Or, what even is a boundary and how do I set one?

A vector illustration of different coloured round stains in watercolour paint.

I’m the kind of person who works too much, shares too much, lets my kids run riot and lets family and social obligations overtake my personal ‘non-negotiables’, like my yoga practice, in the blink of an eye.

Time to set some boundaries, hey?

But it looks like I missed the memo on how to do that. I’ve struggled to understand what boundaries even are, let alone enforce them. And I bear the consequence of that. I’ll go over and above way too often. I’ll put up with crappy behaviour. And, sadly, a couple of important relationships have fallen apart because I wasn’t clear about my boundaries.

Like the colleague that I always took responsibility for. This was ultimately to my detriment because, when I’d finally had enough of propping her up, I came across as angry and unfair.

Or the friendship where I was always giving: of my time, my energy, my money, my love. That relationship came to a screaming halt when I asked for some emotional juice and my former friend decided that she wasn’t capable of giving any in return.

So what to do? Get strong! Be assertive. And be clear about what matters. Here are some ideas to help you – and me! – get comfortable with setting boundaries.

What even is a boundary?

Boundaries are the ground rules of relationships. You get to define them. And you are allowed to speak up when they are being traversed.

According to psychologist Darlene Lancer, there are six main areas where boundaries apply:

  1. Material boundaries are around your possessions, such as your money, car, clothes, books or other items. You get to decide if and when you give or loan your things to others.
  2. Physical boundaries relate to your personal space, privacy and body. For example, you can decide if you want to shake hands or hug a person when you say goodbye.
  3. Mental boundaries apply to your thoughts, values and opinions. Do you know what you believe? Can you hold onto your opinions? Can you listen to someone else’s conflicting opinion without getting angry?
  4. Emotional boundaries separate your emotions from someone else’s. Healthy boundaries protect you from feeling guilty or responsible for someone else’s feelings or problems, and from taking comments personally.
  5. Sexual boundaries allow you to establish the level of sexual touch and activity you are comfortable with, including what, where, when and with whom.
  6. Spiritual boundaries relate to your beliefs and experiences in connection with a higher power.

Linking our boundaries to our values

As we gain experience and maturity, we understand that setting boundaries helps us manage our relationships. Doing this helps us live according to our values. When we know what matters to us, it’s easier to define what we’ll put up with.

The situation with my colleague taught me that taking responsibility is something I value a lot. I didn’t recognise that early enough. Brené Brown sums up where I went wrong in The Gifts of Imperfection:

“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behaviour or a choice.”

Ouch. That rings so true for me. Now I know that making people accountable helps them grow too. And it can lead us into the position of a mentor, where we are helping people become better versions of themselves.

The situation with my friend taught me just how much I value emotional connection. Nowadays, I’m much clearer within myself about the kind of emotional honesty that I’m looking for in a friendship. I put up with less bullshit and this makes for more honest, fun and meaningful relationships.

Laying down the ground rules

In the examples I’ve used above, the worst-case scenario came true. My colleague quit. My friendship collapsed. Fear of these kinds of outcomes is part of the reason we hold back from setting clear boundaries in the first place.

We don’t want to lose people in our lives, so we put up with their crap. We don’t want to lose our jobs, so we work way too much overtime. We don’t want to lose our clients, so we let them call us at all hours.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Setting firm boundaries in relationships needn’t be aggressive. It can be polite. It can be successful. And it can be fair.

It’s fantastic if you can do this from the beginning of a relationship. But if not, you can try some small, gentle changes that build your boundary-setting muscles over time. Or perhaps it’s time to go in hard and block that number, once and for all. Only you can decide.

I want to reveal something that still surprises me about the scenarios I shared above: I’m better off without those people in my life. Ultimately, they didn’t respect me. And my time is so much better spent without going the extra mile for people who don’t truly value what I have to give.

I’ve recently been taking part in a 10-day boundary challenge on Insight Timer with psychotherapist Terri Cole. She’s written a book called Boundary Boss and has a fun quiz on her website to help you work out your boundary style. I can highly recommend the 10-day course – there were heaps of ‘aha!’ moments for me in there ­– so I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

For now, I’m going to leave you with this cute quote from American author Annie Lamott:

“No is a complete sentence.”

May we all use that word from time to time, and feel the flow-on effects of the accompanying self-respect.

Much love, Lyndall