Boundaries are one of the most critical components for establishing healthy relationships. Boundaries are the tools we use to establish who we are and how we want to be treated. Establishing boundaries is a sign of self-respect and ultimately teaches others to treat us with respect.
Yet boundaries are also a common source of conflict and tension. When you aren’t clear about your boundaries, it’s impossible for other people to recognize and respect your boundaries, which results in them inadvertently taking advantage of you. When your boundaries are violated, you feel a whole host of negative emotions, such as anxiety, irritation, guilt and anger. You may believe that you’re being taken advantage of or treated poorly; you may even begin to feel that you are worth less than other people.
The long-term effects of porous boundaries can be severe. You feel increasingly stressed, as you continually choose other people over yourself. You feel guilty for disrespecting yourself and letting other people impose on you. You become increasingly angry, irritable and resentful and find yourself unmotivated to participate in life, even falling into a deep depression. You may become so exhausted and consumed by others’ lives that you feel as if you have no life of your own.
The impact on you is merely the beginning. If you dismiss or bury your feelings — a common reaction among people who struggle to set boundaries — you’ll begin to resent the person who violated your boundaries, and your relationship will grow increasingly tense. A person with healthy boundaries learns to say “yes” without resentment and “no” without guilt.
However, boundaries may cause problems with some people in your life even when you are good at setting and protecting them. “Boundary crashers” are individuals who refuse to respect or even acknowledge a rule that another has set up. These people believe that their needs are more important than the rights of others to say what happens to their bodies, minds, emotions or lives. They will manipulate to get what they want, employing tactics like guilt, anger or force to ensure that their needs are met.
Are Your Boundaries Healthy?
If you’ve been living with unhealthy or nonexistent boundaries for most of your life, you may struggle to recognize whether your boundaries are healthy. Here are 5 warning signs for which to watch:
1. You feel like you are covering something up or keeping a secret. Not only is this a sign that your boundaries are unhealthy, but it’s also likely that you are enabling another person to engage in unhealthy or unproductive behavior. A classic, dramatic example is a woman who hides the physical abuse she suffers at her spouse’s hands by making up stories about how she bruised herself by falling down or running into a doorway. Yet secrets can much more mundane. For example, you might tell your neighbor that you’re cleaning your teenage son’s room because he’s been so busy with school and athletics, when in fact, he refuses to clean and you’ve decided it’s less stressful to do the work yourself.
2. You have to do something a certain way or modify your behavior so that someone else can continue an unproductive or unsafe behavior. For example, you must regularly work late and miss family obligations because a co-worker keeps missing her deadlines. Or you can’t turn on the television to watch your favorite morning news program because your husband is hung over after yet another late night carousing with friends at the local bar.
By modifying your behavior, you become an enabler — you make it possible for someone else to continue a negative behavior. Instead, you should establish and maintain your boundary. Doing so will cause the other person discomfort, perhaps enough that he or she would be motivated to examine and change the unproductive behavior.
3. You ignore your own discomfort, anger, anxiety or fear so that someone else can be happy and comfortable. For example, when your partner yells at you, do you request her to not yell at you and offer to talk when emotions aren’t as heated, or do you bite your tongue, figuring that it’s easier to swallow your anger at being treated disrespectfully vs. possibly angering her even more? Anger, anxiety, fear and other uncomfortable emotions are hard-wired into human beings to help us recognize when our boundaries are being violated. Ignoring your own uncomfortable emotions sends a signal — to yourself and to others — that you don’t respect yourself. It may work as a short-term strategy for avoiding conflict. But ultimately, it will lead to bigger problems.
4. You sacrifice your own goals, projects and self-care to help others. The root cause of boundary issues is fear. When you have a hard time saying “no,” it’s typically because you fear losing something, such as approval, status, friendship, future opportunities and the like. If you’ve reached the point of being resentful when people ask you to do things for them — even if they are things that should bring you joy — your boundaries are unhealthy and need to be toughened up.
5. You manipulate to get what you want. This warning sign will resonate with you if you regularly push or violate other people’s boundaries — that is, if you can be honest enough to admit it to yourself.
Manipulation comes in many forms. For instance, you might try getting others to feel guilty for not meeting your demands, such as the mother who tries to make her daughter feel bad for not coming home for the holidays. In some instances, you might find yourself flat-out telling others that they are responsible for you, your results and/or your feelings, such as the emotionally abusive spouse who says he wouldn’t have to yell if his wife wouldn’t make him so angry. You might also find yourself pouting or having a tantrum because you don’t get what you want or repeatedly bugging someone to give you want you want, even after they say no. You may even ridicule or shame others who attempt setting a boundary; after all, if they don’t like your behavior, it’s their problem.
If you regularly crash boundaries, it’s likely that you don’t have many meaningful relationships. The people in your life have a hard time trusting you, because you choose to manipulate rather than treating them with love and respect. It’s also likely that you’ve been told more than once — and perhaps even can admit to yourself — that you tend to be loud, obnoxious, pushy, rude or, on the flip side, quiet but passively aggressive.
Admitting that you are a boundary violator is difficult. It’s difficult to admit to things we don’t like to see. It’s difficult to admit that we’re afraid that we won’t get what we want. And it’s difficult to believe that you’re valuable enough that other people will love and care for you on their own, without you demanding the attention.
The realization that you are a boundary violator often brings up shame and guilt. You know that you haven’t treated people with respect, trust and kindness — the same way you’d like to be treated.
But being a boundary violator is not something to feel ashamed of, nor is having weak boundaries something about which you should be embarrassed. It’s simply the way that you learned to do life. You can change — if you want to. The first, and often hardest, step is admitting that you have boundary issues. Admitting the problem opens space to learn healthier ways to respond to the fears in your life.