Dear Alistair

Dear Alistair,
I have been told that I don’t set boundaries, and that this is why I am often taken advantage of by family, friends and work colleagues. I see myself as a kind and caring person and like to help others if I can. I do sometimes feel that others take advantage of this, but isn’t this the price that one has to pay to ensure that one is likeable? I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

Boundary-setting is a relatively new concept for many people and, often, a very challenging one. It is certainly a worthwhile topic for discussion because, I believe, boundaries are essential to healthy relationships and a healthy life.

So, what do people mean when they talk of personal boundaries? The answer is that one’s boundaries are simply the limits that one sets in terms of one’s time and energy and one’s desire and ability to sacrifice. Understanding these limits keep you from making commitments, i.e. keep you from saying “yes”, when your time, energy or general well-being will not really allow it, causing you to neglect yourself, your family, or another more important priority. Similarly, they prevent you from blaming others for one’s own problems or negative feelings, and they protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s difficulties.

Some of the most important areas where boundaries apply include the following:
Material boundaries, which determine whether you give or lend things, such as your money, car, books, etc. Physical boundaries determine the extent to which you allow others to interact with your personal space, privacy, and body. Mental boundaries determine the effect to which others have an impact on your thoughts, values, and opinions. As an example, do you know what you believe, and can you hold onto your opinions? Equally, can you listen to others’ opinions with an open mind without becoming rigid, argumentative, or defensive. Emotional boundaries allow you to separate your emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s. They prevent you from giving advice, blaming or accepting blame. They protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s negative feelings or problems and taking others’ comments personally.

In essence, having healthy boundaries means… knowing and understanding what your limits are. It is, however, very hard for many of us to set boundaries, as it appears to be for you, for one or more reasons including the fact that we don’t know ourselves as well as we could; we may not really believe that we have rights; we put others’ needs and feelings first; we believe setting boundaries jeopardises our relationships; and/or we did not ever learn to have healthy boundaries.

Setting and sustaining boundaries are skills that can be learned and perfected. It takes a lot of honest self-reflection, however, and requires that you identify your most important values, priorities, and limits including those that relate to your health, family time, dietary requirements, etc. Being clear about these helps you identify good compromises. They are at the core of your boundary strategy.