The Who, What, When and Where of Setting Boundaries

Dr T Ayodele Ajayi explains the importance of setting boundaries in relationships and the positive difference doing so can make.

Establishing clear boundaries is essential for fostering and sustaining healthy marital and platonic relationships. However, navigating the nuances influenced by Black and church cultures can be complex. Failure to set appropriate boundaries can result in strained relationships, resentment, bullying, various forms of abuse, and detrimental mental health consequences. So, what constitutes healthy boundaries, and how can they be effectively established and maintained?

Healthy Boundaries: What and Where
Boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves and communicate to others. They involve clearly, concisely and calmly defining the rules within our relationships, encompassing both our expectations and requests from others, as well as what we will or will not tolerate. Boundaries provide a structured framework for relationships, fostering consistency, reliability and predictability. They contribute to our physical and psychological well-being, creating feelings of safety, health and comfort. The establishment of boundaries is influenced by our values, priorities and purpose.

Which of us enjoys not being liked by others? Innate within each of us is a desire to be amiable. For some, setting boundaries can be relatively more challenging, especially when faced with the desire for approval from others. Those raised without clear boundary-setting role models – often from cultures or backgrounds where asserting oneself is discouraged – may struggle to define their boundaries. Traditional beliefs, such as unquestionable spiritual authority or the unquestioned deference to elders, can further hinder boundary setting. A compromised sense of self-worth can lead individuals to prioritise others’ needs over their own. Lacking the skills or confidence to set and maintain boundaries can be another deterrent to healthy boundary setting.

Each time our boundaries are violated, we are faced with a choice: Do I want to tolerate potential conflict by defending my boundaries, or do I want to feel resentful every time I let someone cross them?

Boundaries: Red Flags
Several indicators suggest a lack of healthy boundaries. These include difficulty in decision-making; guilt associated with asserting oneself’ frequent involvement in tumultuous relationships; oversharing; intimacy avoidance; feelings of resentment; and challenges with assertiveness. Additional signs encompass fear of rejection; loss of personal identity; people-pleasing tendencies; and chronic emotional and physical exhaustion from overexertion for others.

Various types of boundaries apply to different relationships, including physical, emotional, sexual, work-related, ministry, financial and digital boundaries.

Ten Tips for Establishing Boundaries:

  1. Resolve own boundary myths and hang-ups: There is nothing unchristian about putting healthy boundaries in our relationships. They can in fact support unity.Despite being the Saviour of humanity, even Jesus had boundaries. The money exchangers were not allowed to get away with their transactions in the temple!
  • Take responsibility: Be aware of your responsibility to others in helping to set boundaries. Children learn the best by modelling adults, hence parents should demonstrate to children how and when to draw lines in their relationships. Sadly, in a world teeming with predators, the onus is more imperative. The same responsibility goes for leaders of organisations in setting boundaries that becomes culture and standard. The NHS, for instance, operates a tough zero tolerance on violence against staff because this is a top-down boundary-setting initiative.
  1. Clarity and identification of boundaries: Clearly identify where you wish to draw the line. If you don’t know where your boundaries are, don’t expect others to. Following identification, define your boundaries and be prepared to articulate them.
  2. Decide on consequences of violation: There will be no point having boundaries that we do not enforce. Consider potential consequences if boundaries are breached and plan your response.
  1. Seek professional help: Sometimes the inability to maintain boundaries can be telling of deeper psychological issues – usually unaddressed childhood trauma. This may require closer scrutiny through therapy.
  2. Plan for consistency: Maintain consistency in enforcing boundaries, reminding others when they are violated, and avoiding rewarding boundary-crossing behaviour. Consistent response is crucial to embedding. As a rule, I religiously stick to starting times at our Tripart Care Well-Being meetings. This is to articulate our boundaries and create psychological safety for old and fresh attendees. Over time you get regarded for your boundaries.
  3. Communicate openly: Discuss your boundaries calmly with others, allowing room for questions and reactions.
  4. Negotiate when necessary: Be willing to negotiate while prioritising your core needs.
  5. Manage emotions: If discussions become overwhelming, take a break and revisit the conversation later.
  6. Periodically review boundaries: Regularly assess your boundaries and adjust as needed, providing feedback when appropriate.

Dr T Ayodele Ajayi MBChB FRCPsych is a consultant psychiatrist, founder and convenor of the Tripart Care Emotional Wellbeing Hub and has a YouTube channel called Tripart Care.

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