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Establishing Your Personal Boundaries

By Michelle Guan

Image via The New York Times


Personal boundaries are usually defined as the rules that we set for ourselves within our relationships; they can identify reasonable and safe ways that people can behave towards us. Oftentimes, these boundaries are a combination of past experiences, beliefs, cultures, and more. Establishing your personal boundaries is important for creating healthy relationships since they provide a sense of control over your physical space, body, mind, and feelings. We all have limits, so personal boundaries can help with communicating and implementing those limits. Furthermore, similarly to how we set boundaries for ourselves, we should honor other people’s boundaries to show respect to them and make them feel safe. Personal boundaries are not an exact science, so it can be a challenging topic to address, especially since many of us may struggle with setting healthy boundaries consistently. However, it is essential to communicate these personal boundaries to others in order to ensure your health and well-being.


Personal boundaries can improve your relationships by ensuring that they can be mutually respectful and appropriate while preventing them from becoming unhealthy. Despite what many people believe, personal boundaries can actually bring everyone closer because they require everyone to be honest and authentic with each other, and they can prevent resentment and other negative emotions.


Tips for Establishing Your Personal Boundaries


Understand your needs and rights


Reflecting on any past experiences that have made you uncomfortable, resentful, or frustrated with someone else can help you identify whether your boundaries have been violated. Some examples would include someone touching you without consent (physical boundary) and someone asking you extremely personal questions (emotional boundary); other types of boundaries are material boundaries, intellectual boundaries, sexual boundaries, and time boundaries. I suggest assessing your comfort level regarding these types of boundaries. Keep in mind that they may be different depending on the setting and people that you are with; for instance, you will probably be more comfortable with physical touch from your friends than strangers.


As a human being, you have basic rights that should be enforced when you establish personal boundaries. Some of them are listed below:

  1. You have a right to say no without feeling guilty.

  2. You have a right to be treated with respect.

  3. You have a right to prioritize your needs.

  4. You have a right to accept your mistakes & failures and learn from them.

  5. You have a right to not meet others’ unreasonable expectations of you.

Trust yourself. You know yourself best. You know what you need, want, and value. Because of this, make sure that you don’t allow another person to set your boundaries for you; what may be comfortable for them may not be comfortable for you.


Be assertive and learn to say no


“No” is a complete sentence. You don’t owe anyone an explanation or justification for your answer. It may seem harsh at first, but being direct is important in getting your message across (the message is that you want to be respected and feel safe). By being assertive, you are able to express yourself and verbalize your needs respectfully. These skills will be useful in tasks, such as informing unwanted admirers that you’re not interested and telling a coworker to stop discussing your personal life in the workplace.


Maintain and respect your own personal boundaries


Practice makes perfect. The process may be difficult, but remember to set boundaries whenever you think is appropriate in order to maintain a clear sense of what you will and won’t accept. It’s okay to reflect later and decide which boundaries you want to change or keep.


Why People Don’t Establish Their Personal Boundaries


Fear of what others may think


Fearing what others may think can cause a sense of frustration and powerlessness because you don’t have control over others’ feelings and there’s no foolproof way to know exactly what others are thinking. In order to combat this, remember that setting boundaries aren’t selfish; it’s self-care. When they serve their original purpose (protecting your well-being), you will most likely feel like you have more control and stability over your lives. Others’ perceptions shouldn’t take priority over your needs.


Desire to avoid conflict


Some people may not want to implement their personal boundaries due to conflict-avoidance (the most common type of passivity); they may believe that conflict is ‘bad’ because it often has resulted in feeling rejected, hurt, or unheard, so they would rather prevent it from happening in the first place. However, conflict is an inevitable part of life, so when someone tries to avoid conflict, an internal conflict is produced that usually results in resentment and anger. Consequently, withdrawals or blowing up emotionally when their feelings have been bottled up for too long are common.


Establishing your personal boundaries allows you to communicate your needs and values openly, so even when it seems like a disagreement will occur, let it happen. Your relationships may grow stronger afterwards.


Confusion on where to start


It’s completely valid to feel a bit confused or overwhelmed on how to establish your personal boundaries. Start with speaking up whenever you feel uncomfortable; the times when you feel uncomfortable can be indications of your limits. You may have to unlearn some things that you were conditioned to believe. This may feel strange at first, but remember that you deserve personal boundaries, and that means taking time to identify your limits.


What You Can Do to Honor Others’ Personal Boundaries


Pay attention to any verbal and nonverbal cues that may indicate that the other person is uncomfortable; some of these cues can include changing the subject abruptly or stepping back from you. If this happens, try to understand that the other person isn’t trying to offend you and that they want to be respected. Accepting what the other person is communicating is essential, so even if the boundary doesn’t make sense to you, it’s their boundary, which should be respected. Reacting positively to others’ boundaries can show that you’re emotionally safe to be around.


Personal Boundaries during the COVID-19 Pandemic


Don’t feel guilty


Because the pandemic is a new and unprecedented time for everyone, it’s understandable that you may be warier of others during this time. Decide what your boundaries are during the pandemic and keep in mind that you may have a different level of tolerance for risk than your peers/family, which is completely fine. During this time, a major component of practising social distancing is wearing a mask, which can be a bit uncomfortable because it’s harder to breathe. However, wearing a mask is a part of COVID-19 social etiquette and is essential because many individuals are concerned about their safety and their loved ones’ safety as well. Easing other peoples’ worries by practising proper social distance is a way of showing compassion to others.

If discussions about COVID-19 gives you excessive stress and/or anxiety, you can set limits on how much time you spend searching for COVID-19 updates; limiting your discussions and access to media pertaining to COVID-19 to match your comfort level can hopefully help you a bit more comfortable.


Reminder: No one can tell you what/how to feel


Everyone has different comfort levels that should be respected. Your comfort level for a certain situation may be higher than your friend’s comfort level, but that doesn’t excuse you from disrespecting your friend by disregarding their boundary.


It’s important to remember that boundaries can vary from one person to another and that they change over time. The boundaries that you have now will probably be different from the boundaries that you have twenty years later from now, which is okay because you aren’t obligated to strictly follow a set of guidelines your entire life. As you grow and change, your boundaries will most likely grow and change as well. Establishing healthy boundaries is not a process that can be successfully done overnight. It will probably take trial and error to identify the things that you are comfortable and uncomfortable with. However, the results will be extremely fruitful because you will be treating yourself with the self-respect that you deserve.


By writer Michelle Guan


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