Boundaries (What they are & how to set them)


One of the more popular counseling or mental health buzzwords when it comes to relationships is “boundary”. I hear people tell each other, “You don’t have good boundaries,” or “That’s not a healthy boundary,” but I hear very little between people in conversation about what a good boundary is or how to set them.

So, what is a boundary? Boundaries are limits or spaces between you and another person. Healthy boundaries give you ownership of your own person, the ability to decide what is ok for you and what isn’t, and the stick-to-it-iveness to dish up refusal to comply with violations.

Boundaries can be as “simple” as deciding that others don’t smoke inside your car or as complicated as deciding that just because your father in law is upset with your sister in law you don’t have to be upset with her too. Boundaries are simply limits to what is acceptable or tolerated in relationships.

The fact is that most of us make it well into adulthood without having a clue as to how to set boundaries in our various relationships. There are lots of reasons for that.

The way that we are reared as children, the relationship examples we have to model ourselves after, and lower than ideal self-esteem can create difficulties in setting boundaries.

It becomes more difficult to set them as you get older even though I often hear people say when they get older they’ll feel more comfortable drawing emotional lines and setting up clear “okays” and “not okays”. The truth is that no matter how old or wise we become it is still difficult to develop boundaries, and for some of us more difficult than it is for others.

Why is it hard to set a boundary?

  1. It isn’t necessarily natural to us to set boundaries. Most of us want to be accessible, helpful, kind, generous, and many other good things that we believe aren’t supported by our overuse of the word “no” in response to the needs of others. Sometimes we’re just natural (or made) people pleasers, so it goes against our grain to set them.
  2. Maybe we don’t really know exactly what we want or what is ok or isn’t ok with us. Maybe you’ve put your life setting on “default” and you’re just hoping it works itself out.
  3. You have trouble making the distinction between self-care and selfishness, which makes it harder for you to define your needs and set about seeing to them.
  4. You may also be afraid of losing something when setting a boundary with someone you care deeply about. The fear of losing their respect, love, or even material things a person gives you in a relationship when you set a boundary can feel overwhelming.
  5. You may be afraid that others will be angry with you. People often resist change and in relationships where a pattern has already been established resistance of your boundary setting is expected and intimidating.
  6. Boundary setting is hard work. It requires courage, stamina, and consistency to change a boundary. It doesn’t happen quickly and while you’re at it others will try to wear you down.

Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” He was on to something. One of the clear signs of boundary issues are feelings of guilt or resentment toward the people with whom we are in relationships. Those feelings are relationship-zappers; protecting relationships from those feelings requires good boundary monitoring and setting skills.

So, how do you set boundaries if you’re new to it?

  1. Determine and speak your limits. If you’re not sure of where you stand on things it can be especially difficult to set boundaries. Outline your emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical limits. Consider what is ok and what is uncomfortable for you.
  2. Know your feelings. Resentment and discomfort often follow boundary issues. You’re likely to experience resentment when you feel taken advantage of. When you experience these feelings within your relationships, ask yourself what about the interaction created them.
  3. Learn to be direct. Setting boundaries doesn’t always require direct language about what is acceptable or what isn’t when people communicate in the same way, but for someone that communicates differently than you do it may be necessary to be more direct. Learn to use “I statements” when discussing how you feel in order to prevent defensiveness in your listener.
  4. Know you have permission. Fear of responses to boundaries we set and enforce is a big issue with boundary setting. It may feel bad to set a boundary by saying that you’re not able to help a friend with a project (because you’re feeling resentful and drained) who you usually say yes to. You may think you’re being a “bad” friend. It is ok to take care of yourself! Give yourself permission to do so.
  5. Become self-aware. Self-awareness is used in steps 1 & 2 and it comes into play when looking at times you don’t speak or reinforce your boundaries. Figure out what changed or why you chose not to set or keep a boundary when you don’t. Check in with how you’re feeling about it. Part of self-awareness is understanding how you were raised, the relationship models you were taught through example and engagement as a child may affect what you see as healthy or unhealthy. If you’re feeling drained, resentful, or uncomfortable, though – you may want to check in and determine if you’re modeling a boundary someone else set for you or your own.
  6. Self-care. I write about this a lot and for good reason. Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, it shows that you care for you, and by self-caring you’re more able to do for others when you want to.
  7. Support when the going gets tough. If you’re having relationship issues or other fallout from boundary setting or lack thereof, find a counselor or support group to help you work things through! Expert help is always a win.
  8. Start small. It isn’t reasonable to think that decades old relationships can be changed overnight or that you can simply make a list of things you want better boundaries on and – poof! all your relationships comply. Pick a smaller issue to tackle first; something that doesn’t feel overwhelmingly scary to do and set a boundary. Over time you’ll master the skill and move up the ladder to the issues that are biggest for you.

You’re worth some self-compassion and some boundaries that communicate clearly to you and others what is ok and what isn’t. It is ok to say no to people, and it is ok to take time for you!

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