Have you ever had someone in your life that made you feel uncomfortable just by being there? It might not have been any specific negative feeling or anyone particularly close to you, just somebody that triggered your intuition, telling you to get away from them.
The person in question was most likely crossing one of your personal boundaries.
Whether we realize it or not, we all have natural boundaries; emotional or physical lines that, if crossed, violate our right to feel certain emotions such as happy or safe. When adhered to we feel respected and able to trust, and when they aren't, we feel the opposite. You're probably more familiar with your boundaries than you realize; only now you can put a name to them.
For example, some people feel uncomfortable when others get too close to them, so a person who is constantly invading their personal space is crossing one of their personal boundaries (and every piece of pandemic advice).
We all speak different emotional languages; some of us are logical, others emotional, most are in the middle somewhere, so there is ample room for miscommunication. And while most crossing of boundaries is unintentional, that's no reason to tolerate it. Just because a person didn't intend to hurt you doesn't mean that they didn't, or that their behavior was acceptable.
Some people live their lives by many boundaries, and others just have a few. Some enforce them strictly without exception, and others are more lenient. The great thing about them is that you alone get to decide what yours are and how you'll use them. You don't owe anyone an explanation, nor do you need to justify why or what your boundaries are.
Think of them as rules in school. These aren't the ones that get you sent to the principals office, these are the ones that get you suspended or even expelled. These are the basic ways in which you demand to be treated, and if someone can't adhere to them, there is typically either a fundamental conflict of morals, or a lack of respect. Both of which may require evaluating your relationship with the person.
Boundaries are not a means to distance ourselves or judge others. They don't require explanation, and they work best when communicated clearly and enforced as you see fit. They're powerful bridges that serve as a common language between us all, one that demands we respect each other or go our separate ways.
How to set personal boundaries
Like I said earlier, you're probably already have personal boundaries, you just may not realize it. I know that was the case for me.
Throughout my early adult life, I'd developed this pattern where when anyone lied to me, I would stop at nothing (and I am quite relentless) until I "made" them realize how much they had hurt me and why lying was wrong, often crossing their boundaries in the process, resulting in a quickly terminated relationship.
Once I learned about boundaries, I was able to realize that trust was one of mine, and that by keeping people in my life who were repeatedly lying to me, I was stressing myself the out and blaming the offender for it. I cannot control if people lie to me, but I can 100% control who I allow in my life. I can now accept that there are people who will lie to me, but those people need to accept that they will never be a significant part of my life.
People are who they are, and no matter how we try (hello other enneagram 1's), we cannot change them. Acceptance is a huge part of boundaries because for many people, realizing we have no control over something is tough to swallow. What we can control is the extent to which people are involved in our lives. We can also choose how we treat ourselves through self-talk and healthy living.
Boundaries can come in many shapes, sizes, and severities. They can be applied to how others treat you and how you treat yourself. It's not an exact science, but they can generally be grouped into four categories: - How you treat yourself physically - How you treat yourself emotionally - How others treat you physically - How others treat you emotionally
Let's dive in, shall we?
how others treat you physically
Before we begin: If you need help or have been physically abused in any way, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or 911.
Physical boundaries are a bit easier to set simply because you can feel or see it happening. An obvious one for most of us (absolutely no judgement if it's not obvious to you, but you, especially, keep reading or call the number above), is physical abuse; somebody doing something to your body that you did not consent to.
When you let boundaries of this severity slide, it's a slippery slope. A lack of physical boundaries is sometimes simply a sign of low self-awareness, but more often than not, it's a sign of low self-esteem. It's vital that we have physical personal boundaries because when these are broken, our sense of (and often actual) safety is jeopardized. Combine that with low self-esteem, and you've got an extremely volatile and dangerous cycle.
My partner and I are teaching our two young children that it's your body, your choice. Nobody, including mommy and daddy, is allowed to do anything to their bodies that they don't want, including hugs and kisses with friends and family. It's even one of our family rules; we don't do something to somebody else's body that isn't wanted.
Aside from physical harm, there are boundaries related to personal space, personal hygeine, being intimate, etc. that trigger discomfort in people. It's up to you to decide what level of comfort you need, and what level of discomfort you're willing to tolerate (and what degree of separation you need if violated).
how others treat you emotionally
Emotional boundaries a bit more complicated than physical ones, the differences being that a) you can't see or physically feel these happening and b) the accuracy of these will be proportional to your level of self-awareness.
When people feel uncomfortable, there is an emotional response. These might range from over-stimulation or annoyance to something more intense like betrayal or rage.
In Eckhart Tolle's New York Times Bestseller and (per my experience) life-changing book, The Power of Now, he explains how "Emotion arises at the place where mind and body meet." "Make it a habit to ask yourself: What's going on inside me at the moment? That question will point you in the right direction. But don't analyze, just watch."
This means being still, being patient, and not judging yourself or others. By taking the time to just "watch" our inner wellbeing, it helps to identify your emotional response and pinpoint the root cause.
Another clue as to if an emotional boundary has been crossed is a physiological response. When I get angry, my shoulders creep closer and closer up to my ears until it makes my neck ache. When I'm sad, I hunch; when I'm bored, I touch my face a lot. Our emotions almost always trigger a bodily response, you just have to pay attention.
When one of my stronger boundaries is crossed, I get angry and my face gets hot. However, if my one of my husband's is crossed, he shuts down and puts an emotional wall up. My best friend growing up would get really passive aggressive. We're all different, and we all handle the pain of having a boundary crossed, whether intentional or not, differently.
The important thing is that you realize what your response is, which will help pinpoint what your boundaries should be.
how you treat yourself physically
This is probably the most overlooked type of boundary, but it's so important. How we treat our own bodies is vital to our wellbeing both mentally and physically. I want to stress that these boundaries will look very different for everyone.
To some people exercise is running a 5k and to others it's taking their dog for a walk, so seriously, let's all stop the judgement around physical appearance, exercise, and what we eat.
Your body is your only one, so treat it with respect by having clearly defined boundaries around how you are allowed to treat your physical self. It helps to write these down and post them somewhere you see often.
That might mean yoga every other day, no ice cream after 8pm, being in nature once a day, the possibilities are endless.
The only requirement is to remove judgement. We all sometimes live in contradictory ways, we all require grace, and we all are trying to do well in this world. Self-hate and egos will easily turn these healthy boundaries into unhealthy judgements. You must love yourself for this boundary to be effective.
how you treat yourself emotionally
I saved the most important and most difficult one for last. Many women have been brought up to prioritize others over ourselves, and society has conditioned us to be so much harder on ourselves than we should be. We've been trained to put others first, always. I watched my mom sacrifice so much; a career, time for herself, things she wanted to do, see, buy, etc. all so my sister and I could have the things and experiences that we wanted.
I also watched her cry and feel the silent pain of putting herself last.
Now that I'm a mom, I get it. Through generations, women have been raised to be there for our families at all costs, sacrificing our own wellbeing to nurture and teach and clean and cook and plan and pack and schedule and shop and get promoted and have babies and stay in shape and be in style and have a social life and OMFG.
As Glennon Doyle talks about on Brené Brown's podcast, we actually use "selfless" as a compliment for women. So let's set some stricter standards around how we treat ourselves, how we talk to ourselves, and how we are there for ourselves.
I learned this lesson the hard way when my brain basically snapped in half a few years ago from severe burnout. I started having panic attacks, heart palpitations, on and off depression, and extreme anxiety. The main way I pulled myself out was setting boundaries around how I spoke to myself.
Imagine talking to the person closest to you about something causing you emotional pain like a missed promotion or a divorce. Then imagine them saying, "well maybe if you would have worked harder, been thinner, smarter, etc., things would have worked out."
I'm assuming that person would never say those things to you (if they would, it's time for a new "closest person"), so why do we talk to ourselves this way? Being mindful of how we speak to ourselves is key to knowing what boundaries you need to set with yourself.
I now have a boundary of prioritizing myselfso that I can be there for my family. Instead of sacrificing my own well being for the sake of getting things done, I now sacrifice getting things done for my own wellbeing. It's an ongoing effort, and I can tell when I fall out of practice with it, so I give myself grace and remind myself that I deserve to take care of myself; body and mind.
Other self-boundaries that are useful are mindful social media usage, mindful eating (what are you putting into your body?), and the environments that you surround yourself with. If you don't even know an acceptable and unacceptable way to treat yourself, how can you expect others to?
Often times, people associate having personal boundaries with conflict, but it's actually the opposite. Boundaries bridge gaps in communication and improve understanding from all angles, whether it's with others or ourselves. It's essentially the same as setting the ground rules before a playing a game. Imagine playing tennis with no rules. You could hit the ball where and whenever you want, use 25 balls at once, heck, you could even jump the net and take the other players racquet away. It would be chaos.
Which is exactly what we have when people don't know their boundaries. Without communication that everyone can understand, peace and empathy are hard to come by. It's up to you to figure out what boundaries you need to set in order to feel comfortable. Then enforce and live by your boundaries to those you interact with regularly.
That's how having boundaries can bring peace; peace with those you care about and most importantly, peace within yourself.
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