Do you struggle to set boundaries? Well, youre not alone!
Mental health professionals and self-help gurus put a lot of emphasis on boundaries because theyre the foundation of healthy relationships and a strong sense of self-worth.
Boundaries serve two main functions:
- Boundaries tell others how you want to be treated (whats okay and whats not okay). Boundaries protect you from being mistreated.
- Boundaries create a healthy separation (physical and emotional) between you and others. Boundaries allow you to have your own personal space and privacy, your own feelings, thoughts, needs, and ideas. They allow you to be yourself rather than an extension of someone else or who someone else wants you to be.
If you didnt grow up with clear and consistent boundaries or expectations (this often happens in enmeshed, alcoholic, or otherwise dysfunctional families), they probably dont come naturally to you. You may feel guilty or unjustified in asking for what you want or need.
But you can untwist your negative beliefs about boundaries and learn to set them without feeling guilty. These five tips can help you get started.
Be clear about what you want.
Before you set a boundary, you need to get really specific about what you want and why its important. This will help you communicate your needs clearly and stay the course when it gets tough. When youre preparing to set a difficult boundary, you may find it helpful to write down exactly what you want and why. Some people find that writing a script and rehearsing what theyll say and do, helps reduce their anxiety.
Be direct and dont apologize for your needs.
When communicating your boundaries, its most effective to be direct and succinct. If you couch your boundary in excessive explanations, justifications, or apologies, you water down your message. Notice the difference between these two statements:
Hey, Ethan, Im sorry but it turns out that Im not going to be able to work for you next Saturday.
Hey, Ethan, Im really sorry, but I cant cover your shift on Saturday. I really want to, but, you know, my son has his last baseball game. I feel like I should be there for him. I know I told you I could work, but I forgot about the game. I hope youre not mad at me. I know I need to put things on my calendar. Im so forgetful.
The second example reinforces the notion that its wrong for you to say no. Instead, just keep it simple and remember that you have the right to ask for what you want/need you dont have to justify it with a good reason.
Expect resistance and dont let it deter you.
When you start setting boundaries, some people will respond poorly. This is common theyre usually the people who have been benefiting from your lack of boundaries, so they dont want you to change. Some people may just need time to adjust to your new behavior. While others will use anger to try to manipulate and coerce you away from setting boundaries.
One of the most common reasons for not setting boundaries is a fear of conflict. You dont want to upset or anger people, so you sacrifice your own needs and wants to keep the peace. Its tempting to return to passivity when others dont like your boundaries. However, even when your boundaries provoke anger or resistance, it doesnt mean you shouldnt set them. It means that you need to ask for help and take steps to keep yourself safe (such as not being alone with a person who is threatening, aggressive, or volatile). Sometimes it helps to remember that when people resist your boundaries, its confirmation that the boundaries are needed.
You arent responsible for how others react to your boundaries. You dont have to make them feel better or take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. You are only responsible for your own feelings and actions.
Setting boundaries is an on-going process.
If youre a parent, you know that you have to repeatedly set rules (a form of boundaries) and tell your kids what you expect from them. Setting boundaries with adults is the same. We need to continuously set boundaries; we cant just set a boundary and be done with it. You may need to set the same boundary repeatedly with the same person. And as your needs change, youll need to set different boundaries.
Boundaries are for your own wellbeing, not to control others.
Boundaries should never be an attempt to control or punish others. Theyre actually a form of self-care something you do for your own wellbeing (although others benefit as well). Boundaries protect you from being taken advantage of, overcommitting, overworking, feeling overwhelmed, and physical and emotional abuse or harm.
Of course, we all want people to respect our boundaries, but we have to accept that we cant make them. We should set boundaries as a statement of who we are and what we need. Your boundaries say, I matter. My feelings matter. My ideas matter. My health matters. My dreams matter. My needs matter. And if others wont treat you well, you have options. You can emotionally detach, physically distance yourself. or end the relationship. Boundaries are about doing whats right for you, not about forcing others to do what you want.
Setting boundaries is a skill that takes practice and I hope these five tips make setting boundaries a bit easier. If youre just beginning to set boundaries, you may feel guilty and perhaps even selfish or mean. This is because its new, not because youre doing something wrong. Your needs are valid and setting boundaries will get easier the more you do it!