We’ve all likely had a friend who leans on us a bit too hard for support, and ordinarily, you don’t mind, because you want to be there for them. However, they may have started asking more of you, and you’ve found yourself giving more of your time and energy to deal with their problems – to manage their life. You want to continue to be supportive, but they keep on making huge withdrawals from your emotional bank account.
You need to set boundaries, but at the same time, you don’t want to abandon them. Setting boundaries is not only healthy, but a necessity. They are an essential part of everyday life to ensure you feel safe and comfortable in these relationships and prevent conflict, burn-out or disrespect. Additionally, if we have no boundaries or allow those you do have to be violated consistently – as can be the case in narcissistic abuse – you become compromised. It sets a precedent that others might look on as an opportunity to take advantage of, and in the longer-term can lead to the loss of identity.
Types of Boundaries
Boundaries typically relate to three areas of life:
Material: These relate to our possessions such as our car, money, clothes and food, etc.
Physical: These relate to our personal space, privacy and body.
Emotional: These relate to our emotional needs and the situations in which they might be compromised.
Each of these boundary types can be divided into two sub-sections; personal and interpersonal. Personal boundaries are those we use to police our own behaviors. It stops us from over-sharing sensitive details, and also from forming addictive habit patterns. Inter-personal boundaries, on the other hand, relate to the nature of our relations with our friends, family, colleagues and also the general public.
Similarly to the areas of life, boundaries can be established according to three scales of measurement:
Healthy: This is the ideal place to be, maintaining a strong but fair set of values that remain consistent over time. That means sharing personal information only when appropriate and not forcing other into acts that might compromise their boundaries.
Rigid: Someone with rigid boundaries might have a high self-regard, and usually not be willing to compromise, even when it’s in their best interest to do so. They can be prone to displaying an ‘island’ mindset, making it difficult for them to accept help.
Porous: Possibly the most dangerous level of boundary enforcement, someone operating at this level will over-share, have a hard time turning down requests, become emotionally entangled in others business and leave themselves wide open to potential abuse.
What Makes Setting Boundaries Harder?
Low Self-Esteem and Co-Dependency
Both of these traits often go hand in hand and usually mean you lack trust in your own decisions and look for validation in others. Whilst trying to set a boundary, you may feel like it might upset the other person or doubt if it’s really even necessary. Someone else’s opinion and well-being will come before your own, so you will avoid setting boundaries to please others.
Social Pressure and Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
FOMO has become normalised with the rise of social media and everyone sharing their every move. This can lead to a constant need of inclusion and involvement within your social group to avoid “missing out” on experiences that are probably not as significant as you think. The expectation of being available at all times is also becoming increasingly common. You can now contact almost anyone with the touch of a screen in a split second, but this does not mean you have to, even if you have the time to do so.
Setting boundaries can be extremely difficult if you are constantly seeking perfection in all aspects of your life. You may feel shame or guilt if you are presented with a task that you are unable to do at that moment in time and may start to perceive this as a failure. Imposing such unrealistic standards causes unnecessary pressure and the inability to say no to yourself, as well as others. Understand that it may not be in your capacity to do everything you are asked of, and that it’s fine to take a break and step back when you feel overwhelmed.
How to Set Boundaries
Discerning the Reason for Why It’s You
First, you need to understand why they’ve chosen you to ask for support. What is it that you offer to them? It may be that they consciously recognise you as someone that has very loose boundaries and is very giving of their time. However, it could be that you have specific qualities that make you the best person to seek support from. Maybe you know their situation better than anyone else? You are compassionate and empathetic and therefore can offer them better advice.
Next, you need to understand exactly what’s being asked of you and why. Are you being sought out for validation of their thoughts and opinions? Are they looking for direct advice? Do they want you to make all their decisions for them? Are they here simply to project onto you with no motivation to ever change or take responsibility for their life?
These are some tough questions, but you need to get clear on exactly what the dynamic is between the both of you, so you can properly set boundaries in a way that makes clear the unevenness of your current exchange, but that does so in the kindest possible way.
Setting the First Boundary
When it reaches the point where you’re ready to set boundaries for the first time, you need to be delicate. Tread lightly and know that you’re holding someone’s feelings in your hands here. Allow them the space to express themselves as they normally would, and make sure they feel listened to and fully understood before you come in with what you want to share.
The Roleplay of Setting Boundaries
You want to make sure that whatever you do, you don’t say or do anything that would trigger them emotionally (this is going to vary on a person-to-person basis). Reflect back to them what they’re feeling and then ask if they’d mind if you surfaced something about your dynamic, as you’ve wanted to share something for some time and haven’t known how.
This request and telegraphing of what you want to share creates an expectation that the floor is now yours. You can remind them how much they mean to you as a friend, and also mention how humbled you are that they’ve chosen you as their confidante to help them with their problem. The fact that they trust you really means a lot (you can phrase this part however makes the most sense for your friendship). However lately, you’ve found it hard to remain as present as you have other responsibilities that are demanding of your energy. So you can’t continue to offer yourself in the way that you have been for so long. Phrasing it in this way makes them seem like less of a burden, and it being more circumstantial that you can’t offer yourself in the same anymore.
However, if it’s one of those friends that just won’t take a hint, you may have to become more assertive. Make a suggestion of where else they might turn to for advice, but reassure them that you are there for them. You can say, you’re not abandoning them but you just can’t allow whatever problem they have to dominate all of your interactions, as it just feels too heavy and dense for you to continue on like that.
This isn’t a prescription to solve everyone’s boundary issues and is intended to be a loose outline that will offer some insight as to how to navigate your own friendships. Be firm, of course, but act with grace and humility. Remain neutral in your assertions and let your stance speak for itself.