Have you ever found yourself muttering under your breath about someone who deeply offended you? Have you ever felt manipulated or taken advantage of? Have you ever been made to feel uncomfortable in your own home? Have you ever been resentful towards someone you love? Have you ever found yourself swallowing your needs and acting out passive aggressively? Have you ever found yourself repeatedly making excuses for someone at the expense of your well-being?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, GOOD! Because this is your wake-up call to learn how to set and hold boundaries.
I talk about boundaries A LOT with my clients (teens, young adults and parents alike), because this is a skill we have collectively struggled to master. And these are just a few of the most popular reasons I hear as to why our boundaries get sacrificed so often:
- I was afraid he wouldn’t like me anymore.
- My kid has me wrapped around her finger.
- I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
- I’m a pushover, it’s just my personality.
- I wanted to be a part of the cool crew.
- I couldn’t handle one more battle with my kid.
- I can’t stand it when people are mad at me.
- The moment was too uncomfortable and I wanted it to end.
- I didn’t want to rock the boat.
- It just seemed easier than being honest.
- I didn’t want to seem bossy or needy.
- I’m too tired. I don’t have the energy to endure the backlash.
- I didn’t know what else to do.
Any of these sound familiar? Probably. Because after all, you’re only human and these are very normal reactions in the face of difficult conversations. And let’s be real for a second: setting and holding boundaries is not for the faint of heart because doing so invariably incurs some blowback. But, if we are interested in developing healthy, respectful relationships with our friends, family, partners, colleagues, kids– and ourselves!– it’s time to start speaking our truth and holding our ground.
So let’s get clear—what exactly is a boundary?
Personal boundaries are the physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used or violated by others. They prevent co-dependency by allowing us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others. Personal boundaries help us decide what types of communication, behavior, and interaction are acceptable. In a nutshell, boundaries tell the people in our lives “here’s what’s ok and what’s not ok.” Boundary violations occur when someone has crossed over what is acceptable or safe for you emotionally or physically.
Why is it important to set boundaries?
- Creating and holding boundaries is a function of self-care and self-respect. Doing so indicates that you believe you are worthy of fair and respectful treatment, and that you value yourself enough to refuse accepting anything less. In the wise words of Brené Brown, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
- Setting boundaries teaches us to communicate our needs. No matter how close or connected you might feel to someone, that person is not a mind reader. Occasionally people might able to intuit your needs without you having to articulate them, but that will always be the exception and not the rule. We must learn how to be direct and ask for what we need, or risk being mistreated.
- Clear boundaries facilitate vulnerability, which is a prerequisite for meaningful connection. Vulnerability inherently requires us to take risks that involve uncertainty or emotional exposure. Boundaries help protect us from being pushed so far out of our comfort zone that we wind up suffering or shutting down.
The first step in learning to set boundaries is self-awareness: in order to know where you need boundaries, pay close attention to the situations when you feel depleted, resentful, taken advantage of, out of alignment with your values or flat out uncomfortable.
Next, set the boundary. Yup, that means having to speak openly and honestly about 1) what is ok for you, 2) what is not ok for you, and 3) what you will do if the boundary gets crossed again. For example:
-“It’s totally ok for you to go have fun at the party with your friends and come home by 11, but it is absolutely not ok for you to come home past your curfew. If you come home after 11, you will lose your cell phone privileges for a week.”
-“I’m perfectly willing to discuss the bills with you, but it is not ok for you to raise your voice at me. If you start yelling I will leave the room and end the conversation.”
-“I’m happy to give you a ride to school in the morning, but it’s not ok for you to make me late for work every day. If you are not ready to go by the agreed upon time of departure, you will have to miss school, take the absence and make up the missed work.”
-“I welcome you to express opinions that are different from mine, but it’s not ok for you to make sexist or racist remarks around me. If you do it again, I’ll walk away from our conversation.”
-“I really like being intimate with you, but I’m not ready to have sex yet. If you try to pressure me again I’m going to end our relationship.”
Now, here’s the tricky part. Most of us want to have clear boundaries, but we don’t want to follow through on the consequences. We don’t want to take the action that we say we’re going to take, but the absolute MOST important part of boundaries is holding them. It is crucial to outline a consequence that you are 100% willing to follow through on, because here’s the thing:
We teach people how to treat us. If we draw a boundary but don’t follow through on it, we teach people that they can be/do/say whatever they want and we will always self-sacrifice in order to _________________ (keep the peace, be well liked, belong, avoid a conflict, etc.)
By setting a boundary you are giving someone a simple choice about their next move. You are not telling them what to do, as they still have complete autonomy over their choices and behaviors. You are simply telling them how YOU will respond if they make a choice that violates your boundary.
Heads up: there are two things that tend to happen when we start to set boundaries.
1. There is backlash from people who aren’t used to us speaking up.
2. We feel guilty about enforcing consequences.
A few things to keep in mind when these challenges inevitably crop up:
First, you are not responsible for someone’s reaction to the boundary you are setting and holding. You are only responsible for communicating your boundary in a respectful manner and following through on it just as you outlined from the get go. If they are upset, they are entitled to those feelings and you can certainly acknowledge them. But you don’t have to own their feelings or try to fix it for them. Because at the end of the day, you are not responsible for other people’s choices. If they make a poor choice while knowing the corresponding consequence, that’s not on you. Period.
Second, it will benefit you to anticipate that some people, especially those accustomed to controlling, abusing, or manipulating you, might test you. Plan on it, expect it, but remain firm. Especially when it comes to kids. We must remember that it is developmentally appropriate for kids to push boundaries– and frankly it’s almost a small red flag if they don’t. But ultimately our kids learn how to effectively set and hold boundaries for themselves by watching US model the skill of holding our own boundaries while they push back.
For example: Before she left the house, you told Susie she would lose her cell phone privileges if she violated curfew. When she comes home two hours late, she apologizes and tells you that she missed curfew because she was finally bonding with the girls she’s been trying to befriend for SO long! You know how badly she’s been wanting and needing to make friends because she’s been feeling socially isolated, so you decide to let it slide.
What did you just teach Susie about the value of boundaries?
In this case, Susie learns that it’s ok to sacrifice a boundary to feel like you belong. Sounds harmless, but what happens when Susie is encouraged by her new friends to drink or do drugs in the name of fitting in with the crew? Should she sacrifice a boundary in that situation too just to feel like she belongs?? This might sound like a stretch, but I assure you it’s not. These lines get very blurry very quickly, so consistency is crucial.
Setting and holding boundaries can be tough, plain and simple. But here’s how I like to think of it: I would WAY rather endure 5 seconds, 5 minutes or even 5 hours of discomfort inside of a boundaries-related conversation than 5 weeks, 5 months or even 5 years of resentment from constantly swallowing my needs.
Does this article resonate with you? Do you struggle to set and hold boundaries? What has been your biggest struggle or success?? Let me know in the comments below!