Establishing Healthy Boundaries
by Mark Driskill, LICSW
These days it is common to hear people talking about setting boundaries—at work, with their extended families, and in other personal relationships. Healthy boundaries are an important part of mental health and wellness, and they can be challenging to understand and even more challenging to establish.
The concept of boundaries refers to our sense of self in relation to the world and the people around us. In the very literal sense, it means where I end and you begin. The more we have a sense of ourselves vs. others, the healthier we tend to operate in our relationships. Maintaining our boundaries is vital to maintaining a healthy sense of self and our mental health.
Physical boundaries are usually the easiest to understand because they are concrete, having to do with the sense of personal space between ourselves and others. Think of the level of touching that is appropriate with different people in your life. For example, holding your spouse’s hand is perfectly fine, but holding your boss’ hand is crossing a boundary.
Another facet of boundaries has to do with values, beliefs, opinions and needs. Each person has differences, and we each have the right to express our wishes, desires and needs. When we have healthy boundaries, we recognize and understand our own beliefs and opinions and we know that those of other people may different than our own. Have you ever wished you had been able to give your input or to say how you felt about a situation? When you begin to understand that your opinion is valuable and is as important as that of the other person, that’s an indication that your sense of self may be growing, When you express a need or an opinion, you are setting a healthy boundary.
Emotional boundaries have to do with how we understand our feelings and differentiate them from the feelings of others. We need to recognize that others may feel differently than we do, even about the same situation, event or circumstance. We also need to acknowledge that different feelings are valid—both ours and others’—and that we are responsible for how we feel, not others. Our boundaries help us determine how we want to be treated. We are maintaining good boundaries when we speak up when someone crosses a line.
Being able to say no to a request of our time, money, energy or effort when we do not want to do something or cannot agree is also an example of maintaining a good boundary. I have always felt that the Southern values of friendliness and politeness often get confused with keeping our sense of self when we need to say “no.” Because we don’t want to be rude, we agree to things we do not want to do, then feel resentful of the person who asked, and perhaps also feel angry at ourselves for agreeing.
Maintaining our own boundaries – and respecting the boundaries of others – are both essential. Establishing and maintaining appropriate boundaries can help us prioritize the family, work and other personal obligations that truly are our top priorities for how we spend our energy and time. However, someone else’s priorities may be completely different.
As you begin to set boundaries for yourself, it is important to realize others may not initially understand your new approach. In setting boundaries, it is important not to go too far too fast or build walls between yourself and others. Allow opportunity for discussion and help others understand what you are trying to achieve. Getting the right balance can be tricky, and initially you may feel uncomfortable and guilty with boundary setting. But over the long term, establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries can reduce stress and resentment and help you to have better relationships overall. Having clear boundaries in relationships allows people to care for themselves psychologically, which is not selfish, but an essential aspect of well-being.
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