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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Colace, LMHC

What are personal boundaries, and why do I need them?

Written by Paul Weinberg, Mental Health Counseling Intern at Promise Pathways

We hear this all the time. Healthy boundaries are important. But what are boundaries, and how and why do we set them?

Boundaries are our way of communicating to those we choose to interact with about how we would like to be related to. It is a guidebook on how to respect us and care for us. Boundaries tell people what we don't like but also what we do. Without them, everyone is flying blind, guessing at the best way to relate to those around them. Some people may underestimate what makes you uncomfortable and default to prioritizing their own needs. Some people might overestimate and avoid acceptable or even desired connection with you in a misguided attempt to respect you.

The more thought out and clearly communicated your boundaries are, the more detailed the roadmap of your ideal connection is, and the easier you are to relate to.

So how do we set boundaries?

Step 1: Introspection

The first step to setting boundaries is figuring out what you are and are not comfortable with. This may sound easy, but often we go into situations without considering these, figuring we will know when we need to. But figuring it out on the fly can be much more complicated than we anticipate. For example, we may be trying to balance other people's needs while in an emotional state, or possibly even inebriated.

Step 2: Communication

One of the best things about boundaries is that they encourage clear and healthy communication. Just like a child cannot function if they don't know the rules, adults who don't know where your boundaries are cannot respect them. Boundaries give us a tool to let the people in our life understand how to treat us with respect and care for our emotions. Communication should be clear and direct.

Step 3: Assertion

This step is mainly optional but valuable when someone is disrespecting your boundaries. "Assertion" means reminding or clarifying to the people in your life when you feel like your boundaries are being violated. Assertion can be helpful because not all boundary violations are intentional. For instance, people may have misunderstood the initial communication or believe it does not apply to this situation. If you think your safety is at risk by asserting your boundaries, you should skip this step.

Step 4: Response

When a boundary is violated after it has been clearly communicated, the person is conveying to you that they are not interested in interacting with you in the way you are most comfortable. If this is the case, it is critical to know how you will respond. Without this step, some people will continue to push as they see no downside in doing so. How you respond should be proportionate to how important the boundary is to you. It could be anything from a verbal rebuke, to removing yourself from the situation, to diminishing or cutting ties with the individual.

Most of us want to know what others want from us. When boundaries are considered, communicated, asserted, and defended, you give that clarity to everyone in your life.

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