Setting and sustaining boundaries is essential to our lives. “Boundaries give us a say in how our life goes,” according to Jan Black, author of Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life.
Without boundaries, we are an island with no sea wall, she said. “We are at the mercy of and must deal with whatever the ocean dumps on us.”
Boundaries create the rules for our relationships, according to Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW, a relationship expert and author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women.
She defined boundaries as “personal lines that distinguish you, your thoughts, feelings, physical self, needs and preferences from another person.”
Black defined boundaries as “a set of yes’s, no’s, maybe’s and not now’s we use as owners of our lives to keep ourselves safe and freely pursuing the path, people and activities that inspire and grow us.”
Boundaries are vital everywhere. Black gave the example of boundaries surrounding a performance. They include the date, time, place and price of tickets. They include a specific seat in a specific section and possibly a timed intermission. Some doors are open; others are off limits. If a person doesn’t follow these boundaries, there are consequences.
These types of boundaries give artists the opportunity to put on their best performance, Black said. Without them, the concert would be disappointing and even dangerous, she said. “The same is true of our lives. Our boundaries can put us in the best position to perform what is required to live and give from the center of who we are.”
Many of us make mistakes when building our boundaries. We might let others guilt us out of maintaining certain limits, forget that we can adjust our boundaries when circumstances change, apologize or overexplain our decisions or give up when setting boundaries becomes too tough, Black said.
We might set boundaries that are too weak, Hanks said. “It’s like setting up a fence that doesn’t have any end posts set firmly in the ground: anyone can push it over.” Or we might set boundaries that are too rigid — building a fence that has no gate and is so deep and high that no one can get in, she said.
Boundary setting is an acquired skill. It’s akin to learning to walk, talk or ride a bike, Black said. “Yes, there may be crashes and falls at first, but you’ll get the hang of it if you stick with it.”
Here are four suggestions for setting rock-solid boundaries.
1. Focus on your values.
“When we value something enough, we protect it,” Black said. “Our desire for that becomes stronger than our neediness to live by the opinions and preferences others have for us.”
Your values may include your priorities, a specific idea, dream or calling. For instance, when her health declined, Black decided to draw lines around how she rested, what she ate and who she allowed to educate her about her condition.
“My motivation to be healthy rearranged what I would and would not let into my life. The boundaries I have installed around my health have put me in the best possible position to heal, even thrive.”
2. Value yourself.
Black also stressed the importance of valuing yourself. If you struggle with valuing yourself, she suggested taking on the perspective of your loved one.
“When faced with a choice about whether or not something is in your best interest, ask yourself how you would hope your best friend or dear loved one would choose. Then do that for yourself.”
Over time, with more practice, setting healthy, protective boundaries will become more natural. “Boundaries show you treasure your life as your own best friend.”
3. Back up verbal requests with behavior.
When someone crosses your boundary, it’s important to follow through by taking action. Hanks gave the following example: Let’s say your friend has been complaining to you about her ex-husband for five years. You find it incredibly draining. When she starts complaining, you remind her about your boundary. If she continues complaining, and you’re on the phone, you say that you need to go, and hang up. If you’re speaking in person, you get up, and leave.
4. Be specific.
When someone has crossed your boundary, share a specific, detailed response. According to Hanks, rather than saying “You’re so controlling,” say: “When I gave my feedback in the meeting yesterday, it seemed like you quickly dismissed it without consideration. That hurt and I didn’t like it. Will you be aware of that next time? I’d like at least a few minutes to share my ideas with the team.”
Boundaries are key for your well-being and your relationships. In fact, they’re essential “if you want to live a life you love,” Black said.
When we take ourselves and our priorities seriously, others will, too, she said. “Boundaries show we are serious about living our lives in ways we believe are best for us. The people around us will adjust to them or leave. Bless them either way.”