The Importance of Setting Boundaries

Boundary-setting is vital to a healthy, happy life. Boundary-setting can be difficult because it requires a strong, stable, confident sense of self. Otherwise, it is easy to fall into the trap of putting your own wishes and needs to the side and allowing others to walk all over you.

There are many different kinds of boundaries. There are physical boundaries, which are the most obvious kind and the type most people instinctively know to respect. For example, most people know not to touch someone or walk into their house without first getting permission or to convince someone allergic to peanuts to go ahead and eat them. And most people feel comfortable speaking up if someone violates these boundaries.

Emotional boundaries are more amorphous, less easily protected, and more liable to be violated. What are emotional boundaries? My own definition of boundaries are those issues we cannot compromise on without jeopardizing our mental, emotional, or spiritual health. So, for example, not working on a Sunday because one’s religious convictions forbid it. Mere preferences, on the other hand, should not be considered boundaries and should be up for compromise. For example, eating your second-favorite flavor of ice cream because the first is not available.

The need for emotional boundaries comes up in different areas of one’s life, including with strangers, loved ones, and at work. The level of closeness in a relationship makes it easier or harder to maintain strong boundaries, as well as what is at stake if one chooses to either maintain or violate their own boundaries. It often feels easier to maintain boundaries with strangers because of safety reasons, as well as the fact we don’t feel we owe anything to strangers. Plus, if we offend them, we never have to see them again, so we won’t experience consequences. However, it can be harder saying “no” to a family member, friend, likable coworker, or boss. These are people we want to like us and whom we might need something from in the future. However, if we betray ourselves by compromising our boundaries with those close to us, it sets a precedent. Unfortunately, the people who are close to you are also those in the best position to take advantage of you. For example, if you refuse to work a certain day of the week and made this clear when you were hired, but a coworker asks you to take their shift that day for them, saying “yes” makes it more likely you will be asked again.

If your boundaries are reasonable, it is important to keep them firm. It is also important to effectively and kindly communicate your boundaries so that you do not criticize someone for doing or saying something they were unaware is unacceptable to you. If a relationship is lost with somebody because they refuse to accept your boundaries, that is a toxic person who you are better off without. Of course, this is easier said than done if that person is a superior at work, given the employment culture of the U.S. However, I have found most people will respect your stance and won’t push it further.

Knowing yourself and understanding why you feel and think the way you do are imperative for healthy boundary-setting. Putting your needs before the desires of others, as well as having the self-esteem necessary to enforce the prioritization of your needs, is also imperative. The emotional maturity needed to endure a possible confrontation with another person is also imperative. If you second-guess your own convictions when you’re by yourself, you will have no chance of holding firm to them when they are questioned or criticized by others.

This is a major area in my life I need to work on. I tend to either waver on what my boundaries are, not communicate them effectively, or not enforce them, and then blow up when they are violated. Are there any areas of your life where you find it nearly impossible to maintain your boundaries, or where you need to begin erecting some boundaries?