The importance of healthy boundaries
Establishing and setting healthy boundaries is an essential skill in life, especially for people in recovery from addiction, depression, anxiety or co-dependency. Boundaries can be viewed as your own personal border control, much like that of a country. They serve to allow things into your life that are healthy and good for your well-being and protect you from things that are harmful or detrimental to your well-being. Boundaries can be physical, sexual, emotional or mental. Often many people have grown up in homes in which boundaries were unhealthy; either weak or too rigid and as a result, people entering into recovery often have no idea what healthy boundaries look like.
The following information is focused on emotional / mental boundaries. Read through the descriptions of both weak and rigid boundaries and check what applies to you. You may find that during your life you have flipped between the two.
- You can’t say no, because you are afraid of rejection or abandonment.
- Your identity consists of what you think others want you to be. You are a chameleon who changes according to who you are with at any given time
- You have no balance of power or responsibility in your relationships. You tend to be either overly responsible and controlling or passive and dependent.
- You take on other’s problems as your own.
- You share personal information too soon before establishing mutual trust/sharing.
- You have a high tolerance for abuse or being treated with disrespect.
- Your wants needs and feelings are secondary to others’ and are sometimes determined by others.
- You ignore your inner voice and allow others expectations to define your potential.
- You feel responsible for other’s happiness and fulfillment and sometimes rely on your relationships to create that for you.
- You tend to absorb / become overly affected by the feelings of others.
- You rely on others opinions, feelings and ideas more than you do your own.
- You allow others to define your limits or try to define limits for others.
- You compromise your values and beliefs in order to please others or to avoid conflict.
- You are likely to say no if the request involves close interaction.
- You avoid intimacy (pick fights, stay too busy, etc.)
- You fear abandonment OR engulfment, so you avoid closeness.
- You rarely share personal information.
- You have difficulty identifying wants, needs, feelings.
- You have fixed views on the world and are very resistant to new ideas.
- You have few or no close relationships. If you have a partner, you have very separate lives and virtually no shared social life.
- You rarely ask for help.
- You do not allow yourself to connect with other people and their problems.
Reflect on how your weak or rigid boundaries have had a detrimental effect on your life. What are the emotional/psychological consequences of the boundary issues that you have?
Detrimental effects of unhealthy boundaries
- Lack of identity
- Abusive relationships
- Low-self esteem
- Physical illness caused by internalized anger / putting other’s needs first/excessive stress
- Loneliness (especially with rigid boundaries)
- Lack of true intimacy
In addiction, drugs or alcohol are often used as a compensation for a lack of healthy boundaries. For example, if you have very weak emotional boundaries, your emotions might be severely affected by what others feel, do or say. Drugs or alcohol may be used as a way of blocking out the emotional distress / problematic thoughts as you can’t do it yourself. Or maybe, drugs and alcohol use is the only way you can have the courage to express yourself, assert yourself or say no to people. Think about how you might use drugs or alcohol as a way to either relax rigid boundaries or strengthen weak boundaries. How have boundary issues played into your current problems today?
Respecting other people boundaries
When you are attempting to make changes in your life, you will need to protect your emotional and psychological well-being and start working on your boundaries. You may have to set boundaries with other people. It is also vital that you learn to respect other people’s boundaries and not trample all over them. Look at the list below and think about whether or not you have a tendency to violate other people’s boundaries: Violating others boundaries can prevent you from experiencing fulfilling healthy relationships. Tick the ones that apply to you
- Asking personal questions where the relationship doesn’t call for it
- Giving unasked-for advice – telling someone else how to live his/her life, in general
- Telling someone what you think about their behaviour when they haven’t asked for your opinion and when it doesn’t directly impact you.
- Repeating confidential information.
- Helping someone without checking first to see if he/she wants help
- Making demands rather than requests
- Pushing past another’s “no” or any setting of limits
- Assumption of feelings – thinking we know what another feels or wants and perhaps taking action based on those assumptions without checking them out
- Being “honest” in a hostile way that justifies and covers up hostility
- Analyzing another person: telling another what they think and feel and why this is so.
Reflect on why you do the things that you ticked. How do you think it would feel for the other person? How would it feel if it happened to you?
Think about your life at the moment, is there anyone who violates your boundaries? What boundaries do you need to implement. Is there anyone in your life whose boundaries you disrespect? What do you need to do to stop violating their boundaries?
Look at the list below that are signs of healthy boundaries and make notes on what you need to work on.
- You can say no or yes, and you are ok when others say no to you.
- You have a strong sense of identity. You respect yourself.
- You expect reciprocity in a relationship-you share responsibility and power.
- You know when the problem is yours and when it belongs to someone else.
- You share personal information gradually in a mutually sharing/trusting relationship.
- You don’t tolerate abuse or disrespect.
- You know your own wants, needs and feelings. You communicate them clearly in your relationships.
- You are committed to and responsible for exploring and nurturing your full potential.
- You are responsible for your own happiness and fulfillment. You allow others to be responsible for their own happiness and fulfillment.
- You value your opinions and feelings as much as others.
- You know your limits. You allow others to define their limits.
- You are able to ask for help when you need it.
- You don’t compromise your values or integrity to avoid rejection.
Now you have a clearer picture of what healthy boundaries are and are not, think about what you specifically need to work on regarding your boundary issues. What boundary issues may jeopardize your recovery and cause a relapse into old patterns of thinking, feeling and acting?
Tips for setting healthy boundaries
- First make a list of areas in which boundaries need to be implemented. This could be with yourself – such as learning to say no or with other people such as not allowing someone to abuse/ criticize you.
- Anger is often a sign that someone is violating a boundary or you are failing to set one. Anytime you feel some variation of anger such as resentment, annoyance, or frustration check to see if a boundary issue is the cause.
- Learn how to communicate assertively – in a calm confident way that doesn’t come across as blame / anger /nagging.
- At first you will very likely feel selfish, anxious, guilty or embarrassed about implementing a boundary but keep persisting as you have the right to say and do what is healthy for you.
- Other people might react in anger or hurt when you set a boundary but this is their responsibility not yours. Resist the urge to over-explain, justify or over-apologise for setting a boundary. You don’t need to. Just keep your tone calm, respectful and polite but firm. A simple “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t speak to me in this way as it feels hurtful and disrespectful” or “I’m sorry, I can’t give you a lift to work as I am busy with something else right now”.
- Don’t try and change everything at once. Setting boundaries takes time and determination so choose small goals at first then work up to implementing bigger changes when you are more practiced.