Why Boundaries Matter

By Dixie Andelin Forsyth,

March 24, 2020

I often get asked how to set and keep good boundaries. If the idea isn’t familiar to you, we’re talking about the rules for acceptable behavior we have for ourselves and others.

What does a boundary look like? You could imagine each person in your life having an invisible wall around them that only allows certain things to pass through, like particular words, behavior or physical contact, before defensive action is taken. We all have these boundaries and we expect ourselves and others to live by them. When someone crosses the line we have set, we may say something like “This is not something I’m okay with,” or as my niece says to her children when they get rude or demanding “I need you to find a better way to ask me that.” For bigger, more significant boundaries that have been broken through, you might find that creating distance between you and the invader is the best resort. There will always be good and bad ways to uphold the boundaries we’ve set with others.

But there’s a problem. It can be difficult sometimes to know if our boundaries are fair or reasonable. Selfish people aren’t overly concerned about whether their boundaries, or lack of them, are hurting relationships. I tend to deal more with women who are the opposite: extremely sensitive to the feelings of people around them and willing to put others’ needs before their own. These women are being taken advantage of, perhaps often. You could think of their boundaries as very short walls that are easy to climb over, or perhaps very tall walls made of marshmallow.

For example, some women allow their children to virtually run their homes and rewrite house rules, even dictate what is served for dinner. Many of these women spend their days trying to make young ones happy, doing most of the work themselves for fear of making kids upset. Have you ever let your children get away with disrespectful attitudes in favor of “keeping the peace”? Or perhaps you talk big and set huge boundaries but fail to keep them, shouting empty threats that you don’t follow through on. In either scenario, mothers who can’t keep firm boundaries almost make it fun for their kids to eat through those marshmallow walls of theirs, testing your willpower and coming out tiny victors. I say “almost fun” because there’s a lack of respect attached, and that’s not enjoyable to parents or children.

Boundary jumping also occurs often with many of us regarding other relationships, like those with husbands, boyfriends, extended family and friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. If you have a lot of relationships to manage in your life, and if you’re a giving person, there are going to be many different rules for you (and for them) to comply with because people and situations can vary quite a bit. Do you find this exhausting? The solution probably includes a large dose of this:

You need to invest more in self-care.

Healthy self-care is going to be expressed in the form of speaking up and asserting your interests more often. Sure, maybe you’re concerned about hurting relationships and being perceived as selfish. The thing is, if you’re accustomed to taking care of the feelings and wishes of too many people and not caring enough for yourself, there is a reputation that precedes you (“Oh, you know Bernice? She’s a real softy. Just ask her—I guarantee she’ll say yes to whatever you want!”)

When you buckle down and assert some new boundaries, or simply begin to enforce the ones you’ve already set, some people who are used to pushing you around might resent your new gumption and just try to pressure you further. Don’t back down. In time they will feel more respect for you and tell others you magically got tougher. Though they may not say it, they’ll think “Good for you!”. You will need to maintain an appropriate amount of self-awareness, of course, because I’m not talking about a selfishness holiday, just saying that your needs matter too and you’ll help yourself and others more if you express them. And guess what? When strong but fair boundaries are set, people feel safe and more secure; they know what’s expected of them and how better to behave. You’re doing everyone a favor.

In order to take good care of others, you also need to be healthy and happy. It may seem heroic to run yourself ragged for others but you’re no use to anyone if you burn out. Self-care sometimes gets a bad rap because it has the world ‘self’ in it, which is a bit like ‘selfish,’ but there’s no you in the equation without yourself and I’m guessing the many people in your life need you at your best.

That’s right. Taking care of yourself, to a certain point, is taking care of others.

How do you maintain the right balance of self-care and generosity towards others? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. You’re just going to have to do the work like the rest of us and figure it out. It needs to fit your situation, and the individuals in your life. But have confidence in your good intentions, implement repair functions in your relationships, and make adjustments as you learn valuable lessons about the people you love. Take regular inventory of your real intentions with people. Are you trying to change them or maintain a fictional image with them? Or are you genuinely trying to bless their lives? It takes courage to be honest with yourself and others. Please don’t be afraid or offended by the truth in any situation. The truth can be cold and bitter, but it’s always user-friendly and, once known, can be dealt with.

For certain people, I feel it may be useful to also say this: you might need to let go of some of your martyr complex. Sacrifice feels noble, and we can almost be certain in any situation that we’re the “good guy” if we stand back, zip our lips, and let others have their way. This is often at the heart of a humble person’s self-image, but some people make it their default in all situations. This brings us back to self-care. When you deny yourself too much, you become less effective. How can you help anyone if you’re struggling along, barely surviving yourself? You need to be happy as well as healthy to be your most effective with others. We all need balance.

Having trouble feeling guilty about your needs? Consider that guilt isn’t a very useful emotion beyond its educational purpose. Never waste a catastrophe or a mistake, because these are opportunities to learn and improve. Once you’ve learned a lesson and made some changes, it’s time to move on. Let the past stay in the past, rather than wallowing in regret. Guilt doesn’t lead to virtue unless you discover some new lesson or truth, and it quickly becomes self-abuse if it lingers too long.

Humans tend to judge people with a similar yardstick as we judge ourselves. Be generous and kind to yourself and you’ll find it easier to do the same with others. Be realistic about what you are trying to accomplish and be thoughtful about your goals. But let go of the notion that the carrot is less effective than the whip. You can’t get very far whipping yourself or others. It’s degrading and demotivating. If you tend to be hard on yourself, practice being more lenient. Remember that you are valuable, that you can accomplish great things in small (and perhaps not-so-small) ways. Build a beautiful boundary wall with the pretty colored stones of self-care, dignity, and a sense of how irreplaceable you are, then protect that wall and expect many good things to follow!

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