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Effective boundaries are essential for healthy relationships and balanced lifestyle. Boundaries are our communication patterns that define who we are and who we are not. In other words, a boundary defines our personal space, rights, and responsibility. It sets our limits, expectations and needs in our relations with other people or surrounding environments. A boundary is like the fence with a gate in our backyard, which protects our property and allows good things in, as well as keeps undesired things out. Just like we always maintain a well-functioning fence to make sure that our property is protected we need to build and sustain effective boundary to protect our personal rights so as to maintain healthier relationships with others.
Boundaries can be applied to all areas of our lives. Physical boundaries define personal space and give us safe distance from others. For instance, our boundaries let others know when and how we can be touched. This will help us feel safer and more confidence when dealing with people, even strangers. Mental boundaries set limits to protect our rights for our own thoughts, values, and opinions. Such boundaries help us take control of what we want to take in and what we keep out. We can more freely and openly share with others about different thoughts and values and do not need to worry about being influenced by others. Emotional boundaries are important to protect us from being harmed by the undesired emotional influences of other people or circumstances.
Many relational difficulties are caused by boundary problems. A common difficulty for people that do not know how to set boundaries is that they cannot say “no” to others. This can be for different reasons. Some of us grow up without being respected and do not believe we have the rights to say no. Some might think it is not nice or selfish to say “no”. We always think of putting others’ needs first and deny our own needs to please others. We eventually can get stressed out by too many demands or can feel being taken advantage of. On the other hand, people do not recognize and respect the boundaries of others. We cannot hear others saying “no” and become an intruder to other people’s life. Such trespassing boundary problems happen frequently in marital, parenting, or in-law relationships. The other extreme is rigid boundaries. If we grow up in tough relational environments we might build up impenetrable boundaries to protect us by separating ourselves from others and resist even the slightest influence or connection. The rigid boundary very often leads to loneliness, isolation and disconnect from others.
When we feel troubled by relationships or overwhelmed by emotional distress we should examine our boundaries and start to build more effective boundaries. The effective boundaries are clear about our limits, expectations and needs. They leave no room for question or uncertainty.
Setting clear boundaries is a learned skill. It starts with increasing our self-awareness. We need to tune into our feelings to better understand what makes us feel good and what troubles us or hurts us. Accessing deeper emotions helps us to know more about what we really need and want. We then need to think about and list our rights and set limits for protecting these rights. Setting limits is achieved by assertive communication. We express our thoughts, feelings, and opinions in a direct, honest, and appropriate way. We respect both for ourselves and for others.
It is normal that we will encounter resistance from others when we first start to make such changes. Do not be discouraged. Keep doing what we believe is right and the people around us will eventually get used to the new boundaries. Once we set clearer boundaries we will feel empowered being able to take more control of our own life. We will feel more confident in connecting with others, and having improved and healthier relationships.