What Are Boundaries And Why Are They So Important?
A discussion of the concept of boundaries, including what they really are and why they're so important to your continued health and well-being moving forward.
When people think about the term "boundaries" and the many implications that come with it, a few specific images usually come to mind. Most often people think of that one friend or family member they know who always carries on a conversation just a little too closely. While it's true that personal space is a boundary that is important to many, the actual term means something a great deal larger and more important.
Simply put, boundaries are the rules for both how we treat others and how we treat ourselves. The "Golden Rule" is somewhat of an example of this – we should all make an effort to treat others the way we ourselves would want to be treated. But even that is just a small part of a larger story being told.
Boundaries are those rules that are learned, developed and honed by the experiences and relationships we have in our lifetime. Whether something is right or wrong, whether a particular activity is healthy or not, etc.
Healthy boundaries have an incredible impact on our life, even when you don't necessarily realize something is going on. Healthy boundaries lead to healthy self-esteem, which, in turn, makes us more successful in our relationships and daily functioning.
Sadly, the reverse is also true – unhealthy boundaries that are too loose, too rigid or too aggressive can lead to low self-esteem sooner rather than later. This can segue into issues with depression, anxiety, dysfunctional relationships and so much more.
As a result, one of the keys to living your best life possible is to understand more about what boundaries are and why they're so essential. To do this, you have to approach the subject from a few unique angles to improve your overall self care.
What Are Boundaries? Breaking Them Down
As stated, a large part of personal boundaries comes down to how you treat yourself. The types of things that you say to yourself when you're all alone would be an example of this. To help make sure that these self-reflective times of "self talk" don't harm your life, you need to be able to recognize unhelpful thinking as soon as you can.
Unhelpful thinking would be thoughts that are overwhelmingly negative, abusive or even pessimistic. Worrying, "catastrophizing" and fear-focused self talk would also fall into this category. Even in the best-case scenario, this just creates a sort of fantasy or comfort zone that breeds unrealistic expectations. This, in turn, often leads to a judgmental, arrogant or overly angry voice – the phrase "you are your own harshest critic" certainly comes to mind.
If these are the types of things that apply to you, it's important to replace that negative inner voice with a more helpful, empowering one whenever you can. If you're getting frustrated because you're having a hard time with a particular task, train that inner voice to be much more progress- and solution-focused. Practice strength-oriented thinking: Don't tell yourself something will be hard to do, but instead acknowledge this and say, "I'm going to do it anyway."
Work hard to help make sure that voice is gratitude-focused, too. Always take a moment to celebrate your victories, regardless of how large or small they may be. Be compassionate with yourself and favor growth over perfection – all of this will lead to a much happier, healthier daily life.
The Art of Physical Self-Care
Another one of the reasons why boundaries are so important has to do with the ways in which physical self-care affects the life you're trying to lead. How you address your own hygiene communicates a lot about how you value yourself without every saying a word. Because of this, if you want to live a luxurious life you need to make sure that your hygiene is luxurious to match.
But it also runs much deeper than that. You should always make sleep a priority because it's so important to both our physical and emotional health. Healthy foods can be delicious and fulfilling so try to eat them whenever possible.
Emotional self-care is also a must. Make an effort to find a hobby, interest or some other type of larger purpose that brings you joy. Make creative choices whenever possible. If you've got an hour to kill on a Wednesday afternoon, try doing something like drawing, writing, journaling, laughing, dancing, singing, etc.
Boundaries and How We Treat Others
Again, how we treat ourselves is only one half of why boundaries are so essential. Equally important is how they affect the ways that we treat others. If that inner voice you just identified was aggressive toward yourself, there's a solid chance that it is manifesting itself the same way toward others. People would probably use words like "pushy," "bossy" or "controlling" to describe you and, rest assured, they will act accordingly.
You may think that this means you should be more passive in your relationships, but this is also not the case. Avoiding conflict isn't bad in and of itself, but once it leads you to withdrawal from social situations or to act dishonestly to avoid disapproval it certainly becomes negative.
Being passive aggressive is also something you should work hard to avoid in your interactions with others. Warning signs of this include constant heavy sarcasm, mean teasing, guilt trips, badgering and more.
Instead, we owe it to ourselves – and those around us – to try to be assertive when possible. Be respectful of both others and ourselves. Always focus on the solution, not the problem. Be clear, respectful and honest and try to be productive in your communication whenever you can. Be flexible, but don't be afraid to practice firm boundaries when appropriate (like when safety is at risk, for just one example).
In terms of how we treat others, always invest in relationships that support and encourage you to be the healthiest person you can be. Take a look around your life and recognize those relationships that leave your feelings hurt, drained or used. You don't have to cut these people out of your life, but you SHOULD budget your time with them accordingly.
Going beyond that, recognize that once a relationship becomes abusive either physically or emotionally, it is very much time to go. Seek support, create an actionable plan and leave as soon as it is safe for you to do so.
Boundaries Are a Two-Way Street: Responding to Others' Treatment of You
If someone crosses the boundaries that you've set, you owe it to both them and yourself to communicate and problem solve moving forward. Don't allow this treatment to continue – all you're really doing is enabling that behavior in the future. Don't withdrawal or avoid, as this is one of the fastest ways to guarantee the end of a friendship. Reacting or attacking will likely only cause further damage to a situation that is quickly deteriorating.
Instead, talk out the problem. Let someone know what they did, why you didn't appreciate it, and see what both parties can contribute to the situation in the future. Don't be afraid to do your part – but also recognize when you are working harder than the other person, too. In these situations, sometimes "problem solving" really does come down to allowing more space from the relationship so that you can both come back stronger than ever.
As you can see, boundaries are about a lot more than just physical and personal space. They play a direct role in nearly every interaction we have on a daily basis, both with others and internally with ourselves.
Making an effort to have strong boundaries goes a long way toward helping to improve your own self-esteem, the quality of your personal and professional relationships, and even the ease at which you function each day.
Strong boundaries help clear away the confusion of foggy expectations and poorly defined social roles, letting everyone know exactly where they stand and what is expected of them at all times.
Weak boundaries or negative boundaries have the exact opposite reaction. They make us feel badly about ourselves, they cause the relationships that are so essential to us to deteriorate, and they leave us fractured both physically and emotionally.
But the true power of boundaries and why they're so important comes down to how they affect the ways in which we see and treat ourselves. Everything begins and ends with you. Make no mistake: People pay attention to the way you treat yourself, and you will set the tone for everything that happens afterward. If you set a positive tone through the careful selection of boundaries, you can most often expect a positive life as a result. If you treat yourself like you're somehow worth less than absolute respect, other people will usually act accordingly – even if they don't necessarily mean to or believe it themselves. THIS is the true reason why boundaries are so essential to the way we live our lives.
So to that end, don't establish firm boundaries because of what they mean to other people. Establish them because you deserve them. To be honest, it doesn't have to be much more complicated than that.
For more information on boundaries, check out "Boundaries: When to say yes, when to say no, to take control of your life" by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend; or click below to see services offered by Melissa Garner, LMHC, RYT. in Pensacola, Fl.