Personal Empowerment: Recognizing, Defining, and Respecting Boundaries

Ultimately, people have power only over one thing: the execution of their free will.

I’ve been posting a series of articles on ways people can empower themselves in their relationships, especially with those of deficient or disordered character. These tools of empowerment were first highlighted in my book In Sheep’s Clothing. Some of the tools we have already discussed include keeping communication straightforward, open, and direct; never excusing abusive or inappropriate behavior; never second-guessing someone’s motivations; being aware of personality traits you have that others can take advantage of; and becoming a better judge of the character of persons with whom you are involved:

In the last post, we discussed the importance of setting limits, both limits on the kinds of behaviors you will tolerate as well as limits on the kinds of things you are willing to do. An important companion empowerment tool to setting limits is recognizing, defining, and respecting boundaries.

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At heart, boundaries are all about personal safety and well-being. But before a person can set a reasonable boundary, they have to recognize just what a boundary is and where some natural boundaries need to be drawn. Some people are not very clear in their own minds just where they end and another person begins. They don’t have a good sense for what’s “their stuff” as opposed to “someone else’s stuff.” Such people often take on an inordinate sense of responsibility for another’s behavior. Similarly, such individuals have a poor sense of where their personal power ends.

Ultimately, people have power over only one thing: the execution of their free will. Only you can will your muscles to move. You have the power of your own action. Despite a common belief among persons who have learned how to depress themselves, you don’t have power over outcomes. And you don’t have power over other people’s behavior, places, things, and situations. You have power over the decisions you make in response to those things, however, and it is your responsibility to exercise that power in your best interest. Other people don’t have power over you, either. They don’t “make” you angry (even though many of us talk this way frequently), or “drive” you to do anything. They present you with challenges, and you make a decision about how to respond. And if you’re of the conviction that when you do or say something you think is right it should necessarily lead to an outcome you desire, you will only become angry, feel helpless and hopeless, and eventually become depressed.

The empowerment tools we’ve been talking about don’t exist in a vacuum. For a person really to empower themselves in their lives and relationships, you must be aware of how these tools all fit and work together. A person who respects boundaries, sets limits, won’t excuse inappropriate conduct, keeps communication direct, etc. makes his or her needs known and makes decisions about how to respond to actions and situations that threaten those needs. All this can be done without hostility, blaming, resentment, or undue fanfare. It’s simply a matter of taking care of oneself and not feeling responsible for anything or anyone else.

In my book I talk about the gross overuse of the term “co-dependence” and its egregious misuse when describing relationships in which one party is a clear manipulator and abuser and the other party is the proverbial doormat. In such relationships, one person alone is “dependent,” often emotionally, financially, and spiritually. Taking responsibility for setting one’s own limits and boundaries is the key to overcoming dependence and becoming an independently functioning, self-efficacious person. When we stop “needing” so much, we’re freer to place restrictions on the lengths we’re willing to go and the kinds of behaviors we’ll put up with. That enables us to seek and maintain relationships that have the potential to be mutually supportive, deep, and lasting.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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