Are there times when you feel taken advantage of, when you feel that all your efforts are to please someone else and that you have lost your sense of self? If so, this could mean that you are not setting healthy boundaries. What exactly is a personal boundary, what are the effects of healthy and unhealthy boundaries and how does one go about setting a healthy personal boundary?
A healthy personal boundary is when you have sufficient emotional space from someone to feel that you are able to make your own decisions and be a separate individual with your own interests and values. Personal boundaries are the basis for a healthy, stable relationship. Two partners in a relationship need to know where the one ends and the other begins. There is not only an 'us', there are also two separate people with different interests, values and ways of behaving. When a couple becomes too enmeshed they lose sight of themselves and end up feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, which makes for an unhealthy and unhappy relationship.
When you do not have healthy boundaries you continually feel like you are being pushed around. You feel irritable and frustrated and the reason for feeling this way may not be apparent. On closer inspection you may find that someone has assumed that you will drop everything to go along with his/her plans and you realise your frustration is related to being taken for granted, a typical feeling experienced when your boundaries are not set. Setting boundaries means taking care of your needs before you can assist your friends and family members.
The result of unclear boundaries and others not knowing where they stand with you is that there is a much greater risk of being taken advantage of. It need not be malicious but if you never say no to anyone then you can understand that they will continue to ask for favours and ply you with work and requests because the message you send allows them to do this. If you speak up when asked to do something you are not happy with then others will be able to understand and respect your needs and limits. You have to respect yourself by putting those boundaries in place before you can expect others to respect you.
An enmeshed boundary can be summarised as follows: it feels like you are an extension of someone else. The other person makes the decisions; you go along with it. The other person makes demands; you meet these demands. In a relationship with unhealthy boundaries or enmeshed boundaries your behaviour or opinion is seen as a direct reflection on the other person. You do not have the freedom of behaving according to your beliefs as your beliefs have to be those of the other person in the enmeshed relationship. Your behaviour has to meet with the approval of this other person. It is as if the other person is in control of your life and for various reasons you do not feel like you can stand up to this person. Often when there are unhealthy boundaries you feel guilty if you have to say 'No' and therefore you unwittingly maintain this unhealthy relationship. The down side is that you cannot be open to someone when you feel repressed by this person and your frustration will show. It may come out as an unexpectedly strong outburst to something seemingly minor. Each minor event or request could be coped with individually but when they occur among unhealthy boundaries, they are not dealt with effectively and pile up; you become frustrated and lose your temper with someone. Both parties in a relationship need to feel valued and appreciated. In a relationship with unhealthy boundaries or no boundaries, it feels like too much energy is being put in with too few rewards. This is because in this relationship you are doing the work, you are trying to please the other party and too little of that positive emotional energy is being reciprocated. The relationship becomes unbalanced and suffers. You may also feel physically exhausted as your emotional and physical reserves are being depleted, with no functioning 'top up' system to replace these reserves.
Setting healthy boundaries means that you make the decision to be your own person, you learn to say 'No' when you are asked to do something which goes above and beyond and would mean losing track of your own identity. You stand up for your personal rights to make decisions without the undue influence of friends and relatives. If you cannot go shopping with your mother because you have other important plans then you do not allow yourself to be convinced to change these plans, you stand your ground and offer your mother an alternate date. Having a healthy boundary in a relationship means that each individual is able to be whole and separate from the other. Time together is enjoyed as it is not seen as a duty. Effort is put into the relationship and reciprocated because both parties feel respected and appreciated. If the other person chooses to have different views to yours then this is accepted, it is not seen as a reflection on you as the person is separate from you.
The first step in setting healthy boundaries is to decide what you are and are not willing to do in the relationship. Work out at what point you feel that your personal space is being encroached upon. When you have had an exhausting day and need a night in and a friend asks you to join her for a few drinks, be honest, stand your ground, tell your friend that you just do not feel up to it and make a plan to meet up on another night. Become attuned to the feeling of being pushed down and protect yourself before it gets to the point where you feel like you are going to explode. Setting boundaries means learning to say 'No' when you know that this is in your best interest and when you know that the other person can make another plan. When someone is trying to change your way of thinking or behaving because it is different from his/hers then setting and defending your boundaries involves telling this person that he/she has every right to believe in his/her way of doing things but that you think differently and that is ok. And believe it.