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It sounds obvious, but most people are really good at setting strong boundaries with the people they don’t like. You can easily define the lines that aren’t to be crossed and it’s a quick and easy evaluation for most people. But what about when you need to set clear boundaries with people that you genuinely love or care about? This is much harder and often requires a lot more work. Here I talk about the deep-rooted reasons why you feel apprehensive about setting your boundaries and the rewards you’ll reap from finding your strength once you’ve put them in place.

Families, friends and partners are great examples of how this all works. People that you like, respect and love need to know your personal limits, what you’re willing and not willing to settle for, but it takes different energy to do this in a way that won’t hurt their feelings. It can become difficult and leave us feeling confused and unhappy.

Why on earth do we feel this way? It might come as a revelation to some, but in our society, women have been conditioned to have the auto-response of ‘yes’- to accept the things that are expected of them and to serve others as our ‘duty’. Our boundaries have never been fully respected – a result of embedded historical patriarchal and racial oppression – a system that is designed to keep the women in their place and be submissive. This is especially true for non-white women who are the most challenged who lack the privileged societal structure gifted to white women.

But how can we move past this? The next time you’re in a situation where you’re being asked to do something you’re not happy with, or you’re being made physically or mentally uncomfortable, take a moment to observe the feelings and emotions that arise the moment you feel you need to assert a boundary. How does it make you feel? How guilty or scared do you feel to say no or to stand up for yourself? I want you, in that moment, to understand that any feelings of discomfort, shame or awkwardness are a direct result of this conditioning and have nothing to do with your ethics, your morality or your ability to be a wife/friend/sister. We have built our beliefs around the premise that our safety, security, wellbeing and futures are reliant on keeping others happy; to serve above all else. When we challenge this, we actually bring on a state of fight or flight – a physical, high alert state that our safety and wellbeing is in danger. Our natural response is to throw water on the fire that is our danger. We roll over, accept the terms and life carries on. But we’re not happy or fulfilled as a result. This leads to bitterness and resentment and over time, a diminished sense of self.

So, we know that setting these boundaries is imperative to happy and healthy relationships. We can view the negative feelings objectively now we know why they exist and recognise where they come from. Now we have this knowledge, the next stage is to practice enforcing those boundaries. It takes time, but as you get better at it, especially with the people that you love, you will start to see that there is a silver lining!

The silver lining

Newsflash! Setting clear boundaries that are fully respected will result in a higher level of emotional intimacy in your relationships. By presenting your true self to people and expressing what you need, want or don’t tolerate, you open the door to a relationship that is more equal, free and enriching for both sides. Why? It’s all down to trust. Trusting someone to respect your boundaries and having them respected in return build big trust factors. Taking away the trust leads to the decomposition of the relationship.

So you’ve found the courage to set a boundary with someone, what happens next? You’ll most likely find that after your initial discomfort has dissipated, you feel empowered and actually very happy with yourself. It wasn’t that hard, right? But what about the other person? It can go one of two ways – you will find that the relationship either ends because you’re no longer willing to put up with someone not accepting your terms – you walk away. Or your boundaries are respected, your voice is heard and you gain a deeper, more intimate understanding of each other as a result.

My key message here? Life is too short to waste time and energy on people who can’t or won’t respect your boundaries. Make them clear and explain why you need them in place. It’s difficult, especially if you need to do this with people you are close to, but try practising them and feel the pride from asserting yourself. Make yourself aware of the conditioning you’ve been subjected to, be strong, be brave, take action and you will reap the rewards in the end.