There is one area of personal evolution that can make or break your self-esteem and your ability to have healthy relationships.
It's the ability to set and implement healthy personal boundaries.
Personal boundaries are the imaginary lines we draw around ourselves to maintain balance and protect our bodies, minds, emotions, and time from the behavior or demands of others.
They provide the framework to keep us from being used or manipulated by others, and they allow us to confidently express who we are and what we want in life.
Personal boundaries allow us to be in the driver's seat of our own lives.
Without healthy boundaries or with very weak boundaries, you simply cannot have healthy relationships. You give up a part of yourself to be available or accommodating. Or you become so entangled with another person and their needs (co-dependent behavior) that you lose your own identity. This undermines your integrity and leads to a loss of self-respect -- and the respect of those around you.
At the root of personal boundary issues is fear. (Isn't that the root of most issues?) It's the fear we won't be loved, that we aren't good enough or deserving enough just as we are. When we respond to life from this point of emotional weakness, we are letting go of our integrity in order to salvage the crumbs of love and acceptance.
But when you establish personal boundaries, you don't have to accept crumbs. You can get the entire loaf, a full meal of confidence and support, because you will attract people to you who are emotionally healthy themselves -- people who respect your boundaries.
People with weak personal boundaries tend to attract controlling, disrespectful, or needy people into their lives. Or they simply train others to take advantage of them because they so willingly allow themselves to be used.
Here are signs you have not set personal boundaries:
- Saying no when you mean yes or yes when you mean no.
- Feeling guilty when you do say no.
- Acting against your integrity or values in order to please.
- Not speaking up when you have something to say.
- Adopting another person's beliefs or ideas so you are accepted.
- Not calling out someone who mistreats you.
- Accepting physical touch or sex when you don't want it.
- Allowing yourself to be interrupted or distracted to accommodate another person's immediate wants or needs.
- Giving too much just to be perceived as useful.
- Becoming overly involved in someone's problems or difficulties.
- Allowing people to say things to you or in front of you that make you uncomfortable.
- Not defining and communicating your emotional needs in your closest relationships.
When you have weak personal boundaries, every act of compliance, self-denial, or neediness chips away at your self-respect and the respect that others have for you. You are in a constant state of insecurity.
"The willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life is the source from which self-respect springs." ~Joan Didion
The sad irony is that we set weak boundaries believing our behavior will win the love and respect of others. And other people will certainly take advantage of this willing nature. But their respect for you will diminish over time, undermining the love you hoped to maintain.
So how do you begin to establish personal boundaries? For anyone accustomed to being accommodating and compliant, the process of setting and implementing boundaries may feel threatening and unnatural at first. But as you begin to stand up for yourself and your boundaries, you will feel increasingly empowered and confident. You will like and respect yourself, and others will be attracted to your authenticity and self-confidence.
So here's how to set boundaries:
1. Mind Shift
Begin with the mind shift that having personal boundaries is OK. It doesn't mean you are selfish or unloving. It is both completely acceptable and absolutely necessary for healthy relationships. Understand that self-worth comes from defining your life as you want it to be, not from the acceptance or identity of others.
Sit down and think about how you have been allowing others to take advantage of you and how you might be accepting situations that are really unacceptable to you. Make a list of things that people may no longer do to you, say to you, or do around you. Decide how you need physical and emotional space. Define your values, belief system, and outlook on life so you have a clear picture of who you are and how you want to live. Get very clear on that.
Sit down with the people involved in crossing your personal boundaries and kindly communicate your mind shift. Let them know you have spent some time thinking about what is important and acceptable to you and what isn't. Let them know how they have crossed your boundaries in the past, and ask them to respect and support your new boundaries.
Expect that this conversation will feel uncomfortable and difficult, especially if you are a pleaser. There may be some defensiveness and push-back from those involved. That's OK. They'll get used to your new boundaries over time. Be aware that some people in your life may fall away as a result of your outlook and demand for respect. But these aren't people you want in your life anyway. You will find you attract new, supportive, and healthy-minded people in your life. Whatever you do, don't compromise your values, integrity, and self-respect simply to keep someone in your life. Your soul can't sustain that.
It may take some time to train yourself and others around your new boundaries. Continue to reinforce them so that you are taken seriously and respected. Practice saying no when you are asked to do something you don't want to do. Create a plan for times when someone crosses your boundaries. Let them know what they are doing. Ask them to stop immediately. Walk away from any push-back or negative comments without acquiescing or getting angry. Over time, you and the other person will realize you are serious.
Be sure to acknowledge and reward those who are supporting and respecting your personal boundaries. Thank them and let them know the positive impact it has had on your life. This will motivate them to continue their behavior.
Remember that respecting boundaries goes two ways. Examine your own behavior and words to see where you might be crossing another person's boundaries. Work to change those behaviors so that you are reflecting the respect and support you want for yourself.
8. Stay Flexible
There's a difference between healthy boundaries and rigid boundaries. You don't want to be a controlling or dictatorial person. That's not the goal. The goal is a healthy relationship with those close to you, balanced by a sense of understanding, mutual support, and give-and-take. There may be occasions when you choose to bend your boundaries or allow someone to cross the line. When someone is hurt or sad, needs extra support, asks for an exception with respect and kindness -- these are times to show flexibility and love. As you gain confidence around your boundaries, you will know when and how to bend them.
9. Be Patient
If you have had weak personal boundaries for years, be aware that this change doesn't happen overnight. Disengaging from the emotions and beliefs that led you to weak boundaries requires practice, and sometimes it requires the support of a counselor. Begin to recognize and challenge the limiting beliefs that undermine your practice of setting boundaries. Try to require your boundaries are respected even when you feel unsure or uncomfortable.
Believe in yourself and your value as a unique individual who is worthy of love and respect. Trust your instincts and feelings about what you do and don't want in your life. No one knows better than you who you are and what you desire. Don't allow others to define that for you. Practice self-confidence and self-love until it feels natural. Setting and requiring boundaries is a great way to practice this.
When you define and implement personal boundaries in your life, you will find that fear diminishes significantly. You will feel more empowered and self-confident because you are communicating your self-worth to those around you. The more you practice holding fast to your boundaries, the more love, respect, and support you will find in your life.