The Importance of Healthy Boundaries

Most of us do our best to balance our time between friends, family and work, but we may still face demands that push beyond what we have to give. Some of us, no matter how well meaning, might still be learning how to set, follow and/or enforce healthy boundaries. That’s okay; there’s a learning curve to getting it right, and like all things, this too takes practice.

Whichever side of the coin we may find ourselves on, unaddressed issues in this area can lead to strains in relationships. The sooner we’re able to identify our roles in the dysfunction, the more likely we can work on important changes before too much damage has occurred.

Identifying Unhealthy Boundaries

Got drama? Or maybe you have a relationship or two that always seems to be on shaky ground. Unhealthy boundaries may not be the sole cause, but they’re likely to be a factor. By identifying certain behaviors in ourselves and others, we can help reduce their effects and improve the quality of our interactions. Here are the biggies:

  • Refusal to take “no” for an answer shows a lack of respect and autonomy. It’s important always to accept others’ need to reject plans or refuse to help out, just as we all must assert our right to say “no” when we need to take care of ourselves first. No reason is necessary, but self-care is enough.  
  • Emotional blackmail occurs when someone feels the need to punish another for setting or maintaining heathy boundaries. Forms of emotional blackmail include exclusion, gaslighting, threats and other damaging behaviors used specifically as a means of manipulation.
  • Passive-aggressive game-playing is never an acceptable response when we’re upset, but some of us may need to work harder than others to avoid falling into this trap. Learn to be as direct as possible about your feelings and anticipate the same from your friends and loved ones.
  • Other forms of manipulation that push or disrespect boundaries may include attempts at power grabs, inflexibility in making plans, lying and/or making false promises, and showing anger in response to healthy assertiveness.

Every one of us deserves to live a life unhindered by others. It’s up to each individual to set and maintain expectations as well as respect those of peers and loved ones.

Asserting New Boundaries

Healthy boundaries go both ways, but above of all else, finding balance is important in establishing them on an appropriate level. Set your boundaries too loose, and they may quickly unravel—but if you make them too rigid, then you risk cutting everyone out or pushing everyone away.

You’re likely to find that you have multiple tiers of boundaries, each corresponding to a level of friendship and/or intimacy. What might be totally appropriate to discuss with a relative or close friend might be TMI with a coworker or social media contact. Other people will also have their limits, while some might try to push what you’ve already set for yourself. Keep in mind that culture and other factors may also affect how others respond to your personal boundaries.

Either way, it’s important to make clear where you stand: What is and is not okay with you? Once you’ve decided upon your parameters, it’s time to establish them. The first step is to discuss the issue with whomever applicable, with the goal of finding mutual understanding and respect.

Clarity Is Crucial

Whether you’re setting boundaries with family members, friends or people in your professional circle, being honest and direct is vital to getting this one right. Explain why these boundaries are important and include the consequences for repeated offenses. For example, you may need to spend some time away from a friend who has become inappropriately involved in your life, or you might consider finding a new job if coworkers or the boss can’t seem to respect you.

The bottom line is you have specific expectations, and you won’t put up with anyone who won’t meet you halfway.

Boundaries are necessary for healthy relationships, but we don’t always get them exactly right on the first try. As with so many other things in life, practice makes perfect. Just as important is that we each figure out what best works for us and then voice our needs and limits accordingly. Communication is ultimately the key.

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