This is the second post in my Emotional Intelligence Series, and in this post I’m going to discuss setting boundaries. Boundaries are important in all relationships, whether personal, professional, or romantic, because they let others know what you are or are not willing to tolerate, what you will or will not do, and what you expect from others based on the roles of your relationship.
When you do not have strong boundaries with others, you can end up feeling taken advantage of, disrespected, or powerless. Yet often when you learn how to take control of situations by setting stronger boundaries, you will find that having boundaries is actually what helps you overcome those feelings.
What Are Unhealthy Boundaries?
First, let’s look at some ways that unhealthy boundaries can impact your life and the relationships you have with others, both romantic and platonic. When you do not have healthy boundaries, you may:
- Not know who to trust
When you have poor boundaries, you may be confused about whether someone is trustworthy or not. This can happen when you don’t trust yourself, because you may have a feeling that someone is shady or shouldn’t be trusted, but you don’t feel confident enough to speak up for yourself or say “NO” when someone wants your trust.
- Get pressured into doing things you don’t want to do
When you have difficulty saying ”NO” and setting limits with other people, you may find yourself getting pressured into doing things that you don’t want to do. This could mean doing favors for others, even when it means neglecting your own needs or using up your own resources.
- Take on responsibilities that are not yours
Having poor boundaries means that others will be able to put responsibilities on you that you may not want to take on. This could be at work, where a lazy coworker is always getting you to do things for them, or it could be with a friend who is constantly asking you to babysit at the last minute so they can handle their other responsibilities while you put your own needs aside.
- Overly-tolerant of inappropriate behavior
People who struggle with healthy boundaries may have difficulty confronting others who are behaving inappropriately, because they feel uncomfortable with confrontation or are worried about keeping the peace. However, this can lead to others taking advantage of that and continually pushing the boundaries in the wrong direction. This can be especially damaging when you are dealing with someone who is using their position of power to push boundaries, such as in sexual harassment in the workplace, or even sexual pressure from someone in a social setting.
- Trust the wrong people
Sometimes it can be hard to know who to trust, but when you struggle with setting boundaries, people who are looking for your vulnerabilities can exploit that struggle. When you do not listen to your internal voice that is telling you not to trust someone, you may end up trusting the wrong person, which sets you up for betrayal or disappointment.
- Easily manipulated
People who are manipulative, narcissistic, or who have power and control issues are looking for those who are vulnerable so that they can manipulate them. When you show others that you have poor boundaries in one area of your life, people who are looking for someone to manipulate or control will see that you are vulnerable in that way, and can target you for abuse or control. This could mean getting you to give them money, allowing them to control certain aspects of your life, or pressuring you into situations that make you uncomfortable or cause you to take on risk that you shouldn’t have to take on, like asking you to do something illegal.
How Do Unhealthy Boundaries Affect You?
All of these effects can leave you feeling powerless, hurt, and confused about how you can get people to respect you and respect your limits. When you don’t feel like you are in control of the situations you find yourself in, you can end up feelings guilty or ashamed when you realize that someone has taken advantage of or manipulated you in one way or another.
This is why establishing boundaries in all areas of your life is so important, including in your personal life, you romantic relationships, your work, and your family life. You may know that you need to set boundaries with your kids, for example, in order to keep them safe and raise in a way that will help them excel in the world they are growing up in. It can be harder, though to set boundaries with your boss, for example, or with your family, because of established roles about who has authority and who has expectations.
How Can I Establish Healthy Boundaries?
YOU can have expectations too. It is perfectly fair for you to have expectations of your workplace environment, or your family interactions. You are not always going to be able to change the behavior of others, but you can speak up for yourself and set limits on certain issues when you need to.
This may include things like being firm about when you need to leave work, or choosing to leave a family gathering that has gotten too tense and uncomfortable for you. There are a few things that you can do to help establish healthy boundaries in your life with the people around you so that you can feel more in control of yourself and the situations you are in.
- Acknowledge to yourself when you are feeling uncomfortable, and ask yourself WHY. Is it because another person is invading your personal space? Has someone asked you to do something you are uncomfortable doing? Does something seem inappropriate or weird? Trust your instincts!
- Know what you are not willing to tolerate and what your limits are. Do you need to set a limit on how often your best friend can borrow your car or how many times you can pick him/her up? Think about what you are reasonably able to do for others and what your limits should be.
- Get Assertive: Learn about the differences between passive, aggressive, and assertive communication and get comfortable with being assertive. This takes practice if you are not used to it, so look for situations where you feel a little more comfortable asserting yourself and practice standing up for yourself and your needs. This could be as simple as letting the waiter (politely) know that your order is wrong instead of just brushing it off and saying “oh well, I’ll eat this anyways”, or it could be more significant, like letting your boss know that NO, you will not be able to work late again because you have other things to attend to (you don’t have to explain what else, it is YOUR life). Practicing assertive communication will help you in setting boundaries in all areas of your life.
- Know who is allowed to be emotionally close to you: Think about who is in your life that deserves your trust, and who does not deserve your trust. You may still have to interact with some people that you do not trust (like that shady co-worker). Yet you can still limit your contact with those who you do not trust to Needs Only Basis. This means that you only interact with them when you need to, such as to complete a work project or to get information needed for your own tasks. Otherwise, avoid the small talk and politely but firmly avoid the person when possible. Practice using assertive statements such as “I’m in the middle of [insert important task here] right now, but I will get back with you when I’m finished”. The goal is just to set that limit so the expectation is that you are only available for work-related tasks within your own role in the work environment. When you have someone who does deserve your trust and with whom you can allow into your emotional space, make sure that they know you trust them and that you are counting on them to safeguard that trust. This is about YOU setting expectations for how you want to be treated.
Setting boundaries can be hard if you have struggled with being assertive and confident in your life. Luckily, setting boundaries is a skill that can be learned, and you can become more confident over time when you set appropriate boundaries with others.
These skills contribute to your overall emotional intelligence because when you are confident about the limits and boundaries you have with others, you will be less likely to get into situations where you feel out of control or powerless, and you will be more likely to command respect from others who can see that you have limits.
Think about where in your life you need to set some limits by acknowledging the times that you have felt taken advantage of or other times when your boundaries and limits were not clear, and how you wish you had handled those situations. Then take a look at what you could have done differently if you had strong boundaries and limits. Begins to practice being more assertive (not aggressive) in situations where you feel safe and then expand that practice to other areas where being assertive may be less comfortable. As you grow and expand where you are setting limits, you will grow more comfortable exerting your own power by establishing boundaries in all areas of your life.