Knowing your limits. What are boundaries, and why are they important?
In order to be close to people that we love, it is important to know our limits and be able to skillfully negotiate both our limits, and those of those around us.
Boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not; you can say no (to meeting someone, to lending someone money, to having sex) and still love someone. In fact, your ability to tolerate separateness in your relationships actually enables you to be closer in a healthy way to those around you.
There are usually understood to be three types of boundary:
What people classically think about as a boundary: Includes both the action and, crucially, knowing what we are uncomfortable or comfortable with.
It can be useful to think about these as our ‘limits’ (what we will accept/do/not do) rather than a ‘boundary’ (something that we ‘put down’ or ‘do’ to another). So; I don’t accept you raising your voice at me, so I choose to exit the situation if you continue after I ask you to stop.
Knowing when to say no and when to say yes, and having the skill to say no without shaming or punishing the other person. Takes into account the other person’s legitimate* needs if appropriate. Is firm and clear but compassionate.
Tips for stating our limits:
- Use clear, specific and non-judgemental/non-blaming language
- Focus on what you want or need from a situation (Eg, ‘I would like’ rather than ‘you never’)
- Empathise: hear and verbally reflect back the other’s needs and feelings
Where two selves clash, problem-solve rather than find fault. Get creative: if I don’t want to cook tonight and you don’t want to cook, can we do something very simple together? Can we get take away if finances allow? Don’t feel under pressure to come up with the solution all by yourself, where possible, it should be a shared, co-created endeavour.
Even if someone does not do as you ask, it is still important to know what your limits are. If you have communicated what you’d like or not from them, and they have not listened, it is worth thinking about what your options are from there. Problem solve. Where is your power, what actions can you take? Not in order to punish or shame the other, but in order to respect your own limits.
(And if it is a close relationship, it might be worth considering how healthy and nourishing it is for you to be in a close relationship with someone who consistently doesn’t respond to your needs and wants. Get outside help if you need to.)
*Legitimate needs do not include anything that is abusive or harmful to you or to other people: it does not include a right to have sexual engagement with you, to hit or otherwise physically abuse you, to verbally abuse you or to psychologically abuse you (gaslighting etc).
The space between us. Includes allowing other people to experience their feelings without stepping in to shut them down with shame or rescuing; other people’s experience, truth and perception may differ from ours, allowing space for both;
When receiving feedback, criticism or big feelings from another, it can help to ask yourself;
- Is it true?
- Is it about me?
This can help you emotionally protect yourself. For example, if the cashier at the supermarket snaps at you for dropping the eggs you were going to buy and smashing them, it is true that you dropped them, but their angry response is more about their emotional state at the time than anything that you have done, so it is not about you. You can, therefore, let yourself off the hook for their reaction. However, you might be wise to offer to pay for the eggs, as you did drop them.
Self-regulation; for example, those that have experienced abuse or been consistently made to feel responsible for other people’s feelings (particularly in childhood) may particularly struggle with feeling overwhelming shame or intense anxiety if they put their needs first/say no/hold a boundary.
Being triggered in this way can lead us to either invalidating the other person’s feelings or punishing them for having them, or shutting our own needs down and possibly feeling resentful and angry ourselves, and maybe also taking it out on the other person or those around us.
If you are able to hold your own shame, you will also be able to sit with your legitimate and earned shame/guilt, acknowledge where you have erred and own up, apologise and if necessary make amends (refrain from behaviour in future and/or do something to make it right).
- Know your patterns: do you shut the other down, or yourself? How do you do this? We all have our habitual responses and knowing yours is the first step to changing them.
- What is your biggest struggle? Look at what happened last time; how would you have liked the situation to go, and what could you have done differently? What did you do well? Give yourself some gratitude and love; even if you can’t find anything (and I bet there is something), here you are, looking to increase your skill and awareness by unpicking a painful event. That takes courage.
- Tend to your own overwhelming feelings: take time out if you can, you can tell the other person you’ll respond later on, set a time, and allow yourself to regroup. See if you can work out what you’re scared/anxious/angry/ashamed about and where that comes from; sometimes it can be something from our childhood or a previous relationship repeating. How can you nurture that part of you? Call a wise, supportive confidante if you have one. Sometimes it can help to imagine holding that small part of you as though they are a child, telling them you (the adult) has it, that you can deal so they don’t have to.
- If someone else is triggered: you can take a time out here too, if you need to. Use your external boundary setting skills; ‘I don’t want to talk to you while you’re raising your voice like that’, and give them space to regroup if they need it.
When dealing with someone abusive:
It is important to note that abusive systems and relationships invalidate our anger and discomfort at any mistreatment we receive, and hold us responsible for other people’s actions. As such, it is almost impossible to gain and maintain good, working boundaries within these relationships. Think of it like a funhouse mirror; you don’t have access to a true reflection of the situation so you make faulty judgements based on distorted information.
If you are in a dangerous situation or relationship, your priority is keeping yourself and any dependents safe. Use other relationships, if you can, to practice your external/behavioural boundary skills in. Get as much professional help as you need to support you (Call 999 if you are in immediate danger or The National Domestic Violence Helpline - 0808 2000 247 - can also help if you need advice or support around a dangerous relationship).
- If you begin to become more assertive with your needs, expect push back and escalation from the abusive other/the abusive system. Again, your priority is always physical safety.
- Refuse to be drawn into an argument or diverted, hold them to the topic (see ‘Broken Record technique’ and calmly end the conversation if you feel that you are getting nowhere. You can always come back to it another time.
- Don’t measure your interaction by their response; people who are on the abusive spectrum ignore and push boundaries as a matter of course, in a variety of ways (for examples, research tactics of emotional abuse). Measure your boundary by how you acted. Get feedback from a safe other if necessary; people who are abusive are masters at making us feel ashamed and in the wrong.
- Have a safe, nurturing support network in place; a therapist, a support group, some safe friends or family members, an internet support group; whatever you are able to access.
If you find yourself repeatedly struggling with setting boundaries, either in certain areas or particular relationships, it can sometimes be useful to seek some professional help. Sometimes we just have blind spots for our own experiences, sometimes old, unhealed trauma gets in the way and sometimes habitual patterns can be deeply entrenched and we may need some support to make the changes that we want.
Do bear in mind that all change takes time, and it can, therefore, be important to notice all the small steps that you make as you go. Even a seemingly small change can be very significant, and it all adds up.
Take pleasure in your achievements, and don’t give up!
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About Jo Baker
An experienced UPCA registered psychotherapeutic counsellor, Jo specialises in individual therapy for women. She has worked with survivors of domestic and sexual violence for a number of years in various projects. She now works from her private practice in Lewes, East Sussex, and also for a low cost counselling service in Brighton.