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Without properly establishing and maintaining boundaries with other people, we can leave ourselves susceptible to a number of unwanted situations and experiences. We can become the employee whose boss calls with a needless request at 11 p.m. on a Friday, or the husband who is uncomfortable around his wife’s male friends. Boundaries are what say, upfront, what we do and don’t agree to in a relationship – and they’re an important part of maintaining a healthy system of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Most importantly, boundaries can help to guard us from others’ potentially harmful encroachment and maintain our sense of autonomy and self in many situations.
I’ve witnessed many times, in both my own relationships and others’, what can happen when we don’t set necessary boundaries when we should. Over time, issues can worsen to the point of permanent destruction – and the longer we wait to speak up and say that something does not sit right with us, the harder it becomes. Whether it’s a co-worker whom you feel takes advantage of you or an ex-boyfriend who won’t accept that your relationship has changed, don’t be afraid to set boundaries. That person will understand your attempts to salvage or improve a relationship and yourself – and if they don’t, then they’re not someone you want in your life. Really.
Be honest with yourself. We all want to be seen as cool and capable and likeable; we fear that saying no will make us appear the opposite. But if something’s really not okay with you, it’s better to end it as soon as possible.
Be consistent. If you say that something’s not okay but then you continue to allow it, you are giving mixed signals – and essentially telling that other person that what you say does not carry much weight. If a client calls on a Sunday with a non-emergency and you’ve already told her that you don’t work on Sundays, let it go to voicemail – and when you return the call the following morning, don’t apologize for being unavailable when you already said you wouldn’t be.
Seek support. If you’re not used to setting and maintaining boundaries, it can seem like a daunting task – but you don’t have to undertake it alone. Counselors, books, support groups and other resources are there to lean on when you feel like you may cave.
Start small. Like any other skill, setting boundaries can take some time and practice to master. Give yourself room to grow by starting small. Pick one situation with one person that you’d like to change, and start there. You’ll learn as you go and get better and eventually find yourself on a path to a happier, healthier and calmer life.
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