The Importance of Setting Personal Boundaries

Article originally from Urban Monk

When do we say no, and when do we say yes? Is saying no a sign of selfishness or a sign of strength? Is saying yes a sign of weakness, or a sign of generosity and compassion?

A perplexing question for so many travelers – do we set down boundaries, and if so, how? Some say boundaries are essential, for we have to look after ourselves. They say it is a sign of strength to be able to politely disappoint someone, or to firmly tell an abusive man to back off.

But others will say boundaries are essentially selfish, the sign of a petty man, a small hearted woman. If someone is being hurtful as a result of his own sadness, is it not right to show a compassionate response instead of leaving him? How can we call ourselves a friend if we turn down a request from someone in need?

This will be a strange thing to say: what if both sides are right?

The Butterfly and the Chrysalis

The metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly holds a haunting allure – it appeals to something raw, something primal inside us: a promise of rebirth.

When the time comes, a caterpillar first protects itself from the world, wrapped inside a chrysalis. Protected inside, it grows and strengthens itself until the day it is ready to emerge as a new being, whole and strong. When that day comes, it discards the protective shell, for it no longer needs one.

Perhaps that is the lesson. There will be a time we need to set our boundaries, to give ourselves a safe space to cherish, strengthen and heal ourselves for the journey towards health and compassion. And there will come a day it stifles us, and we have to relax them, or drop them altogether.


For many of us, a journey of personal development starts with limitations and a desire to overcome them. For many, these limitations are weaknesses – emotional suffering and instability, fear, an overwhelming need for the approval of others, sensitivity, and so on. Others might have suffered from emotional or physical abuse. Yet others feel they don’t deserve anything good in life. I remember reading about a woman; her self-esteem was so low she slept on the floor – believing herself unworthy of her bed.

The results are the same – an inability to set a healthy boundary. A flower that is constantly trampled on, a baby that is neglected – how can they flourish?

Rudeness and Negativity

The first type of person we set up boundaries against is the critic, or worse, the abusive person. Some might have good intentions; many don’t. Others attack because of their own unhappiness; they criticize in an attempt to ease their own pain, to feel better about what they are.

Without an ability to put their comments in perspective, even the most well-intentioned critic will sap away at our self-esteem. And this goes doubly so for the overtly hurtful – their words stick in our hearts and minds, corroding our happiness and ability to function.

No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.
~ Eleanor Roosevelt

If you are a tall man, and your neighbor calls you a midget – you would simply laugh it off, for not a single cell in your being agrees with her.

What if she were to call you ugly, worthless, a worm – what then? How would you react? The degree of your reaction – whether it is aggression, anguish, defensiveness or simply withdrawal – reflects how much you secretly agree with her.

Heal those shames, remove all such self-judgement from your heart, and no longer will these words affect you. Only then can you drop your shell. When that day comes, a compassionate, mature response is not only possible, but it is the only choice we have.

Requests and Demands

The second category revolves around demands on your resources and time. There are countless factors to be considered here – it is impossible to give a blanket statement. Not all requests, for instance, are unfair and intrusive. Some might be tiring, unwanted, but you have an obligation to fulfill them; perhaps it is a demonstration of love. So all I can offer is a broad statement, one that is only meant to guide.

Generosity is an acknowledged virtue – but it is also unwise to give what we would need for ourselves. It is often unskilful to give when we would feel resentful, sick, or frustrated after we have done so.

Why is this so? We have confused genuine compassion with the masquerade. We have confused compassion born of strength with a weak imitation born of weakness. For many, giving does not come from generosity or selflessness – on the contrary, it comes from the utmost selfishness!

One gives, because he wants the other to like him, to accept him. Another gives, because she sees her time, her intrinsic worth as somehow less. And self-hatred is just another form of selfishness. So they continue giving, wearing a painted smile on their face – all the while thinking only of themselves, of how others see them.

Behind the Masquerade

When one gives from the mask, there is always the danger of anger and frustration. Selfishness always lurks behind the facade – one always fears the judgement of others, always wondering when they will get something in return.

I spent much of my younger years parading behind this masquerade – always giving, even when I didn’t want to. Always being taken advantage of; giving even when I was sick or tired; always afraid of disapproval. And when the criticism and abuse inevitably came, I crumbled.

Further, I was too afraid to ask for favors in return. No one displayed the same care I did. Little by little, the anger and frustration began to build. Anger when they did not reciprocate; frustration at never being able to say no. And one day it all came pouring out. Hatred at myself, hatred at the world – it was a painful time for me and those who loved me. It was a period I could have avoided if I had learnt one simple word – No.

Many people encourage such behavior in themselves. They see themselves as a noble martyr, perhaps a victim. There are times the distinction between compassion and disguised selfishness is hard to make.

Take, for instance, a mother, sacrificing herself daily for her children. Which one is she? Only she knows. Mimicking compassion is different from feeling it, and only she knows what she is feeling. Might she better serve her children by taking some time off to nourish herself, simply so she has more to give in the future?

What are Boundaries?

The logical progression, then – what exactly are boundaries?

This shield can come in many different forms, but at its core, a boundary simply involves saying No. No to giving something; no to behaving in a certain way; no to being treated in a way that will hurt your heart, your body, your totality.

Personal boundaries can come in all facets of life – physically, emotionally, and mentally. You protect your body; you protect yourself from fatigue and stress, you protect your time, money, and even privacy. You protect your right to a basic level of respect and courtesy.

The first step, then, is to recognize that we have our own needs and values. For many, even this can sound like a shock – that is how defenseless they have been.

Immediately after this, a second recognition is vital. Just as you have your limits – so do other people. They have their own needs, wants, and feelings; just as you would want them to respect your boundaries, so would you have to respect theirs. An intrusive, overdeveloped boundary can be worse than an underdeveloped one. I read a newspaper report once, of a man who was speeding and ran over a pedestrian. His response was callous; she shouldn’t have been in the way. This is the trap we have to avoid.

A good boundary respects all parties involved; clear and firm, but non-aggressive. And as you begin to shield and stand up for yourself, you will be surprised at how the world begins to treat you. It is one of the most empowering things we can ever do for ourselves.

Nourishing the Flower

Some might find it hard to see the value in nourishing yourself first, and yet this is a common truth – you cannot give what you do not have. Unless you have love, unless you have found your own peace – whatever actions you take, no matter how outwardly beautiful, will be subtly contaminated.

As Osho says – let your flower blossom, water it, love it; and naturally it will release a fragrance. There will come a time when we see the well-being of others as inextricable from our own. Then your very presence will be of connection, of happiness and joy.

The Dropping of the Shield

And when do we drop the shield? If you look closely, boundaries are essentially selfish – but they are a necessary first step. Barriers are there to stop us from getting overwhelmed, but like an armadillo – there is no way for us to connect with, touch, others on a deeper level. Some people throw up too many walls; their attempts at protection simply result in exile – isolation and loneliness.

As Lorne Ladner says in the beautiful Lost Art of Compassion, there will be times the boundaries drop naturally, beyond our control. Little glimpses of genuine love, altruistic compassion, give with us a taste of what is on the other side. A couple in the heat of romance will naturally feel that they would do anything for the other; parents sacrifice for their children, even the man on the street will drop his defenses when he sees someone in pain.

This feeling of genuine compassion is one of the most beautiful inner states one can feel – and this can get quickly addictive, leading us to drop our boundaries. But we cannot push past them too quickly – for we will simply fall back into our old, unhealthy, patterns.

Gently push past your boundaries, test them, when you feel the strength to – not the strength of a Tyson, but the strength that is born of having found your own peace, your own quiet power. Expand them, relax their grip, until the day you can drop them.

The End of Selfishness

And when that day comes, you might not even realize the simple fact – you simply don’t need it any more. This day came for me in a very strange manner. I share this story; not as a boast, but as the only way I could bolster my argument.

In Melbourne, there is a traffic law – cars cannot pull up next to a tram at a red light. A space is required for passengers to exit. A few weeks ago, during the Easter holidays, I was driving down the road, daydreaming as usual. I was not paying much attention to the traffic around me, and without knowing, I pulled up next to a tram at a red light.

The tram driver flew into a rage and rushed out, heaping abuse on me. I didn’t know why at first, but as he began writing down the license number of my car, I realized that I had made a mistake. I lowered the window to apologize.

It was a genuine apology; I had no intentions of trying to get out of the fine, but perhaps he took my motivations as such. He made a rude gesture with his finger and told me to have a happy Easter.

The light turned green, and I drove off. I was wondering how much the fine was going to be, I was thinking that he must have had a very bad day to react so strongly – when I suddenly realized that I carried no pain at his words and gestures. I was elated. This might be a small situation for many, but it was a tremendous milestone for me.

Cockiness and verbal abuse tied into my deepest wound – a feeling that I was unworthy of respect, insignificant, a worthless little worm. A year or two ago, I would have been tremendously upset, possibly furious. My thoughts would have been distorted, personalizing his words, taking them as a reflection of my value as a human being. He would have stuck with me for months. That was the time a solid boundary would have been required.

Now all I felt was understanding. There was nothing I felt I could have, should have done. But if it was required, a compassionate response would have come without thinking.

And with that, the protective cocoon fell apart. There was no fear, no hesitance. It was simply no longer needed. Team Team

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