How I’m learning to have healthy boundaries in my relationships

We all have things that we struggle to change or make progress with. I’ve done a lot of work on myself over the last few years and one sticking point has always been having healthy boundaries with people.

A deep inbuilt need to be liked means I can be a chronic people pleaser and years of low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence left me very confused about what healthy boundaries are. In fact I’d go as far as to say I was clueless. I’d either have absolutely none, which left me open to letting people walk all over me and feeling used and resentful as a result (without ever saying anything to them of course), or I’d let it build up until it came out sideways – going completely to the other extreme – getting over emotional and cutting people out or running away rather than just stating my needs or saying why I was unhappy. Neither of these approaches did me any favours.

Recently I’ve been making some progress in the area of boundaries, albeit fairly sloppy progress. Living mindfully means you start to gain an awareness around yourself and the recurring behaviours that cause you harm. The more I practise mindfulness and live by spiritual principles, the more I find that if I don’t face up to something or make necessary changes, the universe will keep putting things in my path until I’m forced to. This week I have been faced over and over again with having to set clear boundaries with people. This makes me very uncomfortable. I will go out of my way to avoid doing so at all costs, but the universe seems to have decided it’s about time I drop that way of thinking so, try as I may to avoid it, I haven’t been able to. Things have built up until I’ve had no choice but to do it and, here’s the thing, it’s actually been much better than my usual way of dealing with such situations (which shouldn’t really come as a surprise to me but it did).

Why are boundaries important?

Boundaries are really important if we want to have healthy and balanced relationships with others. They show that we have respect for ourselves and value ourselves and, as such, encourage others to show us more respect too.

So what does having healthy boundaries mean? For me, first and foremost it’s tuning in to my own feelings and knowing what my limits are. There’s no right or wrong here. What may be too much or not ok for you, may not be the same for someone else, but that’s ok. It’s not about telling the other person they are wrong, it’s about stating your own needs and letting people know in a calm, rational and reasonable way what you are and are not willing to put up with or accept.

And here lies the difficult part. Often when I’m overwhelmed or am finding a situation challenging, I react in an emotional, irrational and reactive way, which comes largely from fear. So, for me, the first step when thinking about boundaries is to sit down quietly and reflect on why I feel the way I do. I find it helpful to write it down in my journal: who/what has upset me and why?; what does this trigger?; is it based on a past experience that I’m projecting onto the current situation?; what is my part in it and what’s not?; what can I change and what do I have no control over? This allows me to let go of any anger and resentments I have around the situation.

Once I have ascertained how I feel and why something is upsetting me or making me feel stressed, anxious or uncomfortable, the next step is to voice that to the other person in a kind, loving, respectful and non-accusatory way, but where I’m still very clear about what my boundaries are.

Next I need to stick to it. This I find particularly hard because I often feel guilty after stating my needs and have an overwhelming urge to take away that discomfort and ensure the person still likes me. This is incredibly detrimental. Not only does it undo all the hard work of putting the boundary in in the first place but it makes me vulnerable to the other person not respecting what I’ve just said if I immediately back track.

How someone else responds to you stating your boundaries is really not the point. More often than not I’m met with love and understanding from people when I set boundaries, especially if it’s with people who love me. Sometimes I’m not. Sometimes they are annoyed and sitting with that and accepting that they are just as entitled to feel how they feel as I am to feel how I feel is one of the most difficult aspects of boundary setting for me.

The other day someone I’d put a boundary in place with sent me a message implying I was being selfish (in a sort of passive aggressive way disguised as a joke). It was very hard in this situation to stick to my guns because it made me feel guilty (which I imagine was the whole point). However, there’s a big difference in being selfish and in practising self care and safeguarding your own mental wellbeing. If something is damaging my emotional health, then I need to protect myself. At times this may feel selfish, but allowing others to emotionally drain you just so you don’t appear selfish ends up with you having nothing left in the tank to give to anyone anyway. When I’m emotionally well and looking after myself I’m much more able to be there for others and to support them, but I do not need to do it to a point where I’m drained, exhausted and in tears behind closed doors. That does not healthy relationships make.

Like anything putting in healthy boundaries takes practise. I’ve had to do it on a number of different occasions this week. I did not do it perfectly in any of them. I let my emotions get the better of me more than once but I persevered and eventually navigated my way through it.

It’s an annoying fact of life that the most growth often comes from facing the things we find most difficult and challenging, however, each time I do this I receive far more back in terms of positive boosts to my self-esteem and transformations in my relationships than any fear or negativity associated with it. This helps me to be braver in future and to lay down new behaviour patterns, ones that allow both me and the people in my life to have stronger and healthier relationships.

Vicky