Do you struggle with setting boundaries? Is it hard for you to say no or assert yourself? Do you have trouble trusting people? Do you frequently feel mistreated or resentful? These can all be signs of boundary issues.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of boundaries. Boundaries serve as limits, telling others how we want to be treated and what were each responsible for. They create a separation between you and others so you can maintain your individuality and values.
However, it can be hard to know what constitutes healthy boundaries that sweet spot between boundaries that are too weak and boundaries that are too rigid.
When we talk about boundary problems, were usually referring to boundaries that are too weak boundaries that dont provide enough protection and separation.
Here are four signs that your boundaries are too weak:
- Youre frequently overscheduled, busy, and tired because you didnt set limits. You may be saying yes to things that you dont really want to do, that dont match your priorities or values, or that you simply dont have the time or money to do.
- You dont speak up when youre mistreated. Someone with healthy boundaries can recognize abuse, disrespect, manipulation, and other forms of being taken advantage of and they dont tolerate it. So, if you either dont recognize that youre being mistreated or you realize it, but you dont do anything about it, youre boundaries are too weak and youre not taking care of yourself.
- Youre afraid of rejection, criticism, disapproval, and conflict. Often, its fear that prevents us from setting boundaries. And fears of being rejected or criticized or of hurting other peoples feelings are common among those with weak boundaries. These fears make it hard for us to assert our needs, so, instead, we remain passive, we go along with what others want or need, trying to keep them happy in order to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
- You accept blame for things you didnt do or couldnt control. A boundary makes it clear that you are responsible for your own actions, thoughts, and feelings and not for what other people do. So, if you lack boundaries, youre prone to accept responsibilities that arent yours because you dont know where your responsibilities end and someone elses begins. For example, someone with weak boundaries might take responsibility for their teammates sloppy work or their spouses bad mood, and possibly even try to fix it.
On the other end of the boundary continuum, are overly rigid boundaries.
When we have rigid boundaries, we create too much space between ourselves and others. A rigid boundary is like a big, strong wall. It feels safe (walls are good protection), but it keeps everyone out, so we become isolated and disconnected.
Here are four signs that your boundaries may be too rigid:
- Youre quick to cut people out of your life. You dont believe in second chances. If someone hurts you, you dont want an apology or to work things out youre done!
- You have rigid rules about what youll do and when youll do them; you wont make exceptions or be flexible. For example, if your Great Aunt Mary is coming into town and wants to have dinner with you at a Mexican restaurant, but Mexican food gives you heartburn, you wont go.
- You tend to have surface-level relationships. You have trouble trusting people and are reluctant to share anything personal about yourself. This creates either relationships that dont get very deep or relationships that are lop-sided, where you serve as confidant or counselor to someone who talks excessively about themselves and their problems, but doesnt care to understand or know you.
- You take everything personally. You may have built rigid boundaries because youre highly sensitive to criticism or rejection. Taking things personally is painful, so, understandably, you would want to protect yourself by keeping people at a distance and not sharing too many of your thoughts or feelings.
Many people vacillate between boundaries that are too weak and too rigid. For example, you might have a pattern where you dont set enough boundaries, then you get hurt, and then you to over compensate with rigid boundaries for a while. You could also have weak boundaries with your family and rigid boundaries at work. Or it may feel like its a haphazard mix of the two. In any case, people who struggle with boundaries often have a combination of weak and rigid boundaries but they cant find the middle ground.
As I said, healthy boundaries fall in between weak and rigid boundaries. They are assertive and clearly state what you need, and this protects you from being mistreated or from over committing yourself. Healthy boundaries are also flexible, meaning that you can loosen them up when its safe to do so. This allows you to form meaningful relationships where you feel more deeply understood, accepted, and appreciated.
Yes, its hard to know when its safe to loosen up your boundaries or when its in your own best interest to tighten them up, especially if you have a history of trauma or troubled relationships. However, when you recognize that your boundaries are either weak or rigid, try to move them a tiny bit in the other direction. When you try to make a huge change in your boundaries, youre more likely to end up at the other end of the continuum (going from weak to rigid or vice versa). Instead, just aim for a baby step. Small incremental changes are less risky and let you continually reassess for safety. By doing this repeatedly, you will learn to trust your judgment and youll gradually start setting healthier boundaries.
How to Figure Out What Boundaries You Need
Boundaries, Blaming, and Enabling
How to Set Boundaries with Kindness
Access Sharon’s Free Resource Library + Newsletter
2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash