Setting healthy boundaries is a crucial skill for creating mutually satisfying and healthy relationships with a variety of people in your life including your spouse, partner, family, friends, co-workers, supervisors, clients, teachers and students. Sometimes boundary setting can be thought of as rigid, but on the contrary, boundary creation and enforcement are an act of self-compassion. Thinking about boundaries helps you to anticipate what will make you happy in a relationship. Therefore, it adds a tangible, measurable structure for behaviour that will assist in building a long-lasting relationship. There is no one size fits all approach to setting boundaries within the context of each unique relationship yet when both people are happy with the structure, the prospects for a mutually satisfying relationship are enhanced.
Your boundaries teach people how to treat you by communicating what you will tolerate. Boundaries also communicate how much you value yourself. People will not place a higher value on you than the one you set for yourself. It is the same as in a store, if the sneakers you desire are marked at $100, would you pay the cashier $120 for them? If you offer a product or service at $50, will people offer to pay you $80 for it? Just like in business, when you set a high value upon your time, effort and resources, other people will learn to as well. Moreover, you will attract people who appreciate, love and respect you for who you are.
A major fear around setting boundaries is that people will leave their relationship with you or you will become less close over time. It is true you will lose people by changing what you will tolerate, perhaps many people. You won’t be manipulated as easily and some people will not like that. You will need to be happy with your own company as you will probably spend more time alone. However, if you communicate a genuine feeling or concern and the other person does not make any effort to meet you halfway, is that person worth your investment in them? Maybe it is a blessing in disguise that you go your separate ways. Engaging with people who do not care for you will gradually chip away at your self-esteem, as you find yourself in the habit of creating excuses for their unfair, inconsiderate and at times cruel behaviour. Learn to look for what they do rather than relying on what they say. Anyone can say anything with little or no intent of following though on it. Apologies without change are an insidious form of manipulation and keep you trapped in toxic, abusive relationships.
A written exercise I use with clients is one assessing the short and long-term consequences of breaking or blurring the boundaries for different relationships. To do this exercise, make three columns. The first column is the boundary. The second column is the short-term consequences of breaking the boundary. The third column is the long-term consequences of breaking the boundary.
Let us consider boundaries in dating. Say for example, you have been dating a person for about 5 months who has a habit of making last minute plans for going out, often on the same day. You enjoy this person’s company yet would prefer to make plans at least a week in advance considering your own commitments. Your partner claims that it is “impossible” for him to know in advance when he can go out, yet he has not communicated any justifiable reason for why this is the case. You’ve had to cancel plans with both your friends and family at the last minute to accommodate his schedule several times now.
A healthy boundary in this case is that if he wants to take you out, this should be communicated at least 3-4 days in advance. If at that time, you do not have other plans, you can agree to go out with him. Otherwise, his invitation would have to be rescheduled for a later date. This is a compromise between a week in advance and making plans the same day. You do not agree to go out at the last minute, even if you do not have other plans. Short term consequences of breaking this boundary are that you communicate that you regularly do not have anything else to do, that you are lonely, that you value him above other important relationships in your life and that you are willing to sacrifice the quality of your other relationships to build a relationship with him. Friends and family are hurt that you aren’t around as much. Long-term consequences are that your friends and family view you as unreliable and inconsiderate. They may question your judgement. You become more isolated as you don’t spend as much time with other people. The person you are dating takes it for granted that you will always be there and does not treat you as well. He learns that if his other plans fall through and he has nothing else to do, he can spend the time with you, as a plan B. He does not need to impress you, so he does not spend time planning fun dates, instead preferring to “hang out”. In other words, you are not a priority for him. He will never learn to make you his first priority because he does not see you as an equal partner. You unwittingly teach him to view you as a short-term fling rather than a future wife.
From this example, you can see the immense damage it causes when you fail to create and maintain effective boundaries in your life. You will become resentful that people are taking advantage of you yet you will notice that you keep attracting more and more people who drain your energy. It takes courage to recognize people who make you feel crazy or guilty for enforcing your own boundaries. Sometimes that means cutting someone out of your life after they repeatedly fail to respect your boundaries. Sometimes it means not having as much contact with someone who previously you were close to or imagined that in the future you would become closer to. Dare to dream of a future where most of the people in your life truly value you for who you are and treat you with love and respect. You deserve it.