In the book From Stressed to Centered: A Practical Guide to a Healthier and Happier You (Sea Hill Press, 2015,) authors Dana Gionta and Dan Guerra discuss how you can manage stress levels in order to live a more peaceful, fulfilling life. In the following edited excerpt, they explain the importance of establishing both personal and professional boundaries.
"True strength is found in standing firm, yet bending gently." --Author unknown.
What is a boundary, you ask, and why are they important? In essence, a boundary is a limit defining you in relationship to someone or to something. Boundaries can be physical and tangible or emotional and intangible. You may not be familiar with the "B" word, however, I (Dana) bet you have used and heard the concept of it before. If you have ever told someone that "I draw the line here," then you have already set a boundary! If you have informed someone that this is your office space, your desk oryour designated chair (and who hasn't), you have attempted to set physical boundaries. Another clear example of a physical boundary is a fence, showing the border of our yard to our neighbors. It is often easier to understand a physical boundary. Emotional or mental boundaries may be a bit subtler; however, they are equally, if not more, important.
Boundaries serve many functions. They help to protect us, to clarify what is our responsibility and what is another's, to preserve our physical and emotional energy, to stay focused on ourselves, to live our values and standards, and to identify our personal limits.
1. Identify Your Limits
The first step in setting boundaries is getting clear about what your limits are--emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, etc. You do this by paying increased attention to yourself and noticing what you can tolerate and accept as well as what makes you feel uncomfortable and stressed. These feelings will help you clarify your limits. It is important to remember that your limits are personal--your own--and therefore, they are likely to be different than the limits that others have (our friends, family members, colleagues etc.). Although challenging, it is most helpful if you do your best not to compare your limits with others' limits.
What I may be willing or easily able to accept, may make you feel quite uncomfortable. This is then an important boundary for you. A recent example of bumping into a limit was a work opportunity that unexpectedly presented itself to me. I initially thought it would be an easy fit given my health expertise. However, I underestimated the effects of my personal history of loss, and how much this particular work setting would trigger these feelings. I knew immediately I had encountered a professional limit with the extremely strong feelings of discomfort that arose in me. I honored those feelings--my limit--and declined this work opportunity. Someone with a different personal history would most likely find this to be a wonderful professional opportunity.
The employer also respected my boundaries by not trying to persuade me to reconsider or to do it on a trial or part-time basis. Efforts to influence me to take the position, after I clearly stated I was very uncomfortable with the nature of the position, would have demonstrated a lack of consideration for my boundaries.
2. Pay Attention to Your Feelings
There are three key feelings that are often red flags or cues that you need to either set boundaries in a particular situation or that you are letting your boundaries slip (and not maintaining them). These feelings are (1) discomfort, (2) resentment, or (3) guilt. You can think of these feelings as cues to yourself that a boundary issue may be present. If a particular situation, person, or area of your life is leading you to feel uncomfortable, resentful, or guilty, and it has happened several times, this is an important cue.
For example, resentment often develops from feelings of being taken advantage of or not being appreciated. It's often a signal that you are extending yourself beyond your own limits because you feel guilty or want to be considered a good parent, spouse, sibling, child, friend, or employee. Another common contributor is someone else imposing their expectations, views, or values on you.
To determine how much attention the situation warrants and whether a boundary may need to be set, it is often helpful to think of these feelings on a continuum. For example, when a situation happens, ask yourself, "How uncomfortable, resentful, or guilty am I feeling now?" Rate your answer on a scale of 1-10 (10 highest). If your level of discomfort is a 3, you can consider this to be in the lower zone, having a mild affect on your emotions. Ratings of 4-6 are in the medium zone, indicating a more significant effect on you. Scores between 7 and 10 are considered in the high zone. As we discussed, boundaries are designed to protect you and your overall well-being. In this regard, consider setting a boundary if you are consistently rating a personal interaction or situation in the medium to high zone.
3. Give Yourself Permission to Set Boundaries
The biggest obstacles often experienced at some point, when considering setting a boundary, are the feelings of fear, guilt, and self-doubt--the anti-boundary musketeers--that show up. You might fear how the person will respond (e.g., angry, hurt) if you set and enforce your boundaries. You might feel guilty about speaking up or saying no to a family member or friend.
Often, people feel they should be able to cope with a situation and say yes, because that is what a good sibling, friend, or spouse would do. You may believe this despite the evidence that it is not good for you, leading you to feel drained and overextended at best, and taken advantage of at worst. You may question whether you even have the right or deserve to set boundaries in the first place. When these doubts occur, reaffirm to yourself that you do indeed have this right, so give yourself the permission to do so, and work to preserve them.
4. Consider Your Environment
When I was in training as a marriage and family therapist, one of the most valuable lessons I learned about human behavior was the incredible power of context.
The environment you are in, for example, serves as your context, and can have a strong influence on your behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions. Family and work environments are two examples of powerful contexts. Social circles are another. Why is it important to consider your environment when it comes to setting boundaries, you may be wondering? Your environment can either support your setting boundaries--making it easier for you--or present obstacles to boundary setting--making it more challenging for you. For example, consider your social circle of close friendships. Are these relationships generally reciprocal, with a natural give and take? Or do they feel lopsided, with you more often giving than receiving? If more lopsided, it will likely be more uncomfortable, and therefore more challenging, for you to begin to set boundaries or to maintain existing ones in these relationships.