They allow us to be clear about our own needs, about what feels comfortable for us, so we can connect with others in ways that feel safe and respectful.
For those in caregiving roles, boundaries are particularly important. Poor boundaries can foster co-dependency in a relationship. Strong boundaries can prevent exhaustion. If we’re giving selflessly without meeting our own needs the end result is burnout. Often caregiver needs can be overlooked.
Those receiving care might not be able to create healthy boundaries themselves so it’s vital then for carers to set healthy boundaries and to maintain them.
Creating boundaries sounds simple but it might feel easier for some than others. If we weren’t exposed to boundaries as children it probably won’t be second nature to create them for ourselves. It is, however, possible to learn how to set and hold boundaries and to benefit from them.
During flight briefings, we’re instructed by the crew that we need to fasten our own oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs. Making sure we're supported means we're then better able to support others. What another person wants might not be something we feel comfortable with. It might actually impinge on our own needs.
This is where boundaries come into play. They ensure we feel comfortable and that our needs are not lost in the mix — that we’re not reflexively responding to another before we’ve checked in with ourselves.
If you’re unsure of what your boundaries are in any given situation, it’s okay to pause a conversation to reflect. It’s okay to say, ‘I’m going to press pause on this conversation right now and I’ll get back to you once I’ve considered what feels right for me in this.’
Saying ‘no’ may feel scary. We naturally tend to avoid confrontation. Saying no or installing a boundary can bring up feelings of fear and anxiety. This is normal. It takes practice to get comfortable with using boundaries and this means sitting with discomfort. It’s important not to over-explain or apologise for being clear about your boundaries.
Establishing healthy boundaries allows us to feel stable and safe so no justifications are required.
Implementing them, in fact, models what self-care and self-respect look like. When communicating a boundary, you may need to be clear then step away, go to another room, or turn off your phone to enforce it.
Boundaries are challenging because they involve follow up action. Not only do we have to do something different but we also have to avoid the urge to apologise, over-explain or rationalise our choices to another. We need to commit to our decided action (or inaction, depending on the situation) and avoid the tendency to talk our way out of doing so. Sometimes this means communicating non-verbally through our actions.
Guilt is a very normal response when starting to instil boundaries in relationships. Often, we can let guilt guide our responses to situations where we might feel we're letting someone down if we don’t agree to what’s been asked. Yet, if we are not respecting our own needs we’re not modelling respect to those around us — we might even be enabling unhealthy behaviours such as manipulation or hostility.
When we start to use boundaries, others might not like it. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable when someone reacts poorly to your boundaries. Guilt might rear its head time and time again when you hold your boundaries but you are not responsible for another’s reaction. If the person you’re caring for reacts poorly it’s okay to hit pause on the conversation (another boundary), leave, and be clear that you can resume the conversation when you both feel calm and safe to do so.
It’s important to understand that having and maintaining boundaries is a skill. It takes a lot of practice but the reward is that one day it will be second nature. If you feel frustrated or overwhelmed, you should! You're making an adjustment to the way you function. Stick with it and commit. Clear boundaries are vital to creating healthy connections and a sense of self-love and respect.
Need some more help figuring out how to set healthy boundaries? Our friendly counsellors in the SANE Help Centre would be really happy to help you navigate this. They have lots of experience in this area and can offer you useful support.