A coach’s practical guide to Boundary-Setting for those who find it hard to know and set their own limits, express their needs & preferences, and honor who they really are.
On the journey of life, there’s a delicate and complex balance between honoring our own wellbeing, needs, and values, and fostering healthy connections with others. This complex balance is held in check by one fundamental construct: boundaries.
Setting boundaries is essential for safeguarding our wellbeing and cultivating healthy relationships, personally and professionally. It’s like building a fence around our emotional, physical, mental and spiritual needs and values, creating a sense of security and safety to be who we are and protect what’s most important to us.
Yet, for many of us, the concept of boundaries can feel elusive and even terribly uncomfortable and painful. We may find ourselves entangled in relationships where our needs and desires become secondary, our voices drowned out in the clamor of others’ expectations and approval.
We yearn to reclaim our authenticity and autonomy, to honor our Authentic Selves, but the path is often filled with insecurity, doubt and anxiety.
Why is it that some people can establish and maintain boundaries with ease, matter-of-factly, while others stumble and falter on the path of self-assertion?
The answer lies deep within our upbringing and attachment histories. Our early experiences, shaped by family dynamics and societal expectations, can either cultivate a strong sense of self and healthy boundaries, or leave us yearning for acceptance and validation, clueless about our own limits.
This article is for the latter group – the boundary challenged, and aims to shine a light on your path towards setting and enforcing personal and professional boundaries, recognizing that it’s a journey that requires self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-compassion, and courage.
We’ll explore the transformative power of journaling as a tool for building self-awareness, self-reflection and self-expression, paving the way for the discovery of our innermost desires, values, and needs.
Through the lens of your own unique experiences, you will uncover the tangled threads (or barbed wires) that hold you back from self-assertion, untangling any limiting beliefs and fears you discover that may be preventing you from valuing and protecting your own needs and desires.
It is my sincere hope that within these words, you will find solace and inspiration, a gentle nudge towards reclaiming your Authentic Self and embracing the power of boundaries.
II. What are Boundaries?
Boundaries play a fundamental role in our relationships and overall wellbeing. They serve as invisible lines that define our limits, expectations, and what we consider acceptable or unacceptable in our interactions with others (even our jobs).
Understanding and setting clear personal boundaries is crucial for maintaining healthy relationships, fostering self-esteem and self-respect, and protecting our emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing.
Boundaries are the limits we establish to protect ourselves from being intruded upon, manipulated, or violated by others. These boundaries encompass various aspects of our Self and our lives, such as our personal space, our time, our privacy, our emotions, our bodies, our needs and our values.
Establishing and asserting boundaries requires us to recognize and honor our own needs, desires, and values, as well as communicating them clearly and effectively to others.
Technically, there are two layers of effective boundaries: the Protective side and the Containing side.
Protective Boundaries are like the fence or force-field that stops intruders from stepping into our protected spaces.
Containing Boundaries keep us from intruding on others – it’s how we stop ourselves from saying and doing too much that may impinge or infringe on others.This article deals mostly with Protective Boundaries because very often, those who have difficulty asserting protective boundaries are very good at respecting others’ needs and limits.
So, how do we even know what we need to protect? That’s where self-awareness comes in.
III. Understanding Self-Awareness
To embark on the journey of reclaiming authenticity and wellbeing, which includes learning how to set and enforce boundaries, one of the first competencies we need to develop is self-awareness.
Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand our own thoughts, emotions, behaviors, values, needs, and motivations. It’s like shining a light on the inner workings of our being, allowing us to gain insight into our patterns, triggers and impulses.
By cultivating self-awareness, we will become more attuned to our needs, desires, and our limits. We start to recognize the triggers that evoke certain emotions within us, the behaviors that align with our values, and the ones that don’t. Through self-awareness, we gain clarity and a deeper sense of authenticity.
When we lack self-awareness, it becomes challenging to set boundaries effectively. We may find ourselves drifting through life, accommodating others’ needs while neglecting our own. But by embracing self-awareness, we begin to understand the need for boundaries more clearly. We become conscious of the areas where we feel discomfort or where our energy becomes depleted. We uncover the desires and values that shape our lives, enabling us to make conscious decisions aligned with our authentic selves.
Developing self-awareness isn’t an overnight process. It requires patience, curiosity, and a commitment to self-exploration.
One powerful tool to cultivate self-awareness is journaling. Through the act of putting pen to paper, we can dive into the depths of our thoughts and emotions, unraveling the intricacies of our inner world. Later in the article, I’ll offer some journal prompts to help you focus your attention where it matters.
IV. How Do We Know Where We Need Boundaries & Why Is It So Hard to Know?
Understanding the importance of setting boundaries requires us to recognize the factors that contribute to the stresses and struggles within us, and between ourselves and others.
Our upbringing, societal expectations, and attachment histories can blur the lines of boundary setting by shaping our beliefs and behaviors around expressing our own preferences, needs, and desires.
In situations where children’s emotions become enmeshed with adults’ emotions, we may learn to prioritize the feelings and needs of others over our own to maintain a sense of safety and acceptance. This can lead to a suppression of our own desires and a tendency to mind-read or ‘vibe-read’ (get a sense of someone’s mood and energy) and anticipate the needs of others.
If we grew up in environments where our own preferences and needs were disregarded or met with negative reactions, we may internalize the belief that expressing our desires will make others angry or cause them to reject us. As a result, we may develop a fear of asserting boundaries and we may begin to suppress our own thoughts and feelings to avoid conflict or negative consequences.
These learned patterns of self-sacrifice and people-pleasing often persist into adulthood unquestioned, making it extremely challenging to establish and assert boundaries. The fear of disappointing others or facing rejection may continue to hinder our ability to prioritize our own needs and desires, leading to a blurred sense of personal boundaries.
Signs We Can Pay Attention To
One common sign that we may be in need of boundaries is emotional exhaustion. If we constantly find ourselves drained after interactions with certain people or in specific situations, it may be a sign that our emotional boundaries have been breached.
Neglecting our own self-care and consistently prioritizing others’ needs over our own is another red flag that boundaries are necessary.
Personal Story: One day I woke up and felt like I hadn’t slept a wink. I was completely drained. I proceeded to do my morning meditation and my coherence training using a tech device that measures Heart Rate Variability. My scores were lousy and didn’t make sense to me. I had been practicing regularly and was getting really good at generating a high level of coherence (more explained here https://www.heartrich.ca/blog/the-heart-of-resilience/ and https://www.heartrich.ca/why-heart-matters/) but something wasn’t quite right that morning.
Getting into my day was a slog. I was just feeling exhausted. Upon reviewing my appointments for the day, I noticed I had plans to meet with a friend that night and realized there was no way I could possibly have enough energy to socialize.
I reached out, told him I had a rough night and would need to ask for a raincheck. He said no problem, and wished me well. 10 minutes later all my energy was restored. I felt lighter and re-energized. 10 minutes after that, it dawned on me.
My body was saying no when my mouth was saying yes to things I didn’t want to do. I was having some issues with our relationship that I was neglecting to address out of fear and a lack of resolve, and my body took me out.
Difficulty knowing, expressing and asserting our needs and desires is yet another sign that boundaries are lacking.
If we often find ourselves suppressing our true thoughts and feelings, afraid to express our opinions or assert our boundaries, it’s essential to take a closer look at our relationship with setting limits.
When We Don’t Set Boundaries
The consequences of not setting boundaries can be significant. Our mental and emotional wellbeing, and our sense of Self, will most likely suffer as we continuously prioritize the needs of others at the expense of our own.
Relationship dynamics can become imbalanced and unhealthy, as we may attract people who take advantage of our lack of boundaries. Moreover, our personal growth and development may be hindered, as we struggle to create the space necessary to nurture our own dreams and aspirations.
Boundaries are not only relevant in our personal lives but also extend to the realm of work. It is essential to establish clear boundaries with our superiors, colleagues and direct reports in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance and protect our wellbeing and fulfillment in life overall.
Whether it’s asserting limits on the number of hours we dedicate to work or setting expectations for respectful communication, recognizing and implementing boundaries in the workplace is crucial for our professional effectiveness, fulfillment and success.
Consequences We May Experience
Resentment and Burnout: Neglecting self-care and consistently prioritizing others’ needs over our own can lead to feelings of resentment and eventually burnout. When we consistently disregard our own wellbeing and neglect our own needs, we tend to become overwhelmed, stressed, and emotionally drained.
Many people I’ve coached have told me a story similar to this: they always put in extra hours at work to be a team player, to honor they loyalty and to please their boss by meeting unrealistic expectations. Even at the expense of their personal lives and wellbeing. Over time, they become resentful, feel overwhelmed, mentally exhausted, and emotionally detached from his work resulting in burnout.
Low Self-Esteem and Self-Worth: When we fail to establish and enforce boundaries, it can erode our self-esteem and sense of self-worth. When we continuously prioritize the needs and opinions of others over their own, we may develop a sense of inadequacy and diminished self-worth, as we consistently put our own desires, values, and even our own ideas aside.
If we notice that we constantly seek validation and approval from others, we’ve lost touch or never really have been in touch with our internal sense of self-validation. Over time, we may disregard our own opinions and feel that our needs and preferences don’t matter.
Unhealthy Relationships: Without clear boundaries, we may attract people who take advantage of our lack of limits. This can lead to imbalanced and unhealthy relationship dynamics, where we’re constantly giving without receiving reciprocity or respect, which further diminishes our sense of self-worth.
Many of us simply tolerate disrespectful behavior from friends, colleagues, even romantic partners, accepting emotional manipulation and neglecting our own boundaries. As a result, we may find ourselves trapped in toxic relationships that negatively impact our mental and emotional wellbeing, causing feelings of unhappiness, frustration, and depression.
Setting and enforcing boundaries, is how we can protect our mental and emotional wellbeing, as well as help us cultivate healthier and more balanced relationships, as well as, maintain a stronger sense of self-acceptance and self-worth.
So Much Fear
Uncovering our own fears associated with setting boundaries is a vital step in the process. It’s essential to unravel these fears, to shine a compassionate light upon them, and to recognize that setting boundaries is an act of self-care, self-advocacy, and self-preservation.
Often, we carry ingrained beliefs and fears from our past that influence our ability to establish boundaries. In our professional lives, the fear of being labeled as difficult, not contributing enough, or not being a team player can create inner resistance to setting boundaries.
Or in the personal sphere, thinking that asserting our needs and boundaries will make others angry and that they will ultimately reject us, often enough is all that’s needed to stop us from expressing who we really are and how we really feel.
By addressing and overcoming these limiting beliefs and fears, we empower ourselves to step into our authentic power and advocate for our needs.
Think about it – if you keep suppressing your true thoughts, feelings, needs, values, preferences and desires and aren’t willing to assert boundaries so you can be free to be who you are – no one will every know who you really are.
In the next section, we will explore the role of journaling in cultivating self-awareness, guiding us towards greater clarity, self-compassion, and the courage to set and enforce the boundaries that align with our wellbeing and authentic selves.
V. The Role of Journaling in Building Self-Awareness
In our quest to develop self-awareness and establish boundaries, journaling is a powerful tool for self-reflection and self-expression.
Through the act of putting pen to paper or typing on a digital screen, we create a safe and private space where we can explore our inner world, unravel our thoughts and emotions, and gain valuable insights into ourselves.
Journaling promotes self-awareness by providing an outlet for us to examine our emotions, thoughts, and patterns. It allows us to dive beneath the surface and explore the nuances of our experiences, uncovering the hidden layers of our being.
By journaling regularly, we develop a deeper understanding of our own inner worlds, enabling us to identify areas in our lives where boundaries are necessary.
To cultivate self-awareness through journaling, we can use a variety of prompts that guide us towards greater insight and clarity.
Here are some journal prompts specifically designed to help us develop awareness around our discomforts, emotional triggers, energy levels, values, and needs, which all play a part in boundary-setting:
- Reflecting on Discomforts and Emotional Triggers:
- What situations or interactions make me feel uncomfortable or emotionally triggered?
- How do these experiences impact my wellbeing and sense of self?
- Are there recurring patterns or themes in these discomforts or triggers?
- Exploring Energy Levels and Identifying Drains and Sources of Fulfillment:
- How do I feel energetically after certain activities, relationships, or tasks?
- What drains my energy and leaves me feeling depleted?
- What activities or relationships bring me joy, fulfillment, and a sense of vitality?
- Examining Personal Values and Aligning Actions with Them:
- What values are most important to me in life?
- How well am I living in alignment with these values?
- Are there areas where I need to set boundaries to protect and honor my values?
- Setting Physical and Emotional Limits to Preserve Wellbeing:
- What are my physical and emotional limits?
- In what situations do I feel my boundaries being crossed?
- How can I communicate and enforce these limits to protect my wellbeing?
- Identifying Needs and Desires in Various Areas of Life:
- What are my core needs in relationships, work, self-care, and personal growth?
- How am I currently meeting or neglecting these needs?
- What boundaries can I establish to ensure my needs are honored?
- Cultivating Self-Compassion and Self-Validation Through Journaling:
- How can I show myself kindness and understanding when facing challenges in setting boundaries?
- What affirmations or supportive statements can I offer myself to reinforce my self-worth?
- How can I celebrate my progress and victories along the journey of boundary-setting?
Clarifying & Asserting Your Boundaries
Setting clear and assertive boundaries in relationships and at work will leverage all the reflection work you did in your journaling.
From your observations and reflections, take the time to identify and understand what you are willing and NOT willing to tolerate. That’s where you’ll find your boundaries.
Once you’re clear on them, it’s important to communicate them assertively. Assertive doesn’t mean aggressive or confrontational – just factual and firm.
- Express your boundaries calmly, confidently, and respectfully, ensuring that your message is clear.
- Saying no is an essential part of boundary-setting and reinforces your personal limits. So start practicing saying ‘no, thank you’ when your boundaries are being crossed, even if it feels uncomfortable.
- Consistency is crucial. Keep enforcing your boundaries by following through with consistent actions and communication, ensuring that others understand and respect your limits.
Two Boundary Setting Examples
Saying No to Working & Communication After Hours
“I appreciate the opportunity to work on this project and contribute to the team’s success. However, I wanted to discuss an issue that has been affecting my work-life balance. Lately, I have been receiving calls, texts, and emails after business hours, which has been causing me anxiety and making it difficult for me to fully disconnect and recharge. In order to maintain a healthier work-life balance and be more productive during work hours, I would like to set a boundary regarding communication outside of business hours. Unless it’s an urgent matter or there’s a prearranged agreement, I would prefer not to receive work-related calls, texts, or emails after [specific time]. This will allow me to dedicate quality time to rest and rejuvenate, ensuring I can give my best during work hours. Thank you for understanding.”
Requesting More Balance In a Relationship with a Self-Centered Person
“I value our friendship and the connection we have, but there is something I would like to address. Lately, I have been feeling like the dynamics of our friendship have become imbalanced, with most of the focus being on your needs and preferences. It’s important for me to have a more equal and mutually supportive friendship. I would like to set a boundary where both of our needs and interests are considered and respected. It would mean a lot to me if we could have a more balanced give-and-take in our conversations and activities, where we can both share and listen to each other’s experiences. This way, our friendship can flourish and be more fulfilling for both of us. I hope you understand and are open to working together to create a healthier dynamic in our friendship.”
Small & Somewhat Uncomfortable Tests
Creating small boundary-setting tests and reflecting on your experiences can help you gain confidence by learning from real-life experiences.
Start by setting boundaries in less challenging situations, allowing yourself to experience the awkward and uncomfortable feelings that you’ll most likely have for quite some time. It’s not easy changing life-long patterns and it will feel difficult and awkward your first few times (ok, for some of us it may feel awkward for a long time but way better than feeling depleted and violated).
After each boundary-setting attempt, reflect on the outcomes and insights you gained. Journaling about your experiences can help you process your emotions and understand the impact of your boundaries on yourself and others. Use these reflections to learn from reality, adjusting your approach as needed for future boundary-setting efforts.
- What happened? What didn’t happen?
- How did it feel during and after?
- What thoughts or fears came up for you?
- What did you learn?
- What can you do differently next time?
What if you encounter challenges and obstacles?
Overcoming challenges and fears associated with boundary-setting requires continued self-reflection and a willingness to address limiting beliefs.
Begin by identifying any beliefs or fears that hinder your ability to set boundaries. These may be deeply ingrained ideas and perspectives that have developed over time that you don’t even realize aren’t true and aren’t helpful.
Take the time to explore the origins of your fears and beliefs, understanding how past experiences or conditioning may have shaped your perceptions.
Question the validity of your limiting beliefs and challenge your own thinking.
The work of Byron Katie inspires me to ask questions like:
- “How do I know it’s true?” and “Who would I be without that thought?”
Throughout this process, remember to practice self-compassion. Be patient and kind with yourself as you navigate the discomfort and challenges that may arise while setting boundaries.
Setting boundaries is a process that takes time and practice and it’s a journey that requires self-awareness, self-compassion, and a willingness to honor your own needs.
We’ve defined boundaries and explored the essential role of self-awareness in the process of setting and enforcing boundaries.
We delved into the challenges that some face due to their upbringing and attachment histories, which can make boundary-setting a greater challenge. However, with self-awareness, courage and enough will, we can use these challenges and obstacles to learn, grow and cultivate healthier relationships with ourselves and others.
We considered the power of journaling as a tool for self-reflection and self-expression. By engaging in journaling practices, we can deepen our understanding of our needs, values and patterns. Journaling prompts serve as guides to help us uncover areas in our lives that require boundaries and help us develop a clearer sense of what those boundaries should be.
Alongside journaling, we discussed the practical tips needed to translate self-awareness into boundary-setting action. From communicating assertively to overcoming fears and limiting beliefs, these give us the necessary tools to establish and enforce boundaries in our personal and professional lives.
It’s important to acknowledge that boundary-setting is rarely easy for most people. It may involve stepping out of our comfort zones, facing internal interference, external resistance, and embracing the fear of potentially disappointing others. Yet, the benefits of setting boundaries can’t be overstated. By honoring our own needs, values, and limits, we create space for genuine self-care, personal growth, and the cultivation of healthier and more authentic connections with those around us.
I hope this inspires you to embrace the power of self-awareness, engage in journaling practices, and implement the practical tips provided. Remember that boundary-setting is an ongoing process, and each step forward brings you closer to a more authentic, empowered and fulfilled life.
May you find the courage to define, assert, and honor your boundaries, knowing that in doing so, you create a life that aligns with your Authentic Self and fosters genuine connections with others.