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The women I work with usually want help with a problem in their life that is causing them pain. The problem very often involves a relationship. And a lack of healthy personal boundaries. For example, Monica is angry because her ex-partner continually sends her abusive text messages. Phoebe is distressed by her mother’s constant criticism of her parenting. Rachel is overwhelmed by a never-ending stream of extra responsibilities at work. You too may feel pain in a relationship but not know what to do about it. However, discomfort like this usually indicates that healthy boundaries have not been set in the relationship.

Here’s the thing:

It’s NOT OK for people to treat you badly.

It really is that simple.

Setting healthy personal boundaries is the one thing you can do to make clear the rules or limits when it comes to what you are prepared to tolerate in your relationships with others.

What are healthy personal boundaries?

Your personal boundaries define what you are OK with and what you are not OK with in a relationship. Importantly, they reflect the communication, behaviour and interactions with others that are acceptable to you. Everyone needs to set boundaries – with family, friends, partners, spouses and at work. It is an important part of self-care. Personal boundaries are a bit like the physical boundaries around your property. They are like the fences that indicate what is yours and where others can’t trespass. Personal boundaries are different (of course!) because they are invisible, changeable and unique to each individual. But, like property boundaries, they offer important protection.

How to tell if you need better boundaries

You may need better boundaries if your relationship with another person is uncomfortable for you. For example, a conversation with your boss may cause you to feel emotionally drained, a phone call with a parent may make you overwhelmingly sad, and a meal with an old friend might leave you feeling highly anxious or simply ignored.

To find out if you need better boundaries, try this easy quiz.

1. Do you worry what others will think of you if you speak your truth?

2. Do you feel responsible for other people’s feelings? Feel guilty saying No to a request? Really hate letting people down?

3. Are your relationships full of drama or do they cause you emotional pain?

4. Do you often feel people don’t hear or respect you?

5. When you think of a particular relationship do you feel tired and anxious?

If you answered Yes to any of these, you may need to set clearer boundaries in one or more of your relationships.

Why are healthy personal boundaries important?

Setting boundaries is essential for healthy relationships because this is how you teach people how to treat you. Boundaries will improve the quality of all your relationships – with friends, family, colleagues or your partner, spouse or boss. Creating healthy boundaries is empowering. It leaves you free to be yourself without second guessing the other person and worrying about how they are going to react. When we set boundaries, we ask ourselves what we need and want in the relationship and then act on it. Setting boundaries is not about controlling others, but about self-care for our own wellbeing.

Why is it difficult to set healthy personal boundaries?

#1 We are afraid of what others think

Women in particular tend to avoid saying anything that will make someone sad or angry because it makes us feel guilty. Truth bomb: We are NOT responsible for anyone else’s feelings. They are.

#2 We want to be liked

Truth bomb: It’s impossible for everyone to like us! And that’s OK. If we spend our lives seeking people’s approval, we will lose who we really are and that is painful.

#3 We haven’t been taught how

Rather than modelling healthy personal boundaries for us, many parents teach us that we are responsible for others’ happiness and encourage us to do things to keep the peace. That is a hard habit to break.

How to set healthy personal boundaries

Setting boundaries is not a quick fix. It is ongoing and hard work at times, especially if you are dealing with a toxic person who doesn’t respect your boundaries, however, it is always worthwhile. Here are my SIX top tips for setting healthy personal boundaries:

1. Review your relationships

The first step to setting healthy boundaries is self-awareness. Think about the relationships that cause you pain or anger or make you feel exhausted. And ask yourself, are my boundaries being violated? Do I need to set a healthy boundary with a particular person?

2. Be clear, calm and firm when setting boundaries

When you identify the need to set a boundary, do so clearly, calmly, firmly and respectfully, using as few words as possible. Don’t justify your position, get angry or apologise for the boundary you are setting – keep it simple.

For example,

• Tell your ex-partner that you will no longer tolerate abusive texts and have blocked their number.

• Explain to your mother that her criticism is not wanted and that if she can’t keep her opinions to herself, you won’t visit as often.

• Tell your boss that you will no longer take on extra projects unless financially compensated.

3. You are only responsible for yourself

You can’t force someone to respect your boundaries and you are not responsible for their reaction to you. You are only responsible for communicating your boundary in a respectful manner. If that upsets someone, remember that is their problem.

4. Setting boundaries takes practice

Because you are not used to it, at first, you may feel selfish, guilty or embarrassed when setting boundaries. It takes practice and determination. Remind yourself that you have a right to prioritise your own self-care. Don’t let anxiety, fear or guilt prevent you from taking care of yourself in this way.

5. Use a mantra

If mantras work for you, create one that feels comfortable and reminds you of the importance of setting healthy personal boundaries. For example: “It’s healthy to set boundaries.” “I am not responsible for other people’s feelings.” “Boundaries are about loving myself.” “I am worth it.” “I deserve to live the life I want.”

6. Get support

In conclusion, learning to set boundaries can be challenging work and you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Talk to someone you trust – a close friend or a counsellor – and ask for their support and encouragement. If you would like support and encouragement as you negotiate the road to healthy boundaries you are invited to join my Facebook Self Care Group for Women. Setting boundaries with toxic people is extra difficult, you can read more about how to do that in my blog “How To Set Boundaries With Toxic People”.

A Word About Abusive Relationships

If you are dealing with someone who is physically dangerous or threatening to you, it may not be safe to attempt to set explicit boundaries with them.  In this situation, it can be helpful to work with a counsellor or advocate to create a safety plan for this. If you are in immediate danger call the Police on 000, Visit DVconnect.org or call the hot line 1800 811811.