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The Truth About Boundaries

Catherine Cabrera is the founder of Inner Strength Counseling & Coaching, providing therapy and coaching services to help women build healthier relationships with themselves and others. She is also an author, known for her work in "My Mess is My Message II" and "Focus on the Magic", two publications focused on rebuilding yourself after hardships.

 
Executive Contributor Catherine Cabrera

It seems the concept of boundaries in mental health has become more widely talked about over recent years, but there are also many sources that fail to acknowledge the truth behind the impact of boundaries. I’m here to set the record straight and highlight both the positive and potential negative consequences of setting boundaries.


Two guys having a conversation.

The basics

Boundaries, in the context of mental health, are essentially the limits that determine what you are personally willing to accept or tolerate and what you are not. There are many types of boundaries that we all have, whether we’re aware of them or not: physical, emotional, sexual, financial, material, spiritual/religious, and time, to name a few.


Boundaries can be overt or covert depending on a person’s level of awareness or how they are communicated. For example, shifting away from someone who is standing closer to you than you are comfortable could fall into either category, while saying, “Would you mind taking a step back? I’m feeling uncomfortable,” is an example of a clearly stated boundary. With that said, there is a large percentage of people who struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries for a variety of reasons. Some of these individuals self-identify as people-pleasers, perfectionists, and those who have or are currently experiencing toxic relationships or family dynamics. Granted, this doesn’t mean every person who struggles with boundaries has to fall into one of these, so how would you know if you have weak boundaries?


Common signs you have weak boundaries

While there are a variety of context-specific indications, there are also several common signs you may have weak boundaries:


Struggling to say no

The struggle to say ‘no’ is often the primary challenge for people with weak boundaries. Saying no to people, opportunities, or requests can leave you feeling vulnerable to criticism and disappointment from others.


Abandoning your needs for someone else’s

People with weak boundaries will often sacrifice their personal needs for the sake of others', even if it means taking on too many tasks and running themselves into the ground trying to get everything done. Sometimes, people don’t even realize they do it because it’s so ingrained in their self-perception, which we’ll get to in a minute. This occurs frequently in personal relationships and in the workplace, possibly due to fear of the repercussions of saying no.


Feeling resentful toward others

Think about it: you struggle to say no, so you’re doing everything for everyone but yourself… you’re likely to feel resentment or anger toward others because you’re stretched in a thousand different directions and burnt out. This tends to occur after longer durations of abandoning personal needs for the purpose of providing for other people.


Passive-aggressive behavior

With the resentment and anger I just mentioned, can come passive-aggressive behavior or commentary. In the words of my mother when I was growing up, this can show up as having an attitude, being snooty, or accepting their request with an edge of annoyance. It can also come through in how you feel following through on the request, like ruminating on the fact that they asked you in the first place or your lack of time to do the things you’d prefer to be doing.


Feeling taken advantage of or used

Many people who have weak boundaries feel taken advantage of or used in their relationships. This is not to say that every person in their life is trying to use them; however, when others know you’re likely to say yes and get the task done, they’re more likely to come around again – it’s conditioning at its finest! Just like it is for you to keep doing it because it means they have a positive perception of you. I will also note, people who have weak boundaries can also run into the challenge of being more susceptible to ‘takers’, or people who do wish to take advantage or use them, which highlights the importance of boundaries as a form of self-preservation.


Others’ opinions & needs define your life and decisions

You may have noticed the trend that people with weak boundaries tend to fall into this cycle because they worry about how others perceive them. They want to be liked and be of service, at least in part because being positively perceived by others influences how they perceive themselves. As a very simplistic example, it can be similar to: “if they like me, then I must be a good friend!” vs “I said no and they were disappointed, so I must be a bad friend for saying no”. This tendency leaves you vulnerable to the constant and natural fluctuation of how others behave and feel toward you.


Potential consequences


Disappointing others

Setting and enforcing boundaries does run you the risk of disappointing people – I’d even jump to say that you will disappoint people, but those are often the people who benefitted from you not having them. People who genuinely care about you will adjust and honor your boundaries with time.


Pushback

As I said, people who have benefitted from your lack of boundaries will provide some pushback because the boundary you are creating and enforcing doesn’t serve them. This can come from a lack of understanding, which can be overcome through clear and consistent communication, but this is when people will often resonate with this fact: sometimes when boundaries are established, people will show their true colors in response to it.


Personal discomfort & uncertainty

Let’s be real, it’s incredibly uncomfortable disappointing people. It can lead to feelings of guilt, questioning if you made the right choice, or if you’re being unreasonable. Sometimes it can be helpful to reflect and decide if your boundaries are unreasonable; however, if it comes down to protecting your peace and you’re questioning only because someone doesn’t like it, it may be an indication to stick to your boundary.


Losing connections

With the concepts mentioned, it’s common for people to lose connections because of the changes made. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it can be painful to experience – many clients have said it’s a lonely process learning how to honor yourself, and this is one of the reasons. A lack of boundaries will have you tolerating and participating in things that may not align with your authentic self, so when you start to honor who you really are, you’re likely to lose some people who don’t align with you.


Potential benefits

Alignment with Your Values One of the most impactful aspects of setting boundaries is it allows you to make decisions based on your personal values, rather than based on what you think others want you to do. Clients have described it as gaining a sense of freedom and connection with themselves because they’re moving throughout their lives in a way that honors their values and priorities.


Decreased feelings of resentment

When you’re making decisions based on your own values and honor your limitations and needs, there’s a lot less room for resenting the people you care about. You know that you can say no without fear of consequence, making it easier to make your decisions based on your energy level, capability, and other obligations you have.


More authentic & supportive relationships

Being surrounded by people who support you and your mental health allows you to focus on your needs first, resulting in showing up more authentically in your relationships. You don’t feel pressured to say yes to everything because they’ll be supportive either way, and they value your presence in their lives regardless of what you can do for them at any given time.


Increased confidence & self-compassion

Having the ability to make decisions based on your needs and values, decreased feelings of resentment and anger toward others, and building authentic relationships is part of the foundation of gaining confidence in yourself and valuing yourself as a human being, rather than how you serve others. It also encourages you to be honest with yourself about what you need and are capable of at a given time, helping foster a healthy relationship with yourself.


Internal peace

When you’re in alignment with your values and needs, communicate them clearly, and have supportive people in your corner, it helps create the internal peace you’ve been searching for through people-pleasing tendencies. It can be an uncomfortable process, but the delayed gratification of learning how to honor yourself is far more valuable than the internal chaos you’ve subjected yourself to for the facade of peace.


Conclusion

Boundaries are incredibly important in maintaining and fostering your personal needs and internal peace. One of the sayings I find myself using in sessions with therapy and coaching clients is “you’re ‘keeping the peace’ externally, but replacing it with internal chaos at the cost of your own sense of peace”. However, that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible habit to break! With patience, practice, and self-compassion, you can show up in your relationships authentically and communicate and meet your needs, while maintaining your internal peace!


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Read more from Catherine

 

Catherine Cabrera, Therapist & Intuitive Anxiety and Self-Love Coach

Catherine Cabrera is passionate about helping women build confidence and loving relationships with themselves and others. Cabrera has lived experience with mental health challenges and trauma that resulted in people-pleasing, perfectionism, and debilitating anxiety; however, through her recovery process, she has dedicated her time as a therapist and coach to help others accomplish the very thing she sought after: inner peace.

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