Learning to define your boundaries is an essential skill to become a stronger person and to keep the peace with people in your life. I have often resisted letting people know when they had crossed my boundaries and in fact, many problems were caused by me having extremely flexible boundaries or not really having any boundaries at all. Not healthy and not a good way to go.
I believe the lack of boundaries was caused by thinking, "To keep the peace, I have to avoid an argument or conflict. Therefore, the best way to do this is to always do what other people want and to tolerate almost any kind of behaviour. You can push me as far as you want and I'll just keep smiling.". Meanwhile, internally, all hell is breaking loose. Tense muscles, anxiety, a sense of powerlessness, anger, resentment...Ouch, damn that hurts!
You might not have any trouble at all setting boundaries and communicating them in a respectful way that motivates people to respect your boundaries. This is awesome. However, many of us could probably benefit from looking at how well we set and communicate our boundaries.
In the last few months, someone in my life has been testing me again and again. I am pleased to say that I actually do have boundaries and that I'm not afraid to speak out when someone is pushing me. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and a few chances, depending on the severity of their poor behaviour, but once basic respect has been violated and it's an obvious infraction, I have to let them know. I might not even be that nice about it either. I want peace, but if someone is provoking and disrespecting me, I'll let ya know that that's just not gonna fly. In the case with this person in my life, they did adjust their behaviour and things have improved. Having a few unpleasant conversations was worth it.
Update (December 2014): I had to cut all contact with this person, unfortunately. That's the first time I've ever had to do something like that. Seems extreme, but it was the right thing to do, in this case. You can read more on how I let go of a toxic relationship.
Boundaries are the limits of the kind of behaviour you are willing to accept from people.
Here's a question I often ask myself when a conflictive situation arises and I'm having doubts about whether my position is valid: "Are the other person's needs more important than mine?". Of course not! So why am I tolerating behaviour that I don't like? When someone is pushing up against your boundaries and we cave in, we are basically saying that what the other person wants is more important than what we want. How can that be possible?
Aim to communicate your boundaries in a kind and positive way if possible, but being firm or having a bit of an edge is often required. You've gone too far if you've crossed into an angry outburst. You'll just drive the other person away and get the opposite effect of what you were looking for.
Some fear may arise when communicating a boundary, especially if they're close to you. How can you communicate in a way that brings them closer to you, that encourages them to respect you even more? What tone of voice should you use? What are the specific words that motivate and demotivate people? It's all about bringing awareness to how you're communicating so that you don't make the situation worse.
Like a rock-solid fortress, boundaries are there to protect you. They define and protect your physical space and the kind of behaviour you're willing to accept.
1. Do a self-assessment.
Do you have a balanced approach when it comes to setting boundaries with people? How often are you accepting intolerable behaviour? How often are you communicating boundaries in a negative way? Are you too rigid with your boundaries (ie: having a temper tantrum for small things like your partner or room-mate not replacing the toilet paper roll)?
2. Watch for when your boundaries have been disrespected.
Annoying neighbours who play excessively loud music late at night? A co-worker who thinks it's ok to insult you under the guise of a joke? A partner or friend who frequently nitpicks and criticizes you?
Do you know exactly what your limits are? Don't ignore that sick feeling you get when someone is disrespecting you. Take thoughtful action.
3. Start to set boundaries in easier situations.
Build the habit of boundary-setting for situations that are less emotionally difficult for you (ie: letting a friend know that you would like them to show up on time for appointments or to at least phone you if they will be more than 10 minutes late.). This will help you become accustomed to communicating your needs. After all, your needs are just as important as the other person's needs, aren't they?
What I've learned recently from my recent adventures in boundary-setting is that I feel happier when I've stood up for myself and I leave the interaction feeling strong and grounded. The other person may not like it in the moment, but they may come to appreciate your honesty and it may even help them to become a better person.
It's important to avoid using fear and control when communicating your boundaries. Don't go there. Experiment and find the balance between some "edge" and full-blown "rage". Avoid the latter, of course.
Firmly state what you want. Give the other person some time to process it. Be willing to walk away from a relationship or friendship, if it becomes absolutely necessary.
I heard a very relevant quote from Coach Corey Wayne: "The strongest negotiating position is to be willing to walk away and mean it". If they want to continue receiving the gift of your presence, time and energy, they will adjust their behaviour.
Boundaries will increase your confidence and self-respect. Start out small, if you're feeling tentative. Keep building up the skill. Be as kind as you can when communicating boundaries with people.
Watch how this enhances your life and builds better relationships with the people you encounter each day.