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Five tips for setting healthy boundaries in your relationships

Main Line Health August 26, 2015 General Wellness By Paula Durlofsky, PhD

Leading a truly healthy and authentic lifestyle requires setting defined personal boundaries to create better relationships. Setting such boundaries helps improve communication skills, preserves self-respect and self-esteem, and decreases feelings of resentment and guilt. Knowing who we are as individuals and having a clear understanding of the space between where we end and another person begins is essential to living an emotionally healthy life.

For many people, setting these boundaries can be challenging and, in some cases, a completely new concept. Boundary setting habits are often learned in childhood, so the ease or difficulty one has is related to how he was raised. For those raised in an environment where respectful, consistent, and age-appropriate boundaries were the norm, it will be easier to define and set these guidelines, than for those raised in families without boundaries.

Inconsistent or absent boundaries can lead to Issues with low self-respect and self-esteem. It can also increase chances of depression, anxiety, anger, and resentment, and lead to conflicted and unsatisfying interpersonal relationships. Boundaries are intimately related to our degrees of happiness and reflect who we are to the world and to the people around us.

Here are some tips to start on the path to setting healthy boundaries:

Do: Give yourself permission to set boundaries

Many people are aware of the importance of setting boundaries, but don’t, out of guilt or fear of backlash. When this happens it is important to recognize that you are not responsible for other's struggles to honor your boundaries. Be patient and kind to yourself during this process.

Don’t: Set flimsy boundaries

These reflect a lack of clarity about yourself, your degree of self-respect, and self-esteem. When we set insubstantial boundaries, we set ourselves up for being taken advantage of, and not being heard or taken seriously by others.

Do: Tune in to your emotions

Understanding our emotions and gaining a context for them is crucial for setting boundaries. When we are aware of feeling anger or resentment when asked to do something, these emotions signal us to step back and examine what about this interaction makes us feel this way. If you come to the conclusion you are being mistreated by someone else use it as an opportunity to set a new boundary or to readjust an old one.

Don’t: Be hesitant to verbally define your boundaries

It’s important to let others know your expectations. Don’t leave it to the other person to guess when he has crossed a boundary. Let him know that he has violated a boundary and what the consequence will be in the future.

Do: Get to know yourself

We can’t set useful boundaries if we don’t understand our physical and emotional expectations, wants and needs. Having a genuine understanding of ourselves is the cornerstone for setting boundaries.

Don’t: Set boundaries that are too rigid or too relaxed

Limits that are too strict can negatively impact our relationships by shutting people out, while boundaries that are too relaxed erode our self-esteem and self-respect, and cause us to feel resentment and guilt. Healthy relationships are built upon both individuals having balanced boundaries.

Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, whose practice focuses on psychological issues affecting individuals, couples, and families. She is affiliated with Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center.