Sydney Hills Counselling Blog

Boundaries – Why Are They Important?

Boundaries are important for the health of all of our relationships. At times, some of us may have struggled to put up healthy boundaries with others in our lives. So why do we even need them? According to author and researcher Brene Brown, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

As a clinical counsellor, one of the most common issues I come across with clients is their inability to set appropriate personal boundaries (or limits) in their relationships with others, and then be able to maintain them. The inability to set healthy boundaries at appropriate times with people in our lives can often cause or exacerbate issues such as anxiety, depression, anger and a lack of self-care. 

Those who struggle with boundaries often find it difficult to say no to the demands, pressures and needs of others. Perhaps it is a boss demanding that we work later to finish an important project, a friend inviting us to a party we don’t really want to attend or our partner pressuring us to do something we just don’t feel like doing. Sometimes pressure comes externally, but more often than not, it comes from within us because we feel that we ‘should’ be doing something. We may often feel that we just can’t refuse and take on the responsibility for someone else. 

There may have been times in our lives when we were too young, lacked life experience or didn’t feel in control over a situation we found ourselves in. We perhaps then found ourselves with no other option than to let people treat us in a way that made us feel bad or unworthy. Many of us have had people in our lives who have treated us in an undesirable way. They may have talked to us in a condescending manner, they may have been pushy or controlling, or maybe they behaved in a really rude or aggressive manner towards us. At times we may have really struggled to know how to tell them to stop doing what they were doing. Their behaviour may have worn us down or even exhausted us so much that we eventually caved into their demands and let down our guard. They most likely got their own way, leaving us feeling defeated and perhaps angry at ourselves for allowing ourselves to fall prey to their wiles and demands. If you seem to be  attracting the same type of ‘unhealthy’ partner, perhaps it may be time to see why you may be struggling to set healthy boundaries

The ‘fence analogy’ is a good way to explain how boundaries work. Just as we have physical boundaries around our properties and land, setting mental, physical and emotional boundaries for ourselves is important for our well-being and self-preservation. Physical boundaries are represented by fences (or walls and hedges), so as to send a clear message to others as to where our properties begin and where they end. As the owner of our property, we are responsible for maintaining it and we also get to choose who we invite in and who we keep out. It can be helpful to visualise a boundary as a picket-type fence rather than a solid one. We can see each other and our respective spaces, but we’re not able to go around the fence that divides our properties and the fence would also be too high to jump over. The only way to enter each other’s space via the fence would be through a gate. We should only enter each other’s gate by invitation or by being given permission by the other person to do so. The code for entering through each other’s own ‘personal gate’ should always be respected. 

Here are some helpful ways to create and maintain healthy personal boundaries.

Start to notice the times when you may be reinforcing someone else’s bad behaviour. 

You may not even be aware that you’re even doing it, but if you take time to notice or pay attention to times when you are giving in to someone by saying yes when you really want to say no, or if someone is being really pushy and you let them have their way, this is a great place to start; just noticing where you need to set your personal boundaries. 

Recognise that you have the right to walk away if someone is behaving disrespectfully towards you. 

It’s your right to not engage in situations where you are forced to have certain uncomfortable conversations or to walk away when you’re being reprimanded or abused by someone. Walking away or hanging up that phone is one step towards taking back your power and self-respect. 

It’s quite acceptable to say no if something is not in your best interests. If it’s really inconvenient to go and feed your friend’s pets, if it’s really not convenient to change your arrangements to suit someone else or if it’s going too far out of your way to take someone to the airport you can say no. You have the right to say no and it doesn’t make you a bad person or a selfish oaf for doing so. 

Learn to recognise when certain relationships and situations just don’t feel right to you because the way you are being treated makes you feel uncomfortable.  

You can choose to distance yourself from relationships and people who don’t treat you with respect and infringe on your boundaries. If you are in a situation where you have to live with or share space with people who show no respect for your boundaries, you can choose to distance yourself from them. Ways you can achieve this are by limiting the time you spend around these individuals and by not making yourself available to talk about situations that cause you to be upset, have your privacy invaded, or conform to their expectations just because they think you should. By doing this, you can still be in the same living or working space with these people by emotionally distancing yourself to protect your self-respect. It also gives you the right to say, ‘I’m busy’, ‘I have to go’, ‘I can’t talk right now’, or “I already have other plans, I’ll be back later”. 

Be consistent and back up your boundaries with action

If your boundaries are blurry, (that is if you allow certain behaviour sometimes and not at other times), you are sending mixed messages to others and you will continue to have your boundaries pushed time and time again. By being consistent, you are sending a firm message to others that you will tolerate certain things and not others.  

Decide whether it’s more important that other people like you or whether it’s more important that you like and respect yourself. To like yourself you need to maintain healthy personal boundaries and not let others walk all over you or treat you disrespectfully so that you feel beaten down and miserable. This is tough, but it’s crucial if you want to have and maintain healthy relationships. 

Often, we can look outwards for affirmation to build our self-esteem so that we feel good about how we look and present to others. By doing this, however, we can easily forget about our own well-being and self-respect. Recognising who we are, our strengths, respecting our own time, worth, and uniqueness are the building blocks for creating great friendships and relationships. We should also avoid ‘settling’ for what doesn’t make us happy. Once you begin to set healthy boundaries, make sure to stick with them because you deserve to be treated well and live a happy, fulfilled life, and quite simply; you’re worth it! 

Being aware of our own boundary style can determine where we may need to tweak our boundaries. Take this free quiz to get your boundary style baseline by answering 13 short questions. It’s fast and it’s free. You can probably finish it in less than 7 minutes.

If you find yourself struggling to set boundaries in your relationships, and if this is impacting your relationships with others and your ability to live a happy, fulfilled life, seeking professional help may be a worthwhile option for you. Sydney Hills Counselling offers face-to-face counselling options at Castle Hill and West Pennant Hills, telehealth sessions via Zoom, and telephone counselling. Please call us today on (02) 9159-6277 for a confidential chat or for further information as to how we can help you. You can also email us at [email protected] for further information.