March 24, 2023

For years, notifications from a close friend would cause Louise's* anxiety to spike.
Warning: This article includes details of abuse in relationships.
Louise would receive long messages from her friend whenever she felt overwhelmed, often telling Louise she felt "worthless".
"[I would] get them out of the blue and for so long, I would sit there [and think about how to respond]. They would make me feel so anxious," the 29-year-old says.
When she finally spoke to her psychologist, Louise learned she needed to practice setting boundaries. 
Because despite being caring and empathetic to her friend in response, Louise's words just "wouldn't sink in" and the messages continued, leaving her feeling overwhelmed.
"[So] the next time it happened, I said to my friend, 'I find these messages really upsetting and really triggering. It takes a lot of energy for me to respond empathetically'," Louise says.
And her friend's response?
"She came back to me a day later and she was like, 'Thank you so much … I'm so sorry that I upset you and I don't want to do it like this. I appreciate that you told me the truth'," Louise says.
Boundaries are like "guidelines" for your relationships — they demonstrate what you consider safe and acceptable behaviour and how you expect people to treat you. But setting boundaries takes practice.
"There's anxiety around saying 'no', anxiety around putting boundaries in place, [and] anxiety that an imagined bad thing could happen," says Sydney-based psychologist Elizabeth Neal.
And that usually relates back to our self-esteem.
"The intention is to function [in a way] to gain approval, to gain a relationship (or friendship) and to gain kindness," she says.
"But it could [also] be to disarm an intimidating or cold person."
Being overly accommodating might feel like it's strengthening your relationship, but over time it can become counterproductive.
"It sets a precedent for the relationship that in the end is only going to make that person feel [potentially] resentful," Ms Neal says.
"People start to feel used, although they're putting themselves in that position … [which can result in] lower self-esteem accompanied with increasing anxiety and a bit more of a flat mood."
Setting boundaries can be uncomfortable — especially if it's with a long-term partner or friend — but like Louise, the first step is to start sharing how you honestly feel, says Ms Neal.
"Be really clear about what you're willing to do and what makes you happy," she says.
"If we feel like we're being enslaved into agreeing to something by ourselves, negative feelings become a form of a defensiveness and if we express ourselves in a defensive way, it becomes confrontational."
It's still important to be polite when practising boundary-setting, especially if someone's going through a tough time, Ms Neal says.
"It's really about … coming from [a] place of compassion for yourself and for the other person."
Instead of carrying the emotional load for someone when you don't feel equipped to do so, it might be more helpful to suggest that they chat with a professional or share some helpful resources.
Hearing negative responses might feel awkward in the beginning or might make you second-guess your approach but that's where chatting with family and friends can help.
"Running it [past] someone you trust, who is not going to judge you, or [your] partner can be really helpful in figuring out, 'Is this OK or not?'" Ms Neal says.
"It [will feel like it's] against your programming but … as we develop assertiveness, it's in the willingness to tolerate a negative reaction that we develop our own sense of security, our own boundaries, and [confidence] that we'll be OK."
After spending most of her life giving her time to everyone, Louise says it's a positive new habit she's trying to learn.
"Setting a boundary [feels] so painful and so wrong and so against who I am … but it's so necessary to looking after yourself," she says.
If overextending has become second nature, how can you tell the difference between being a supportive friend or partner and going above and beyond?
Ms Neal says a good indication is by checking how you feel afterwards.
"If you've said 'yes' but secretly inside you're feeling annoyed, frustrated, or stressed about it then that's an indication," she says.
Boundaries cannot only help prevent burnout, but they are what makes a healthy relationship too.
"We know from research in couples therapy, and even friendships based on a 'quid pro quo' doesn't work, because you don't remember the nice thing when something bad happens," Ms Neal explains.
"Quid pro quo isn't built on trust, there's anxiety about the relationship and the relationship only seemed validated by actions that take place."
If you don't have any boundaries in place, it can also change the dynamic of your relationship and dampen the "chemistry".
Coercive control is often central to abusive relationships — and it can exist without the presence of other forms of abuse.
It wasn't just in Louise's friendships where she felt she was overextending.
Looking back on her first serious relationship, she also felt like she needed to "control everything and make sure the environment was always the best for them".
Part of the reason for that was she didn't always feel safe saying no to her ex-partner.
Putting boundaries in place is one thing, but feeling comfortable to say no in your relationships is just as important, Ms Neal says.
"There's a spectrum, from manipulation to coercion, and right at the end you've got coercive control where the person completely withdraws and emotionally cuts you off.
"If what you're doing doesn't feel right but you don't feel that you can say 'no', because you're frightened of the consequence, that's a red flag to become aware of."
It's important in these situations to seek out professional support, whether that's from your family or friends that you trust and feel safe with, or a counselling service.
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.
This is general information only. For personal advice, you should see a qualified practitioner.
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