by Andrea M. Darcy
Exhausted by trying to make everyone happy? Or feel secretly annoyed as those around you are taking advantage of you and using adult peer pressure? You need to learn about healthy boundaries.
What are healthy boundaries?
Personal boundaries are the limits you decide work for you.
They dictate how people can treat you, how they can behave around you, and what they can expect from you.
They are drawn from the framework of your core beliefs, your perspective, opinions, and your values. And these things in turn are created from your life experience, and the social environments you have lived in.
If you find the concept of healthy boundaries difficult to understand, think of other sorts of boundaries. Property lines, fences, lines in the sand, buoys marking off the deep end. Do you have any such markers, limits, or ‘stop signs’ in your personal life?
Why do I need boundaries?
If you don’t set healthy boundaries, you are likely to constantly be at the mercy of others.
You allow others to tell you how to think, act, and feel. It also means you tend to spend your time and energy doing what others want you to do, over what you deep down want to do. In the long term this can lead to frustration and depression. You will feel unfulfilled or lost.
At its worse, not setting boundaries allows others to do things to you that are upsetting, or even harmful.
[Read our article about the psychological effects of never saying no to learn more on why boundaries matter.]
12 Signs that you lack boundaries
1. Your relationships tend to be difficult or dramatic.
The less you set healthy boundaries, the more you give others a signal that you don’t know how to take care of yourself. This leaves you open to attracting will people who want to control you.
Or you might lack such a sense of power from never standing up for yourself that you resort to unconscious manipulation yourself. This means you are constantly in codependent relationships and friendships that lack an equal exchange of give and take.
2. You find decision making a real challenge.
You can end up spending so much of your life doing what others want that you lose a sense of self. This means you often don’t know what you do or don’t want. Faced with a decision, you blank.
3. You really, really hate to let other people down.
People without personal limits tend to go along with other people’s plans. They worry so much about letting other people down, they just say yes. Perhaps you’ve been called a ‘people pleaser‘.
4. Two words – guilt and anxiety.
If you ever dare say yes? You suffer from ongoing guilt and fear.
Many people with boundary issues feel guilty for the smallest things, too. Like taking the last piece of cake, or asking someone to move along a bench so you, too, can sit.
5. You are often tired for no apparent reason.
Always doing what others want means you are left to cram your own life in the time leftover, which is exhausting. But never identifying and pursuing your own dreams in life can also cause a sense of fatigue, as it can cause mild depression.
6. Your radar is off when it comes to sharing.
You tend to overshare private details of your life with people you just met, leaving you open to hurt and manipulation. But then, when someone wants to be close with you, you panic. You don’t know how to share your needs and wants and might suffer intimacy issues.
7. You are constantly the victim of situations.
This can mean you tend to feel hard done by, because others will take advantage of you in both obvious and subtle ways. Perhaps you you feel overlooked or blamed at work, in your family, and in your social circles. You might even be the sort of person that things always seem to go wrong for.
8. You are a tiny bit annoyed most of the time.
Of course you are. On a certain level, you feel taken advantage of.
9. You secretly feel that others don’t show you respect.
If you don’t set boundaries, people won’t know how to act around you, and you will be left feeling disrespected.
The other side of this coin is that without your own boundaries you are less likely to recognise those of others, and might unwittingly be disrespecting them.
10. You might just be passive aggressive.
First you let others take the advantage. Then you try to manipulate back the energy and power you lost by nagging the other person or complaining, or even punishing them in little ways. In other words, a bad case of passive aggression.
You might also blame others all the time. Which is a way of not facing up to the fact that really, you didn’t set a boundary, and that you are the one who is responsible for your life.
11. You often wonder who you really are.
It’s likely that you are unclear on your purpose in life, or perhaps struggle to set goals. You might even have an identity crisis.
12. Your secret fear is of being rejected or abandoned.
Lacking healthy boundaries goes back to childhood. It often means you didn’t have a caregiver who provided unconditional love and acceptance. You had to do what others wanted to avoid being rejected or abandoned. And now as an adult those are the two things you fear most.
Why do I lack the ability to set boundaries?
It can also come from childhood trauma. Things like sexual abuse give a child the message that they don’t matter, or get to have boundaries.
Or sometimes it’s learned behaviour. You witnessed a parent gain their sense of self through pleasing. And learned that is what love is.
Not sure you do or don’t set limits?
If you are not sure you are good at setting healthy boundaries? Or indeed have any at all? Ask yourself these questions.
- How often do I worry about what other people think?
- Do I feel guilty for wanting to do things by myself?
- When did I last say no to someone?
- When did I last say yes to something I secretly didn’t want to do?
- Do I feel like I deserve respect or I have to earn it by being ‘nice’?
- What are the five rules to being my friend? Do I know them quickly and easily?
- And the 10 things I most like to do with my time? Can I quickly come up with them?
- What are the 10 things I hate doing? Do I even have strong feelings about things?
- When I think about saying no to someone, do I feel afraid? Or calm inside?
What boundaries are not
1.Boundaries are not something that makes you unhappy.
If you set boundaries, you then attract people who are willing to respect you and want good things for you.
2. They are not to limit your joy, but to protect your joy.
Your relationships get better, and you actually enjoy the things you choose to do because they match your values.
3. Boundaries are not set in stone.
As you learn more of who you are, and experience personal lessons in life, you will change. So too, will your boundaries.
You never have to feel bad about changing your mind about changing a boundary. It’s your life. You decide what does and doesn’t work and you have the right to evolve those decisions.
4. They are not about right or wrong.
Your personal healthy boundaries are based on your own value system and perspective, and might be totally different than someone else’s. This doesn’t make you right and them wrong, it means you are different people.
Help! I need to set healthy boundaries. What do I do?
The first step can be learning more about yourself, and giving yourself the time and space to do so .In other words, watch the self-judgement, and recognise this will be a process, not a quick destination.
A great start can be journalling and reading self-help books (also called ‘bibliotherapy‘) about core beliefs, values, and identity. Mindfulness is also a good tool, helping you to become more aware of how you actually feel from moment to moment.
Be wary of turning to others and asking them what boundaries you should have.There is a good chance many of your relationships are codependent, which means your friends, family members, and/or partner are invested in you taking care of their happiness. They might not be able to be truthful with you, no matter how well-intentioned they are.
Instead, try someone who can help you without personal investment, such as a talk therapist / counselling psychologist. Both of whom will be trained at helping you identify your values and perspective. Cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, helps you look at what thoughts you have about yourself, others, and the world are actually true. It helps you have more practical, balanced thinking, so you can make better choices for yourself.
Have a tip about setting great personal boundaries you’d like to share? Do so below. We love hearing from you.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and personal development teacher with training in person-centred counselling and coaching, as well as a popular psychology writer. She attributes setting boundaries as one of the most powerful things she’s learned. Find her on Linkedin and Instagram @am darcy.