Most people know the story of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, and often praise the book as it deals with sharing and selflessness. The story covers a tree that is constantly providing for a little boy throughout his life, from small things like giving him leaves to make a crown, to inviting him to cut down the tree to make a boat. The tree continuously gives to the boy, even when there’s nothing left of her. While this can be a sweet story from the lens of sharing and selflessness, it also tells of the dangers of lacking boundaries. There is nothing left of the tree besides a stump, which the boy, now an elderly man, sits.
We can give and give until there’s nothing left of us, stating that it’s because we love others and only want to be of service. However, that’s not a sustainable and healthy way of living. When we give so much of ourselves, there’s barely anything left of us to continue giving at later points in time. It’s an exhaustive way of living.
So, why am I telling you about a book written for preschoolers?
Because it demonstrates the need for effective boundaries today.
Before we delve into the definition of boundaries, let’s examine whether you may be needing effective boundaries.
Do you often say yes to others when you would like to say no?
Do you spread yourself thin with responsibilities that your health and well-being start to suffer?
Do you experience anger, self-blame, and burnout as you struggle with having your needs met and respected?
If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you may be in need of establishing effective boundaries.
So, what are boundaries?
Boundaries are the guidelines in which we tell others and ourselves how we would like to be treated. They can involve our holistic well-being, our personal space, our values and beliefs, work responsibilities, our time and energy, just to name a few. Boundaries demonstrate respect for ourselves and others. They are important because they protect our energy and prevent burnout and exhaustion. Without effective boundaries, we are open to people who will take advantage, manipulate, and coerce us. Upholding boundaries in our relationships demonstrates what behaviors we expect from others without controlling them. It allows for respect and understanding that we are more than the role we fulfill in that relationship and setting.
Some examples of boundaries include:
- Saying no to someone because you don’t want to engage in an uncomfortable activity.
- Suggesting a different time to talk about a certain topic when both people have calmed down enough to speak respectfully to one another.
- Turning down overtime at work when you’ve been feeling overworked.
- Putting your private and personal items in a locked drawer in your bedroom.
- Setting up a cut-off time for answering messages from work.
- These boundaries may be difficult to enforce when we are conditioned to think it’s selfish.
What is selfishness?
Selfishness is described as the prioritization of one’s life and pleasure above all others’ needs and considerations. Someone is selfish when they consistently act in their own interests across every situation and regardless of the impact to others. While boundaries do consist of prioritizing ourselves and our needs, we do not go to the extent of disregarding others. Additionally, boundaries are different in rigidity and consideration than selfishness. You can alter the boundaries to best fit the situation, including making them more flexible if the considerations of the situation need to be prioritized more. There is nothing inherently selfish about wanting to be comfortable, safe, and alive. Boundaries enable this possibility.
It’s understandable to feel selfish when setting boundaries due to the cultural importance of selflessness. We care about others and want to avoid disrupting harmony with all of our relationships. It may feel like you’re betraying the trust and commitment that others have placed on you or create an awkward situation where letting people down is a possibility. While these are all important to be aware of, it is healthy to attend to yourself when necessary. Generosity and compassion are fantastic qualities to cultivate in ourselves, but any situation requires balance to be healthy. Again, boundaries allow for balance to be cultivated.
There are a few considerations to be mindful of when setting boundaries.
- Keep in mind that setting boundaries depends on the uniqueness of the person, situation, and setting. There will need to be a balance of rigidity and flexibility based on what that context needs. For some contexts there may need to be very rigid boundaries, and others may need more flexible boundaries. It is important to reflect and reassess your boundaries periodically, to ensure it fits the context.
- There might also be a surprise reaction in some settings if those people have never had boundaries in that setting before. Beware of those who may attempt to manipulate you to feel guilty about setting those boundaries. Embrace those that see the boundary setting as an opportunity to understand more of you and the collective responsibility you hold.
- We want to use empathy and sensitivity when communicating our boundaries. Be cautious to avoid using aggression in boundary setting. Some people have the misconception that setting boundaries involves getting into arguments and demonstrating intimidating behaviors to be firm when it is the practice of allowing only respectful interactions in that context.
It is not an easy process to set effective boundaries when dealing with these considerations; however, it becomes easier when we recognize our worth and the respect we deserve. Boundaries are not going to keep other people happy, but they will protect your well-being. Think of setting boundaries more as strengthening our relationships with others instead of building walls to keep others out.
So now that we’ve covered the intricacies of working with boundaries, how do we begin to set them?
- Check-in with your body using a body scan. Our bodies are very intuitive with informing us how feel emotionally and somatically about a person, situation, or setting.
- Does spending time in this setting, situation, or with this person drain you or fill you with energy?
- What emotions do you experience when in these contexts?
- Practice being in the present using mindfulness exercises. This allows your body to connect with your mind.
- Breathing exercises and meditations are good examples of mindfulness.
- Acknowledge your needs and attend to them. Assess your rights and determine which ones are not being respected.
- What does your body need at the moment? Does it need space? Food? Rest?
- Do you feel that you can say no without feeling guilty? Do you feel that you are treated with respect? Do you feel that you are allowed to not meet the unreasonable expectations of yourself created by others?
- Communicate your needs clearly in the form of a boundary.
- “I felt (emotion) when (action that was performed). Moving forward, I need (replacement action).” This is a good template to use when communicating your needs. Be cautious of placing blame, focus completely on the action and not on the person who acted.
- Assertive language is nonnegotiable and prevents miscommunication.
- Remember that “no” is a complete sentence without providing an explanation.
- Reach out for support, if needed.
- Delegate responsibilities if we are overwhelmed with what we’ve taken on.
- Seek out therapy if the burnout and mental exhaustion is overwhelming to handle or if you’re experiencing difficulties with setting or asserting boundaries.
- Rely on your support system to discuss the impact of the burden of responsibility.
One last thought is that everyone is deserving of respect and understanding of their personal space and tolerance. Including you.
Chesak, J. (2018, December 10). The no BS guide to protecting your emotional space. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/set-boundaries
Domelle, A. (2019, January 10). How to set boundaries in relationships without feeling selfish. Medium. https://medium.com/thrive-global/how-to-set-boundaries-in-relationships-without-feeling-selfish-c95e26d8b3ed
The Keely Group. (n.d.). Is setting boundaries selfish? Or is it healthy? The Keely Group Online Therapy. https://www.onlinetherapynyc.com/blog/is-setting-boundaries-selfish-or-is-it-healthy
Mort, S. (2021, May 16). Are boundaries selfish? The answer is more complicated than you think. Dr Soph. https://drsoph.com/blog/are-boundaries-selfish-or-controlling