Boundaries are the limits we set in our relationships--how we let people know the ways we expect to be treated, and how we respond when others cross those lines. Most of the time these boundaries are not spoken about directly, or maybe even thought about, but you always know when someone gets close to crossing a boundary. The boundaries we have generally come from the values we place on ourselves, others, and our relationships, and we typically learn them from the people we grew up with. Not having consistent boundaries, or not enforcing boundaries that are important to you, can take a huge toll on you, and even impact your health.
So how do you know if you lack healthy boundaries? Here are 4 signs that can help you know:
1) You feel exasperated and disrespected. “Why do I have to keep asking people the same thing over and over?” This is a question that suggests not only a sense of exasperation and frustration, but it also means that you are likely not enforcing your boundaries consistently enough. If you want your family member to stop smoking around your kids, or your partner to not say a specific mean thing, or your daughter to pick up her toys, you have to clearly communicate that message and let others know the consequences of not having those boundaries respected. And then follow through. Be willing to take toys away, have the difficult conversation with your spouse, and not invite your relative over if that’s what it takes to make sure your limits are taken seriously. Otherwise people will likely continue ignoring your requests since there are no ramifications.
2) You find yourself feeling resentful that others are not pitching in as much and all the responsibility falls to you. Nobody was planning for mom to get sick, but for some reason, none of your siblings seem to be helping in significant ways. Even when you talked to them about it, they seemed too busy to step up any more than they already were. You may find yourself wondering, “Why am I the one that always has to do everything?!” You might even notice yourself blowing up at others for small things, because you are so on edge. This is a sign that something needs to change! Instead of continuing to feel like the victim, evaluate what you can reasonably give and when you need to step back. And then follow through. You may want to ask your sibling if she can find a way to take mom to the physical therapist every week after you stop. Or you may want to leave that to someone else to figure out while gently stepping away yourself. It’s amazing how others can step up when a need is no longer being met.
3) You find yourself feeling worn down and taxed by keeping up relationships. Does it ever feel to you that you are the main person carrying a relationship? Like if you stopped trying so hard that the relationship might fall apart? Maybe you got roped into something that you never wanted to do in the first place. “But if I stop going to visit every week she might get depressed. Plus how else is she going to remember to take her medication if I’m not there to remind her?” First, if your begrudged visits are the only thing standing between your friend and depression, she has bigger problems--problems that your friend can take responsibility for and find appropriate and sustainable help for. If your visits to your friend aren’t very nourishing to you, chances are they aren’t helping as much as you think. When you find yourself in a ‘caretaker’ role (and you’re not getting paid for it), it can be hard to get out of. No one wants to let down someone they care about, and it is easy to feel guilty about not giving when you feel like you can. However, if you’re the one feeling drained and used up, it’s worth asking the question of how effective your efforts actually are.
4) You have some unexplained physical symptoms. Sometimes relationship stress can add up so much and put so much pressure on you that your body starts to express the emotional pain you are in. It is common for people to carry emotional stress in their muscles, especially around the neck and shoulders, which can lead to chronic headaches or jaw pain. Others find that their stomach is upset more consistently, or that they do not have the same energy level they used to. People often have trouble falling asleep at night due to their stress and do not feel well-rested when they wake up.
These symptoms can serve as warning signs that something needs to change. There are self-care and relaxation techniques anyone can use to help their body relax and feel the effects of less stress, but a change in how you relate to those around you will likely be the key to fully alleviating your physical symptoms.
“So what can I do?”
Brene Brown says, “The most compassionate people are also the most boundaried.” Having and enforcing boundaries leaves you room to be more compassionate on your own terms, rather than always feeling guilted into helping others. Having boundaries does not just mean that you callously cut others off--it gives you the emotional space to be able to help others from a more healthy place. And it leaves you feeling much better in the process. Contact me today if you’d like to get started making changes in your relationships.