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Trouble at Work or Home? Examine Boundaries in Your Relationships

Healthy Lifestyle

Think about the relationships that cause you the most stress. Do you feel taken advantage of? Even violated? Are the dynamics and expectations not quite right?

You may be experiencing challenges due to enmeshed or rigid boundaries.

Boundary basics

Boundaries are unique to each of us, formed through factors such as beliefs, attitudes, social learning, past relationships and environmental contexts. They’re healthy ways to insulate ourselves from emotional or physical harm, and they help us set rules and limits for ourselves.

Boundaries are often divided into three categories: 

Physical boundaries dictate how and when people can touch you or enter your personal space, and who those people are. They can extend to possessions such as a purse, wallet or phone.

Emotional boundaries are made up of your distinct feelings and emotions. They assist in separating your feelings from other people’s.

Mental boundaries consist of individual thoughts, values, opinions, attitudes and beliefs. 

Proper boundaries are vital in maintaining healthy relationships and, typically, a healthy life. Among the benefits:

  • Your needs are met
  • You’re able to feel productive
  • You have good self-esteem and focus on self-validation
  • You experience less frustration, anger and resentment
  • You feel an enhanced sense of peace and safety
  • You’re able to nurture yourself through things that bring you joy and cultivate your spirit

Our boundaries are dynamic. They can frequently change based on environment, social situations, relationships and other factors. That flexibility is normal and healthy.

Here’s what’s not: Soft boundaries can make you subject to psychological manipulation. Having very rigid boundaries and being extremely closed off can also be unhealthy. And vacillating between the two can make it difficult to know what to let in and keep out. 

Common boundary issues

Typically, if someone comes to me with a boundary issue in one area of their life, there are boundary issues elsewhere. Some common examples:

Family: Family and other interpersonal relationships usually have the most complicated boundaries. No surprise there. They can create challenges for the whole family.

Work: Many people struggle with taking on too much work, properly compartmentalizing their tasks or maintaining a healthy work-life balance. People in “helping” jobs, like nurses and counselors, can also struggle with the concept that they must also be constant caretakers for family and friends. 

Saying no: Most of us seek approval and validation from our family, friends, colleagues and supervisors. Our fear of disapproval by saying no leads us to neglect caring for ourselves emotionally.

Fear of the unknown: Some people neglect healthy boundaries for fear of losing a relationship, no matter how unhealthy. That fear can trump the need for self-preservation, self-respect and joy.

For people struggling with these issues, it’s common that they’ve experienced repeated boundary violations, or healthy examples weren’t modeled from an early age. The result can be shaky self-esteem or sense of self, which can affect their ability to recognize boundary violations. In the long term, this can lead to a sense of desperation, depression, emotional exhaustion and frustration. In a worst-case scenario, you allow others to control your moods or do things that are potentially harmful. 

How to set (or reset) healthy boundaries

Setting boundaries is a process. It’s important to have a plan and start small. A few ideas:

  • Make a list of what you want in different areas of your life
  • Make a list of what you will never tolerate again
  • Consider how you would like to strengthen boundaries in your life

Creating or modifying boundaries with others can create conflict, but things don’t have to get ugly. These tips typically help in when discussing boundaries.

  • Take a step back, then calmly broach the subject.
  • List the unacceptable behavior (focusing on the behavior, not the person)
  • State your feeling about the behavior (without laying blame)
  • Reiterate the boundary, or state what the natural consequence is (your focus isn’t anger, revenge or punishment)

The other person may at first be resistant or struggle with the “new you,” but things will likely get easier with patience and reinforcement.

Likewise, when someone is setting a boundary with you, put yourself in their shoes. Resist the urge to become angry or critical. Focus on listening and having a constructive discussion.

When all else fails

Unfortunately, there may come a point where repeated boundary violations lead to calling it quits. You should consider ending a relationship if it is emotionally, verbally or physically abusive; draining; or controlling. Although ending a toxic relationship can be emotionally taxing – even heartbreaking – it’s typically much healthier in the long run for the person ending it.

Help is available

Starting the process of evaluating your boundaries is a big step. If it seems like more than you can handle, ask for help. Your employer may have an employee assistance program.

More resources


 

Jeff Friedlander

About the Author:

Jeff Friedlander, MSW, LIMHP, PCMSW, is a counselor with Best Care EAP. He primarily offers one-on-one, couples and family counseling, but also provides on-site therapeutic services for organizations following traumatic events. He strives to provide a safe, empathic environment where participants feel heard and validated.

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