Boundaries are “guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for him- or herself that are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around him or her and how he or she will respond when someone steps outside those limits.”  In a more practical sense, boundaries are the emotional and behavioral limits we place on our environment and others around us that we do not want to be crossed.  Boundaries help keep us safe emotional and physically.  Naturally, since boundaries are meant to protect us, we have to share them with others.  Before you can express your boundaries, you have to know what they are.  Don’t be alarmed if you feel like you have no idea what’s ok and what’s not ok for others to do and say around you or if you just take life as it comes.  Most people don’t know their boundaries until they are crossed and feelings get hurt.  This tip is designed to help you identify your own personal boundaries.

IDENTIFYING YOUR BOUNDARIES

Boundaries are an external representation of your personal values. You will have different boundaries in different situations based upon your own individual values and society’s norms. If you repeatedly find yourself in situations with people who make you feel uncomfortable, stressed, anxious, depressed, mad, or frustrated you need to set stricter boundaries.  When people do or say things that trigger an intense emotional reaction within us, it is a signal that they have crossed a boundary.  Most people cross a boundary accidentally because they didn’t know it existed. In fact, you may be completely unaware of your own boundaries, especially if no one has crossed them recently. Identifying where you need more space, self-respect, energy, or personal power is the first step to setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries. To get a sense of your own personal boundaries, start by answering the following questions:

  • Are there any individuals make you feel insecure, hurt, frustrated, sad, or angry after spending time with them?
  • What do your typical interactions with these people look like?
  • What have you done in the past to control the situation?
  • What’s worked and what hasn’t?
  • What behaviors or actions would you like people to stop directing at you?
  • What statements do you wish people would no longer say to you?
  • What things do people say to you that undermine your confidence or self-esteem?
  • Do people at your job make you feel pressure to engage in office politics or gossip that you feel interferes with work?
  • Do friends assume you’re comfortable with certain topics that you’re not?
  • When certain people ask for favors, does it leave you feeling overwhelmed?
  • What things do people say about others that make you feel uncomfortable?
  • Are there things you feel uncomfortable sharing with others?
  • Do you feel the need to behave differently with different social groups?
  • Do you feel pressure to engage in activities that you don’t want to do?
  • What situations make you feel attacked or defensive?
  • Who do you feel confident asserting a need with?
  • Who do you feel would disrespect your personal space and values?
  • What situations can you be most flexible with?
  • What situations do you need to be guarded during?
  • What has happened in the past that makes these people, behaviors, or situations uncomfortable?
  • What do you want to prevent from happening in the future?

Using these questions as a guide, you will be able to identify times in your life when someone has made you feel uncomfortable.  Feeling uncomfortable in work, school, family, dating, and social situations is a sign that your boundaries have been crossed.  As you identify the discomfort, you are labeling a boundary.  Your boundary is the point of the situation right before you felt uncomfortable.  In the future, you will want to set boundaries with friends, family members, co-workers, and partners in order prevent the interactions from becoming uncomfortable.  Keep in mind that you may not always notice an intense emotional reaction; sometimes the emotions are more subtle.  Therefore, to identify your boundaries, you’ll want to pay close attention to the situations where you feel zapped of energy, get a knot in your stomach, or want to cry. By looking back on your interactions with others you will be able to see actions, words, and situations you don’t want to have to deal with again.  This will help you develop ideas about what is ok for future interactions and what isn’t. 

Once you have answered the questions and developed an awareness of times in the past when your unidentified boundaries have been crossed, you can formulate sentences that will express your boundaries in the future. To identify the statements that will become your boundaries, fill in the following sentences with 3 or more answers.  People may not _________.  You might answer this statement with: use me as a way to alleviate their anger or frustrations, gossip about others near me, search my office/purse/room/personal belongings, or touch me unless I say it’s ok.  I have the right to ask for ___________. You may wish to ask for privacy, assistance with housework, quiet time alone, or clarification of a criticism.  To protect myself it is ok for me to ___________.  Boundaries you may place to protect yourself may include: turning off your cell phone/e-mail after a certain hour, changing your mind, or creating private space within your home. To prevent anxiety or depression I need __________. These needs may look like: less responsibility at work, more time talking with your partner, an hour with no kids, or positive reinforcement or validation.

Take the answers from your questions and the examples above as guidelines for developing your own boundaries.  Use the answers about past situations to gain comprehension of what words, actions, topics, people, places, events, and situations you don’t want to repeat because of the negative impact the had on your well being.  Then formulate the sentences above to make clear and concise boundaries you can express to others. Don’t be alarmed if you’re still not one hundred percent certain that your boundaries are “correct.”  Identifying and setting boundaries is not about being right or wrong; it’s about developing a self-awareness of your needs and then expressing those needs, in the form of boundaries, to others.  In this moment, your primary goal is to look back, gain insight into what has been hurtful in the past, and develop needs statements you can communicate in the future to prevent further harm.

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