Written by: Charneise Alston, M.Ed
As adults, it is our personal duty to manage our own emotions, attitudes, behaviors, and responsibilities. Doing so can be burdensome which is why it is critical to understand the need for personal boundaries. The healthiest way to govern yourself is by establishing, maintaining, and enforcing boundaries. Boundaries are guidelines that you set to communicate your feelings, intentions, likes, dislikes, comfort, and safety limits. Boundaries are also a symbol of self-respect because they teach others how you want to be treated.
As a mother of a spirited toddler, I vividly remember the time when my daughter became mobile and started crawling with confidence. While the crawling stage is an exciting developmental milestone for parents, it can also be worrisome because of countless, infant safety hazards. The stairs are often considered to be a threat due to the risk of falling and uncoordinated climbing. Since infants are not fully capable of walking up and down the stairs, it is best to use safety gates at both the top and bottom of the stairs as a preventative measure.
Similarly, boundaries serve as safety gates to protect ourselves from danger, perpetual pain, and irresponsibility. Boundaries have a dual purpose because they also distinguish ownership and keep what you value safe. As a homeowner, my property lines are invisible borders along the perimeter of my piece of land to identify ownership. My front lawn is always cut and I frequently pull up weeds from my flower beds to maintain an attractive curb appeal. By consistently doing so, I created a culture for strangers to respect my grounds because it is perceived that I care about the upkeep of my land.
As a counselor, my students know that the use of foul language is not allowed in my presence. Because I lay solid boundaries, there is no confusion about how I want to be treated. My students exhibit self-restraint around me because my boundaries differentiate myself from other staff who might passively accept such behavior. Boundaries dictate what experiences you allow so be brave and direct.
The most fundamental exercise in boundary setting is learning to say “No.” Througout my twenties, I struggled with saying “No” and suffered from having loose boundaries. For example, if a family member or close friend asked for money, I felt compelled to give from my scarce resources. As a result, I harbored resentment and often felt used by those I loved. Of course this could have been remedied with a “No” but I was a passive, people-pleaser. During those times, I wanted to be liked and helpful so I complied to all requests against my better judgement.
Since no one is a mind reader, those individuals did not know that their request would be an imposition. It was my responsibility to honestly communicate that I simply did not have the excess funds to give. For years, I battled with my inability to say “No” until I discovered that setting boundaries gave me control over my happiness, comfort, and quality of relationships. Healthy boundaries lead to reciprocal relationships.
There are four types of boundaries: physical, mental, emotional, and material. Everyone has different comfort levels with physical touch. Depending on the environment, physical touch varies so it is important to not assume that the other person knows what you like or dislike. While some people are comfortable with a firm handshake, others may appreciate a pat on the back. On a first date, some individuals are comfortable with a kiss while others prefer to simply wave their hand goodnight. The “church hug” is another example of maintaining personal boundaries. Have you ever heard of the “church hug?” It is when two people of the opposite sex hug but with a respectable space between them to avoid contact with private areas such as the woman’s breast or the man’s genitals. It’s an awkward-looking hug that clearly communicates boundaries.
Setting and enforcing emotional boundaries is a common struggle for many people who have ended a romantic relationship. For example, far too many ex-partners are able to send text messages or even call after a failed relationship. While it is not impossible to still be friends with an ex, especially if there are children involved and/or shared assets, boundaries need to be set to prevent perpetual emotional pain. Do not accept phone calls during late hours of the night if you deem that as disrespectful behavior. Do not allow someone to arrive up at your home unannounced if you deem that as disrespectful behavior. Do not let someone use you by forcing their views, values, or expectations onto you for their benefit. Find your voice and use it to protect your emotional health.
Having college roommates quickly taught me the importance of material boundaries. Some people take on the belief of “what’s mine, is your’s” and they are more open to sharing their possessions. Other people would like to be considered by first being asked before attempting to use an item of their possession. Either way, cohabitation with another person can quickly become frustrating if you are not communicating boundaries. I frequently hear couples express concerns about their partner overspending from a mutual account. If clear boundaries are not established and enforced, limits could be crossed due to impulsive spending habits. Grown-ups communicate, point-blank, period.
If you struggle with saying “No,” then start small and increase in increments to more challenging boundaries. For example, if you are the unofficial designated person who tends to drive all the time without being offered gas money or even a thank-you, start saying “No.” Say “No” without fear or guilt. It is the most freeing act that you can do for yourself to protect yourself from others’ misuse. Unfortunately, some people hope that you will never find the courage to set and enforce boundaries. These are the people who benefit from your passivity. Therefore, self-care must become a priority. You cannot be of help to anyone if you are not whole and healed from the pain you permit in your life.
The minute I learned to say “No,” I was able to invest more into myself. I stopped lending out money that I did not have and started saving a little here and there over time. Before I knew it, I was able to purchase my first home in my twenties because I reclaimed my power. I became so financially responsible, I accrued more assets than liabilities. I educated myself on financial literacy and established limits to what I was willing to give.
In any relationship, ask for what you want and need. Never lose sight of your own value. Again, healthy boundaries create reciprocal relationships. People sometimes test limits which is why you must not only set boundaries but also enforce them whenever a boundary is crossed. Your power is in your consistent rebuke. If not, your limits are temporary and the inconsistency will cause more harm in the future.
Parenting requires solid boundaries. Children will test limits at any given chance if they think that there is a possibility of a rule not being enforced. For your own sanity, keep your children safe by communicating what you will and will not allow. I can always tell when a family has failed to establish solid boundaries whenever I witness a lot of chaos and disrespect in the home. Even now, as I’m writing this blog, my toddler is hoping that I become too distracted to notice that she is up past her bedtime. If you want to preserve your peace, maintain boundaries.
In closing, there comes a time in adulthood when you no longer want to appease others at your own expense. We must have the emotional intelligence to protect and defend what we treasure. When you are in tune with your feelings, know your worth, and take control of your own happiness, you demand respect by being direct and consistently clear. Setting boundaries is the beginning and holding people accountable to your limits is the goal. Do not allow people to treat you however they desire, assert yourself by behaving according to your own beliefs and values. Draw it out and make it plain because solid boundaries should keep in what nurtures and keep out what harms your safety, peace, and comfort.
“You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.”