saying, “No” stops that spiral of resentment.
However, if you’re the kind of person who even needs to be considering boundaries, then they’ve more than likely been an issue for you. Up to this point, you’ve probably given more than you’ve taken, and suddenly switching to a firmer stance about what you need and want is going to feel alien.
And a bit wrong.
“When you first start to draw boundaries after several years of being programmed towards people pleasing and codependency, you will be triggered to experience feelings of guilt or the ‘villain’ archetype. Ignore it and proceed anyway.” ~ The Mind Journal
…those feelings are natural.
For example, codependent people will always lose themselves in a relationship. Always. They’re always going to be willing to give something up for their partner that their partner won’t sacrifice in return for them. However, codependents don’t say anything; being codependent, they’re too insecure, and their self-worth is inextricably linked up with that relationship—they’d rather lose themselves than the relationship.
In the long-term, the only result is hurt and pain, and a lessened sense of self, which has a crushing impact on one’s self-esteem. At some point, they’re going to have to break out of that toxic, codependent cycle. And, when they do, it’s going to feel very strange. It’s going to feel horrible saying, “No—this is my boundary,” when they’ve been saying, “Okay—no problem” for years.
Give it time. Get used to exploring what your boundaries are, and how you express them. Most of all, accept that it’s going to feel uncomfortable, and you’re going to be wracked with guilt whilst you undertake that journey. I know I was. But, although I may have lost some people, I don’t miss the effect they had on me due to the constant crossing of my boundaries. Ultimately, the guilt was worth it.
But, the chances are, it won’t just be you struggling: other people in your life will as well. They’re going to find this journey as strange as you are. If they care for you, there might be bumps in the road, but you should be able to negotiate your way through. However, some people won’t respond so favorably. There will be battles (big battles)—some you’ll win; some you’ll lose.
And the ones you lose? Remember this:
“If someone throws a fit because you set boundaries, it’s only more evidence that a boundary was needed.” ~ Unknown
If someone cares for you, they’ll respect the fact that you’re trying to do something that will positively change your life—brilliantly, in the long-term, they’ll also benefit: it’s the ultimate win-win. Like you, they might struggle in the early days, but if you can ride that storm out, everyone is better off.
However, if they keep on throwing that tantrum, your belief that the boundary was needed is only reenforced. Stay strong. Given time, most will adjust. But, the ones who don’t? If nothing else, setting boundaries shows the relationships in your life that need to be looked at. I can’t tell you what the ultimate outcome will be, whether it’s just going to be stepping back, or even saying goodbye for good. But, setting boundaries are always a good acid test for the people in your life; what you might need to do about those people may be unpleasant in the short-term, but—in the long-term—your life will be easier. Trust me; it will.
Boundaries are hard. Identifying what they are, how you’re going to implement them, and the inevitable struggles you’ll have with others as you do so, is a tough, time-consuming process.
But, your time and energy are precious; boundaries help you maximize both. It’s a demanding journey, but anything that helps you safeguard two of the most sacred aspects of your life are worthy of the investment. Boundaries might be difficult, they might be invisible, but the time you spend exploring them is priceless.