Personal boundaries are guidelines that each individual creates to identify his or her particular limitations. These boundaries can be physical, emotional, and/or mental, and are subject to change at any time.

They lay the groundwork for a positive self-image and promote self-respect that is undefined by others. Without personal boundaries, one runs the risk of being used, manipulated, and/or violated.

Do I need to work on establishing personal boundaries?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I automatically say yes whenever anyone asks for my help or needs a problem solved? Or do I politely but firmly set boundaries when I need to?
  • Do I always put myself at the bottom of my to-do list? Or do I regularly ask myself what I want and need and then schedule that action into my day as a priority?
  • Do I allow people or events to pull me away from what I plan to do? Or am I literally leading my own life by setting my direction and acting on the values and goals that matter to me?
  • Do I let friends or loved ones consistently monopolize conversations or bully me into going along with their decisions? Or do I speak up, clearly express how I feel, and stand up for myself?
  • Would I rather please others than have a confrontation with them? Or do I challenge invasive and inappropriate behavior and correct others’ misperceptions, even if it means they may not like what I have to say?
  • Does my giving to others prevent them from doing their share or from moving forward on their life’s journey? Or do I draw boundaries so that others do not become overly dependent on me to their detriment?
  • Do I hide behind my sacrifices, filling my time doing things for others to avoid embracing my own calling? Or do I put a priority on developing my own talents so I can give my gifts to others?

If you answered, “yes” to any of the aforementioned questions, you may need to establish new personal boundaries, or at least start communicating and enforcing previously established ones.

What happens if I don’t establish personal boundaries?

Without personal boundaries, a whole array of symptoms may emerge, including (but not limited to):

  • Over-enmeshment, in which the individual feels uncomfortable unless everyone is adhering to group norms—thinking, feeling, and acting the same way. Uniqueness, autonomy, and idiosyncratic behaviors are viewed as deviations from the norm.
  • Dissociation, in which the individual “blanks out” during stressful, emotional events. They may feel that they are being violated, but convince themselves that it doesn’t matter; that it will be over soon; that speaking up will make things worse. This denial may skew the ability to remember what actually happened and cause emotional damage.
  • Excessive detachment, in which the individual is unable to establish any fusion of emotions or affiliation of feelings. They are totally independent from everyone else and lack the desire to join together with others in any sort of union for fear of homogenization.
  • Victimhood or martyrdom, in which the individual identifies as a victim and either becomes overly defensive to ward off further violation, OR continues to be knowingly victimized while letting others know of their martyrdom.
  • “Chip on shoulder,” in which the individual interacts with others in a defensive manner, silently warning others to stay away. This is usually caused by prior violation of personal boundaries.
  • Feeling exposed, in which the individual reports a total lack of privacy in all areas of their life. They deny having a private domain around which to construct personal boundaries.
  • Over-compensating for the sake of invisibility, in which the individual attempts to control their surroundings to prevent others from knowing how they are really feeling or thinking. The goal here is to avoid being seen or heard so that personal boundaries are not violated.
  • Aloofness or shyness, in which the individual is unwilling to open up to others due to fear or insecurity. This is a result of real or perceived experiences of being ignored, roved, or rejected in the past. This can also be associated with a cold, distant demeanor in which the individual builds metaphorical walls to insure that others cannot permeate or invade their emotional or physical space.
  • Feeling smothered, in which the individual cannot cope with others soliciting their services. They feel that personal requests are overly intrusive, and liken the overwhelming feeling to that of being strangled or squeezed tightly.

How can I start establishing personal boundaries?

Journaling is a great way to start the process of self-improvement. Work through the following steps in a notebook and write down additional notes or comments as you see fit.

  • Identify any personal boundaries currently being violated or ignored. Self-assess for the aforementioned symptoms. Can you identify the trigger behind each of your symptoms? How does each symptom affect your life? How do you feel about each symptom’s effect on your life?
  • Identify any irrational, unhealthy thought processes and/or beliefs involving each symptom with which you struggle. How do these thoughts prevent you from building and maintaining sturdy personal boundaries?
  • Identify new, rational, healthy thought processes and/or beliefs involving each symptom with which you struggle. How will these new behaviors encourage you to build and maintain sturdy personal boundaries? Can you think of positive affirmations to act as boundary builders?
  • Identify tools for coping and write out a plan of action to prevent future breech of your personal boundaries. Practice your boundary building actions in a safe environment.
  • Implement your new, planned-out behaviors and beliefs in everyday life. If you find that your personal boundaries are still subject to violation, return to step one and begin again.

How can I help others establish personal boundaries?

Watching a loved one struggle is difficult and it is natural to want to help them. While they must do the bulk of the work themselves, you can work with them to change their perspectives and encourage them to change their unhealthy beliefs and behaviors. The following are some commonly expressed concerns, followed by reality-based affirmations with which you may respond. In time, they should learn to adapt the affirmations into their own belief system.

  • “I can never say ‘no’”
    • You have the right to say no to others if it is an invasion of your space or a violation of your rights.
  • “It’s my duty to hold them together”
    • You have a right to take care of yourself. Each individual has to decide on their own whether or not they want to stay together as a cohesive unit. The burden is not on you; each person in the group shares equal responsibility.
  • “I can never trust anyone ever again”
    • You have the right to grow in your relationships with others. If you find your space or rights are being violated or ignored, you can assertively protect yourself to ensure that you are not hurt.
  • “I would feel guilty if I did something on my own and left [someone] out of it”
    • You have the right and need to do things that are uniquely yours in an effort to protect your identity; you have the right to prevent over-enmeshing with others.
  • “I need to spend as much time with [someone] as possible, otherwise we won’t be a healthy family/group/etc.
    • You have the right and need to explore your own interests, hobbies, and outlets. Bringing back your unique personality to the group will enrich everyone’s lives. Losing your personality in a closed, over-enmeshed system enriches no one
  • “It doesn’t matter what they are doing to me…as long as I keep quiet and don’t complain, they will eventually leave me alone”
    • You never have to allow your space and rights to be violated. You can stand up for yourself and assert your right to be respected. If they choose to ignore you, then you have the right to leave them or ask them to leave.
  • “As long as I am not seen or heard, I won’t be violated or hurt”
    • You have the right to be visible and audible. You can stand up for yourself so that others can learn to avoid violating your personal space.
  • “I’d rather not pay attention to what is happening to me in this intrusive/smothering/violating relationship…this way, I don’t have to feel any pain or hurt”
    • You can choose to not longer disassociate from your feelings. If you are aware of what is happening, you can assertively protect yourself from further violation or hurt.
  • “I’ve been hurt badly in the past and will never let anyone close enough to hurt me again”
    • I do not need to be cold, distant, or aloof to protect myself from violation. You can open yourself up to others, knowing that you will be assertive in protecting your rights if violated.
  • “I can never tell where to draw the line with others”
    • Drawing a line ensures that you can maintain your uniqueness, autonomy, and privacy. The line should let others know where you stand and where others stand; both parties must agree to respect the boundary in order to maintain a healthy relationship.

If you need help learning to establish personal boundaries, call us today at 504-510-2331.

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