In my previous article on personal boundaries I described how maintaining boundaries was important for increasing resilience. Empowering you to cope with the stress of life: work, relationships, and those difficult times when bad things happen. Along the way, straightening out your personal relationships, so there is a balance between what you do for others, and what you do for yourself.
As you do this you become more effective. Handling responsibilities without getting overwhelmed by them; putting a stop to people who drag you down; preserving your energies for what’s important. Your inner poise and confidence will increase as you learn to put aside self-doubt and speak up for your own self-preservation.
In this article I describe what happens when you don’t have strong boundaries and what, specifically, you can do to restore them.
Defining personal boundaries
A personal boundary is a circle you draw around yourself. Inside that circle are your rights, values and your self-respect. Outside the circle are all the things that people say and do around you. Using your emotional monitor you check whether you feel comfortable or uncomfortable with events. When you experience respect, concern, appreciation, fairness or love you open the boundary to a deeper connection. If you encounter put-downs, manipulation, contempt, injustice and malice you close it. You do that by saying ‘No’, walking away, or through assertiveness.
When your boundaries are too weak
Do any of these experiences apply to you?
Your mother repeatedly criticises you, your partner, your children and your life choices
Your boss is always asking you to stay on and work late (without pay) while others in your team take days off and go home early. She tells you that there ‘might’ be a promotion in it for you, while implying that failure to comply with unfair demands will earn you a bad review.
Your teenage children ridicule your opinions, while treating your home as a combination private bank and hotel.
Your partner takes drugs, goes missing, and openly flirts with other people when you go out together. When you raise objections he tells you to ‘get a life’.
Your ‘best friend’ texts you every day about her worries, and spends ages dumping her problems over the phone to you. You feel drained, and resent the fact that she never takes any interest in you.
Your housemate tells you at the last minute that he doesn’t have the money to pay his share of this month’s rent. He already owes you unpaid back-rent. When you ask him to explain, he tells you not to worry, as he will pay it all back in a week or two.
Here are some more signs that your boundaries need work:
Feeling uncomfortable about the behaviour of those around you, without ever challenging it
Worrying about what others might think of you when you speak up for yourself
People constantly telling you what to do or think
Overload of work, whether at home or at your job
Too many demands, and too little time to see to them all
Boundaries can be set with friends, strangers, partners, family members or co-workers. They can refer to demands on your time and energy, personal space, possessions, ethics, personal rights, and social encounters (including those on social media).
Knowing how to set boundaries is one of the most essential yet under-estimated social skills. Requiring emotional intelligence and self-assertiveness on your part.
You use emotional intelligence to examine your own feelings about others, and to assess their motives towards you. You employ assertiveness skills to set limits to behaviour you don’t want to put up with any longer.
Your emotions will alert you when a boundary has to be set. Like an internal compass, your feelings will tell you when the behaviour of others feels right, or when it is time to act. Examples of feeling states that act as ‘stop’ signals include discomfort, frustration, anger, and weariness.
Assertiveness skills are tools you can use to turn those internal feelings into words. Sometimes speaking softly, at other times with firmness. If you have not used them before then you may need practice if you are to make them convincing. If so, you may want to consider hiring a therapist or coach to assist you.
Assertive responses that draw a boundary
When you set a personal boundary the most important thing is to be clear, specific and direct in speech. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that in order to be ‘nice’ you have to be vague. Doing that will let your respondent off the hook.
The simplest way to draw a boundary, when a demand is placed on you is to say ‘No.’ Many people avoid that word as they feel uncomfortable using it. But with repeated practice your discomfort will fade.
Another way to say No is to give a refusal:
Example: “I can’t stay on the phone as I’m about to go into a meeting.”
Refusing a demand, while adding a reason.
Example: “I can’t take on that assignment now – I’m still working on the last deadline you gave me.”
Refusing a demand, while offering another option.
Example: “I can’t help you with that, but I might know someone who can.”
Calling a stop (hard version).
Example: “I’m not going to discuss my appearance with you.”
Calling a stop (softer version)
Example: “Please don’t talk about my partner that way.”
Calling a stop (still more softly)
Example: “I respect your views, but please don’t tell me what to think.”
Calling a stop to repeat offences
Example: “In future, please ask me before you use my shower.”
Postponing your answer (when you’re not sure how to reply)
Example: “Let me think about what you’re asking.”
Calling out the violation
Example: “Jokes like that aren’t funny.” Or, “Flirting with others when you’re with me isn’t respectful.”
Reiterating the response (when you don’t get compliance)
Example: “I asked you twice before not to raise your voice, this is your last warning.”