Carrie Pollard, MSW RSW
Creating Healthy Boundaries
“I can care for others without taking care of them”. This is a mantra that I’ve developed over the years to remind me of the importance of boundaries in all relationships.
What is a boundary? It can be a personal need or want, or a defined limit of what you can and cannot do. Or, as Sharon Martin states: “It is where I stop and you begin.”
Boundaries help us express our feelings and define limits, which allows us to create space to take care of our own needs. However, it can be difficult to set boundaries. In our society we’re often rewarded for being agreeable and compliant. It can start in childhood where you might have been praised for doing what was expected from you at home, school and with friends. Fears of rejection, abandonment or not being liked also reinforce people-pleasing behaviours and loose boundaries.
Alternatively, if you grew up with experiences of being bullied, abused or significant rejection or loss, you might have developed rigid boundaries to protect yourself from being vulnerable and keep distance (aka building big walls) from others.
Signs of unhealthy boundaries might include:
- Putting everyone else first and yourself last
- Feeling anxious about ‘always’ making others happy
- Being critical of others and not trusting them
- Feeling overwhelmed and not having anytime for self-care
- Believing that you can do it all yourself or that you’re the only one you can ever depend on
- Feeling frustrated that you’re often being taken advantage of
- Experiencing ongoing feelings of guilt for doing or saying the wrong thing, or simply not doing enough
- Feeling sad and unappreciated
- Believing it is selfish when you say no or do something for yourself
If some of the statements above resonate with you, then learning how to create healthy boundaries may be needed.
Steps to setting boundaries:
1. Check-in with yourself. How are you feeling in each of your relationships? Does it feel like you’re being respected, your time valued, and are you feeling overall cared for and appreciated? Each of your relationships—with friends, family or coworkers/fellow students—might be different.
2. Identify relationships where the boundaries are unhealthy. With each, reflect on what you need or want to change.
3. Acknowledge your fears of expressing these needs and setting boundaries. It can be hard to say no or assert your own wants. Yet, doing so will lead to healthier connections and relationships. If a relationship is negatively impacted by a boundary, it might be temporary as the other person adjusts. For other relationships, it might damage them, but if this is the case then that relationship was likely imbalanced and unhealthy.
4. Prepare a statement of your boundary(s) and communicate it when you’re feeling emotionally level. Often, we assert our boundaries when we reach a breaking point, but at this point it might be fueled by anger, blame and using 'you-statements'. For example, ‘you don’t care about anyone but yourself’. If this happens, have compassion for yourself. In healthy relationships you will be able to recover by later clarifying and communicating what you’ve been feeling (and needing), and by apologizing for how you delivered the boundary.
5. Keep your boundaries simple and use I-statements. Nedra Glover Tawwab calls it the ‘three C’s’: clear, concise and consistent. Focus on what you want, don’t overexplain and be consistent with maintaining the boundaries. For example, if you find yourself constantly cleaning up after others (coworkers, kids, spouse, roommates) you might simply state:
“I need you to clean up after yourself.”
Or use a feeling statement too:
“I feel frustrated because I am often cleaning up your messes, I need you to clean up after yourself”.
6. Maintaining healthy boundaries is not a perfect process. It’s okay of you make mistakes in how you communicate them or if you don’t maintain them in every interaction. If you notice yourself slipping into old habits (e.g., cleaning up other’s dishes), simply acknowledge it and reinstate your boundaries.
7. Be flexible. Our feelings, needs and wants are likely to change over time, and so will our boundaries. Allow yourself to adjust and revise your boundaries as needed.
For me healthy boundaries, include saying no (instead of people pleasing) and asking for help (instead of doing it all on my own). I recognize that I can be kind to others AND myself by setting limits. I can also care for someone without 'taking care' of them. Taking care of others (in my experience) might look like trying to fix, control or take on the problems of another person. This is harmful to me and disempowering to others. Creating healthy boundaries shows caring, compassion and kindness for ourselves and others! If you need help with this, talk with a trusted person or book a counselling appointment.
Nedra Glover Tawwab. (2021). The Set Boundaries Workbook. TarcherPerigee Publishing.
Sharon Martin. (2015). What are healthy boundaries? Retrieved from sharonmartincounselling.com