One of the most loving things I can do for myself and others is to have boundaries.
Read the above statement again and say it out loud.
How does the statement make you feel? Encouraged, empowered, excited, embarrassed or enraged?
What is a boundary really??
The definition of a boundary is “a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something”. When you think of a boundary, try picturing a fence that separates two houses, it lets both house owners know where their ownership and responsibilities end. The same applies to our personal boundaries whether they are physical (our bodies and personal space) or intangible like our feelings, thoughts, opinions, dreams, choices and decisions.
Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits we create to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards us and how we will respond when someone passes those limits.
Perhaps you endured difficult life experiences, especially in childhood, where you were powerless to enforce your boundaries and stop them from being crossed and somehow you learned to accept this as the norm.
Boundaries ensure that our relationships whether with family, friends or colleagues can be mutually respectful, appropriate, and caring. As a Black, African (Nigerian to be precise) woman and a Christian, I am fully cognisant of the cultural nuances around establishing boundaries. Our backgrounds and life experiences strongly influence how we view boundaries. As a therapist, I often spend a lot of time educating clients about boundaries and why it is so important for our mental health. Not having boundaries can leave you on the brink of burn out, stressed out, over-functioning, over-loaded and overwhelmed with responsibilities. When I suggest the need for effective boundaries and practising the art of saying NO to new clients, this is often met with resistance.
Within African and Afro-Caribbean cultures, setting boundaries is often perceived as disrespectful particularly in family, marriage, parent-child relationships, or it is seen as unloving and against religious principles. However, when we don’t have boundaries in our relationships, anger, resentment and anxiety builds up. How can we navigate setting boundaries in a way that prioritises our well-being and respectfully and lovingly lets others know how we expect to be treated. I like the expression “treat others as you would like to be treated”, however it seems to connote the idea that people should just know how to treat us by the way we treat them. No! The reality is we are responsible for letting people know how we want to be treated, and expressing what is acceptable and not acceptable to us.
Our ability to have boundaries are strong indicators of how we perceive and value ourselves. Are your feelings valid? Are you worthy to be seen, to be heard? Will people like and accept you for speaking your mind?
Boundaries require that we embrace and honour our separateness as individuals, we value our unique qualities as distinct from others. Basically, you’re not trying to be like anyone else and you are not trying to make anyone else like you.
Learning to set healthy boundaries for yourself is very much like building a muscle, it takes time, practice and perseverance. But it is absolutely life-changing and a game-changer when you learn how to.
Here are 4 steps to setting healthy boundaries:
1. Be honest with yourself about what the payoff is for not having boundaries.
Basically a payoff is the outcome of choices you make – getting more of something you want or experiencing less of something you don’t want (by avoiding, numbing escaping). There is a genuine reason why people do not have boundaries or resist putting them in place. The key is to be honest without yourself as to what you believe are the consequences of setting boundaries. What are you prepared to lose or gain? What will you no longer tolerate?
2. Know and Honour your limits.
This can be tough and counter intuitive to the stereotypical trope and perception of how a strong black woman should be, that we can do it all and even if we can’t, we can damn well try! How exhausting is this. When we are unaware of our limitations and begin to cross them, this is where things start to go out of balance. Anxiety, stress, insecurities, resentment build up. We try hard to mask what we perceive as failures or we try to overcompensate for them. The essence of being self-aware and self-accepting means that you embrace your humanity by paying attention to your strengths, your vulnerabilities, weaknesses, triggers and stressors. Doing this is most liberating.
3. Pay Attention to Your Feelings.
It is impossible to establish healthy boundaries without being in tune with your feelings. The crucial question then is, are you aware of how you feel about most things? Do you pay attention to what is happening within you? Sadly many of us have been raised to believe that only certain emotions like joy and all her
relatives such as excitement, pleasure, delight, enthusiasm are good and acceptable emotions. But how on earth would you know if an area of your life needs your attention without anger, fear, shame and sadness. The more in tune you are with your feelings, the more you can identify your boundary lines and know when they are being crossed. Hence it is important to take the time daily to reflect and drill deeper into your feelings.
4. Declare Your Preferences
As you become more aware of your limitations and in tune with your feelings, you’ll be more able to distinguish your own voice – your feelings, opinions and values – from others.
Advocating for yourself and speaking on your behalf does not in any way, shape or form mean that you are speaking against others.
There’s no lying that this can be a big challenge to unlearn rules and scripts that we’ve lived by. You may have come from a family or culture or community where you were told overtly or covertly that your voice does not matter, that your feelings do not matter and that you do not matter.
Declaring your preferences takes time, persistence and perseverance. It is like muscle building, the more you do it, the bigger and stronger it gets.
Try writing some statements and declarations that clearly communicate how you feel, your opinions, values and decisions in a way that is personable and assertive.
Here are a few examples..
- I prefer to be addressed by the correct pronunciation of my name which is…
- I do not like it when you raise your voice at me.
- Thank you for the invitation and for trying to persuade me to come to the party, but on this occasion I prefer to stay home.
If you would like to delve more into learning how to set boundaries, download our workbook How to set healthy Boundaries which comes with great worksheets and exercises to help you build your own boundary toolkit. You can also listen to you our podcast on boundaries. We plan to hold another masterclass on boundaries real soon, as the last one was a hit! Join our mailing list to stay informed.
Here’s to a happy boundaried life!