Setting healthy boundaries in relationships
We need healthy relationships in our lives to be happy. However, this desire for closeness often leads us to override our own boundaries and keep giving even when that leads to our own dissatisfaction and a loss of authenticity in our relationships.
We may override our boundaries for a variety of different reasons, it could be that we are seeking love or acceptance from others, perhaps we are seeking approval, or it may be a reflection of our own sense of low self worth where we prioritise the needs of others above our own. Whatever the reason, learning to set boundaries is an important step towards having healthier, happier relationships. Whilst it may be difficult to do at the start it is a skill that can be learn if we are willing to accept the emotions that setting boundaries triggers in us.
It’s somewhat counter-intuitive but setting boundaries can actually bring you closer to others in your life. However, boundaries allow us to feel safe in your relationships, and when we feel safe we can invite people to be closer to us, we can be more vulnerable with them and we are less scared of getting hurt as we are able to protect ourselves.
A client had difficulties with his family. They would continually invade his space both physically and emotionally. Instead of raising the subject with his family, he began to distance himself. However, this also made him feel unhappy as he missed having his family in his life. Through coaching he began to see which parts of their behaviour were not ok for him. He set firm limits, telling them that it was not ok for example when they tried to tell him what he should think. Once they started to accept these boundaries he felt able to have proper contact with them, and open up again. He began to have honest discussions with them for the first time, bringing them much closer than they had been in the past.
We can get so used to our patterns of behaviour that we are sometimes not even aware that we are overriding our boundaries. However, there are some tell-tale signs that we can pay attention to when we are around other people these might be changes in our emotional state or they may be changes in our behaviour. Some signs include:
- feeling numb
- being resentful of particular people
- holding people at arms length
- living other people’s agendas
- being stressed
- feeling uncomfortable.
When you notice that you are overriding your boundaries, there are four steps you can set to establish boundaries.
1. Identify your boundaries and feel them: we can sometimes get caught up in thoughts so a helpful way to stay connected with the emotions is to observe how your body feels physically. Do you for example feel a knot in your stomach, or is your throat feeling constricted?
2. Need: ask yourself what you need in this situation physically, emotionally and mentally. If a friend continually drops over to your house uninvited to stay and this bothers you, perhaps you need your friend to leave and give you physical space.
3. Avoiding: ask yourself what emotion you are avoiding. When we let our boundaries get overrun it is often because we are avoiding another emotion that we see as being negative, we may for example continually give because we feel that they might reject us if we don’t, in which case we are letting our boundaries be overrun in order to avoid the pain of rejection.
4. Set clear boundaries: tell people what is not ok for you. Be very specific and open about what their behaviour is, what it triggers in you and what you need from them.
Clients often say that they don’t set boundaries because they believe that the other person will not adhere to the limits that they set. Setting boundaries is an independent act, you are protecting yourself and it does not depend upon how the other person responds. More often than not the other person will have been unaware of their behaviour and will change. On some occasions they will continue to try and override your boundaries, in these instances continue to reiterate the boundary and if things do not change consider whether you need to change the nature of the relationship that you have with the other person. You have a choice – continue to feel like you do when your boundaries get overridden or feel the pain of the loss of the relationship. There is no right answer but to feel happier it’s important to make a proactive choice.
Finally, when you set boundaries this may trigger difficult emotions in you such as rejection, pain or guilt. Feel these emotions and stay with them, they will pass. Give yourself permission to set boundaries as they are necessary for you to be happy and have authentic relationships.
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About Neena Madhok
Neena is an ICF accredited life and career coach. She coaches on a range of issues including emotional well-being, authenticity in relationships and career fulfilment. She works both analytically and emotionally, using her corporate background as well as her extensive coaching and therapy training.