Boundaries. Why are they so important? And how can I protect my boundaries?

I decided to take a week off from blogging last week. I share this explicitly, as I believe it represents setting a healthy personal boundary (I needed some time off from work and to enjoy the holiday!). Boundaries can apply to so many important parts of life and are particularly relevant around the holiday season, when culture/family/society have many explicit and implicit expectations of how and what we should be doing with our time. Holidays are not only a time of joy and magic (although that's there and can be nice!) - there's often stress that comes with all of the expectations.


In the most basic sense, boundaries represent our personal space - including physical, emotional, energy, and time. As an independent, autonomous human being, you get to choose your boundaries and assert them. Many people have trouble protecting their personal boundaries. Sometimes this is due to earlier life events, such as trauma, where boundaries were violated without acknowledgement of the violation. In such a case, a person usually has difficulty believing that their personal space is truly theirs. Even if you've not experienced a trauma around your boundaries, it's likely that at some time you were told that your time/ideas/feelings are less important as someone else's. Or that you have to tolerate a situation that is unhealthy or unsafe for you. Point being, most of us have been injured around boundaries. 

So if difficulty setting and maintaining boundaries is so common, why doesn't someone do something about it!? Well, I am writing to empower you to take action to solidify and assert your boundaries.

How do I know what my boundaries are? 

Reflect: Spend some time writing or thinking about how you like to enjoy life on a daily or weekly basis. Who and what is important to you in life? What are you passionate about? Reflect on your values and compare your day-to-day decisions and actions with what you'd like for yourself. If you notice that you've not been "living out your values," then whose values have you been living out? Could there be boundary violations occurring? If so, you've got an opportunity to assert your boundaries and take back what is yours.

Know your tendencies toward others: Can you easily get sucked up into another person's (or group's) wants and needs, leaving yourself and your needs behind? If so, you'll likely need to spend time away from others, do something peaceful like deep breathing, and then make a list of your needs and your wants. Sometimes this takes more than a few minutes or hours. You may need a long weekend or more without any contact with others. Remember that many of us live on automatic pilot where boundaries are not necessarily being considered. It takes commitment and awareness to really know our personal boundaries. 

Learn from past experiences: Have you ever done something (for example, participated in a volunteer event, gone to a work party, spent all weekend exclusively supporting your child's hobbies) and then felt horrible afterward? Maybe you got sick or you got into a fight with your partner. Or you slipped and had a cigarette, or ate way too much chocolate. These reactions are likely an indicator of a boundary violation. Maybe you knew beforehand that you didn't want to do this thing but felt like you "couldn't" or "shouldn't" say no. Or maybe you had no idea the toll it would take. Either way, these are opportunities to learn about our boundaries and consider responding differently next time.

How do I protect my boundaries?

Know your boundaries: This is probably obvious if you have been reading this post from top to bottom. But still, you have to be concrete and explicit with yourself regarding your boundaries. Make a list. Write things like "I need Sundays to be free from any work (including checking email)," "I need to have a date night each week with my partner that doesn't include the kids," "I can't take a job with a commute longer than one hour," "I need first dates to last less than two hours," etc. I think you get some idea of how to personalize this for yourself.

Use the word "no" and mean it: Yes, it's a common tendency for people to have difficulty saying "no" to unwanted events, perceived obligations, attention, etc. But just because it's difficult, doesn't mean it's not critically important. If you find that you have difficulty saying "no," do a little self exploration around that. Issues of self worth may arise, or you may hear someone else's voice ("mom always said I need to do this"). You may find a need to do some work here beyond the scope of this post. Be brave. Do what you need to do to say "no" and walk away.

Get off of autopilot: When you aren't thinking consciously about your decisions, your time, your energy, your space, it's easy to let others' expectations run your life without you even being aware that this is happening. Refer back to my previous posts on mindfulness for ways to gradually get off of autopilot. 

Set aside reflection time: Since boundaries can be quite tricky to maintain (especially during this time of year!) and will likely change over time, it's important to set aside some time on a regular basis to assess boundaries. Look at each realm of boundaries that apply to your life (for example, work, time with kids, time with yourself) and ask yourself how you are doing in each area. Have you been able to say "no" to people, places, and things that were unwelcome for you? Have you slipped up, had a boundary violation, and realized it after the fact? What can you learn from that about where your personal boundaries are and what you can do next time to protect those boundaries? A similar situation is likely to arise and test you!