Boundaries are tough. Asserting your needs, or turning people down with a gentle but firm “no,” can feel difficult, even rude — especially when you’ve been raised in a people-pleasing culture. What helped me in setting my own boundaries was hearing the wise Brené Brown identify the secret to compassion.
The popular researcher says that, “Compassionate people have very clear boundaries that they insist are respected.”
Reframing boundaries as something that could boost my compassion towards others, rather than as a selfish act, was a game-changer.
This year has really put our boundaries (not to mention compassion!) to the test. Whether they’re mental or physical, how do we protect our boundaries right now?
Boundaries Protect Our Physical and Emotional Space
Let’s first take a look at what boundaries actually are. According to Dr. Tracy Hutchinson LMHC, “Boundaries are basic guidelines that people create to establish how others are able to behave around them. ”
Boundaries cover our personal space (all too relevant in 2020), as well as our emotions. Darlene Lancer, JD MFT says emotional boundaries “distinguish separating your emotions, and responsibility for them, from someone else’s. They protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s negative feelings or problems and taking others’ comments personally.”
We can also set boundaries for our mental space, sexuality, time, energy, ethics, religion, and spirituality.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Jenn Kennedy writes: “Boundaries give a sense of agency over one’s physical space, body, and feelings. We all have limits, and boundaries communicate that line.”
Boundaries Mean Better Self-Esteem and Relationships
So why do we need boundaries? Fundamentally, they’re a measure of self-esteem.
Psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Wine says that “Establishing clear boundaries is a form of caring for yourself. It helps us develop self-respect. If we don’t set clear boundaries or if we regularly give in on things that are important to us, that’s going to decrease our sense of self-respect over time.”
“Giving in” can also lead to resentment of others. Boundaries, therefore, lead to healthier relationships.
According to Jane Collingwood, writing in PsychCentral, “Setting clear personal boundaries is the key to ensuring relationships are mutually respectful, supportive and caring…Weak boundaries leave you vulnerable and likely to be taken for granted or even damaged by others. On the other hand, a healthy self-respect will produce boundaries which show you deserve to be treated well. They also will protect you from exploitative relationships and help you avoid getting too close to people who don’t have your best interests at heart.”
Setting Boundaries Within a Problematic Family Culture
The pandemic, especially during the holiday season, is putting our ability to set boundaries under real strain. As Talkspace therapist Dr. Meaghan Rice, LPC, explains in this video: “We’re all a little bit more raw and on-edge [these days]. So when we think about getting together [with family], we need to take into consideration that we’re all more vulnerable.”
She explains the role that our “family cultures” have to play in setting boundaries: “We’re born into a certain culture. The environmental condition we’re raised in feels normal even if it’s completely dysfunctional.”
Each family has their own ways of coping with stressors — from drugs and alcohol to over-eating — that we might, now that we’re out of the house, try to avoid. But in gathering with family for the holidays, it can become clear that there’s a clash between the culture in which we were raised and how we would now prefer to deal with stress as adults.
Dr. Rice suggests creative ways to approach family members whose values or coping mechanisms are out of alignment with our own. The first is to create some literal space; for instance, if you’re visiting family, stay somewhere different overnight.
This boundary has the effect of allowing us to take a moment to calm down if something triggers or stresses you out, thereby being able to respond from a place that is not angry or anxious. You can then approach the issue from a more neutral frame of mind. “It’s hugely eye-opening to see what space does to create a better reaction,” she says.
Dr. Rice adds that you might plan some activities that “don’t involve the typical coping mechanism.” For example, if your family deals with stress through drinking, don’t go to a bar — plan a hike or outdoor activity instead.
Setting Boundaries in a Pandemic
This year you’re probably going to have to say “no” to more events than usual. You need to prioritize getting enough physical and head space, while remembering that you are not responsible for your loved ones’ reactions.
Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, says it’s important to remind yourself:
“I’m allowed to set boundaries with my family and friends. I can set the boundaries and acknowledge both my feelings and those of my family and friends.”
She suggested the following statements might kindly and clearly help you set boundaries:
- “I’ve decided not to travel for the holidays this year. I know it’s disappointing. Let’s make a plan to connect that day virtually.”
- “I’m only comfortable seeing people outside right now. How about we plan a short visit when the weather is good?”
- “During the holiday I will need some time to myself to recharge. I wanted to let you know in advance so it doesn’t come as a surprise.”
- “I know we have different opinions about this and I hope we can respect each other’s perspective. This is what works best for me right now.”
Genuine Self-Care Will Help Establish Boundaries
Boundaries are integral to our sense of self-worth, and therefore our ability to foster loving and compassionate relationships. Right now we need to be clearer than ever about our physical and emotional boundaries and needs. Be kind but direct when communicating your limits, and acknowledge your family’s emotions without taking them on or feeling guilty.
Dr. Rice reminds us that active self-care is crucial in this exercise, and she doesn’t mean having the occasional bubble bath! “We need to be filling our cup, for example with a workout or gratitude practice, in order to find groundedness and have a smooth conversation [as compared to] when we’re already in an emotional condition.” If you’re struggling with setting appropriate boundaries this holiday season and could use some help, consider speaking with a licensed online therapist — it’s a convenient and inexpensive way to get the support you need.