Boundaries: How to spot them, set them and maintain them.

It’s Friday evening, and you have plans for a quiet night in with your partner. Unexpectedly, your mother-in-law arrives unannounced, ready to spend the evening with you. When you gently mention your plans, she quickly guilt trips you, lamenting how she was looking forward to spending time together and how rarely you seem to prioritise family these days. Despite your discomfort, she makes herself at home, starting to rearrange your kitchen under the guise of helping out. Throughout the evening, she dismisses your opinions on topics of conversation, offering unsolicited advice on personal matters ranging from your finances to your lifestyle choices, assuming her way is the right way.

Boundaries are how we make sure we are treated in the way we want to be treated. They are personal rules we have that let others know what we will accept from them. The act of setting and maintaining boundaries is really important for keeping our relationships healthy. It is self-care.

If any part of the above scenario affected you, you might benefit from working on your boundaries. Here are some more examples that you can use as a litmus test- do any of the following situations trigger an emotion within you?

  • While talking to a friend, they keep cutting across you, not allowing you to finish your thoughts before inserting their own, showing a lack of consideration for your need to express yourself and be heard. This relates to Emotional Boundaries, they relate to your feelings and ensuring others respect your emotional space.
  • A friend drops by unannounced during your quiet evening time, assuming you’re available for a chat, disregarding your need for solitude or prior engagements. This is an example of a Time Boundary, involving how you manage your time between work, relationships, and self-care.
  • A friend borrows your car without seeking permission first, assuming it’s okay because you’ve let them do so in the past, without considering your current willingness or the need for prior consent. This example concerns Material Boundaries, they deal with possessions and what you are willing to share or lend.
  • In a group discussion, a family member belittles your political views, refusing to acknowledge the validity of your perspective or engage in a respectful exchange of ideas. Intellectual Boundaries like in this example, pertain to respect for your ideas and thoughts.
  • Someone at work gives you a hug without asking, assuming you’re comfortable with such physical contact, despite your preference for more personal space. This is to do with Physical Boundaries, they are to do with your personal space, physical touch, and privacy.

So how do we set boundaries?

Identify and communicate.

Chances are, you probably have a fair idea of where your own boundaries lie. Even so, it can be helpful to spend some time identifying them and getting clear on exactly what you might need to communicate when setting them for others. A good way to do this is by simply paying attention to your emotional reactions in different scenarios. When our boundaries are crossed, like in the above examples, it can leave us feeling uncomfortable, resentful, and over time, exhausted. Feelings like these, as well as irritation, anxiety, or overwhelm can be viewed as signals that your boundaries need to be asserted. Let’s say you find yourself regularly staying late at work because your manager assumes you’re always available. This situation might leave you feeling insignificant and overlooked, in addition to feelings that could come with your personal time being reduced. Upon reflection, you might decide that you have a limit on how late you’re willing to work in order to maintain a work-life balance that is supportive of your mental health. Now you have identified your boundary.

Communicating your boundaries is usually simple- but not always easy. Be specific and concrete, as ambiguity can lead to misunderstandings. Clearly define what is okay and what isn’t. For instance, “I’m aware that I’ve been staying late a lot recently, and after doing some thinking, I’ve decided it’s important for my well-being to establish a clearer work-life boundary. I’d like us to have a conversation about this so that we both have an understanding of my availability. Moving forward, I’m committed to working our agreed-upon hours and managing my tasks within those limits. If overtime is necessary, I’d appreciate discussing and agreeing on it in advance. This way, we can ensure that the workload is sustainable for me and that I can continue contributing effectively to our team’s goals.”

If the thought of being this clear gives you anxiety, you’re not alone! It may be helpful for you to affirm yourself in terms of your needs- your boundaries will feel easier to communicate if you understand that you have every right to feel respected, valued, and comfortable. Your physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs are no less important than anyone else’s. Talking it over with someone you trust can really help, too. Simply discussing your feelings and experiences often provides insights and can help clarify where your boundaries are, and why they’re important.

“But my boss/partner/parents etc. are not going to like this…”

I hear you. Particularly in Ireland, setting boundaries can be a daunting task- especially if the relationship in question has had less than clear boundaries in the past. Here’s my advice: Remember that you can only ever be responsible for 50% of a relationship. While you have control over identifying your limits as well as communicating them clearly and compassionately- you cannot control how others will respond.

The reality is, not everyone will respect your boundaries. Despite how reasonably you present them, the other 50% may not be able to receive the information in an understanding manner. When faced with such situations, you may need to make tough decisions about adjusting or even ending these relationships. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed; rather, I would argue, it signifies your commitment to your own well-being and happiness.

With that said, it can be super helpful to reframe the action of setting boundaries as something you do for others as well as yourself- it isn’t just about marking your limits and saying no; it’s about opening the door and saying yes to healthier, more respectful, and fulfilling relationships. It’s a declaration that you value a relationship enough to take (sometimes difficult) actions that maintain it in a healthy way. Remember too, that you don’t have to completely reshape your relationships all at once. In fact, if you’re just beginning it’s a great idea to start small. Choose one boundary that feels important but manageable and practice communicating it in a situation where you feel safe to do so. Remember that it’s totally normal to feel nervous and that there’s no perfect time to start- boundaries are built over time through consistent practice and communication. Each step you take, no matter how small, is a step toward a healthier, more balanced life. Best of luck!



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