Boundaries are an important part of our mental health. They allow us to feel safe in relationships, have the freedom to be ourselves, clearly communicate expectations, and can be a form of self care, allowing yourself to accept what you need and decline what you don’t. For a lot of people, setting boundaries can be difficult. We may fear how other people are going to respond to our boundary, we may think it’s not that important, you may feel you’d rather make another person more comfortable or happy and relinquish your boundary, or you may not feel that you are worthy to set boundaries. However, boundaries are very important for our moods, our self talk, and our relationships with those around us. Boundaries come in to play in all aspects of our lives, whether it’s at work, with family members, friends, or within the relationship with have with ourselves. Learning to set and maintain a boundary can make a bigger difference than you might think.
Sometimes boundaries can be very rigid, for example, cutting off communication with someone who has become toxic in our lives or being strict with what we allow in certain relationships. At other times, our boundaries are set, but can be flexible to your needs at the moment. What we want to avoid is boundaries that are so loose, you can barely tell they’re there and you’re sacrificing your own mental health.
Ten Tips for Identifying, Setting, and Maintaining Healthy Boundaries:
Understand why you need to set a boundary.
Many people struggle with setting a boundary because they’re not aware that a boundary is needed. A good way to tell whether or not you need a boundary set is to examine your own emotional and thought response. Ask yourself, is this something I really want to do? Why am I doing this? Am I feeling guilty? Am I feeling resentful? What am I sacrificing by not having this boundary? Examples of boundaries include: saying no when you don’t want to do something, not doing things out of guilt or the need to please someone else, listening to your body and following through on what it needs, asking for further instruction on something you’re confused about, etc.
Identify, as clearly as possible, what boundary is needed.
Once you’ve decided that a boundary is needed, narrow down exactly what that means for you. If you’re not clear on what you need, it will be difficult to set your boundary and maintain it without giving in to any push back. Boundaries can often ruffle feathers, but those who are upset by boundaries are often upset because the lack of boundary was benefiting them in some way. Spend time thinking things through and remember, your emotional health is important, you don’t need to sacrifice it for anyone. Has a family friend asked you for money and you’re not comfortable giving it? Is your body telling you that you need to slow down but you “just don’t have time?”, Are you getting stressed by your sister calling to complain to you every day? Identify what may be needed as clearly as you can.
Be straightforward and firm, but not rude.
Once you’ve clearly identified your need for a boundary and what that boundary is, be straightforward to whomever you’re communicating it with. We often feel that we can spare someone’s feelings by being vague or avoiding conflict, but the most loving approach to relationships is to be direct, honest, and mean what you say.
Don’t give a long explanation or apologize for your boundary.
When you apologize excessively or give a long explanation for why you’re setting this boundary, it undermines the fact that you’ve put thought into this boundary and it’s important for your mental health. It also gives the impression that you feel you’re doing something wrong and therefore need to apologize or justify your reasoning. You are worthy of setting your own emotional boundaries and you do not need to apologize or justify them. Remember, you’re not being rude, you’re keeping the relationship healthy and avoiding future feelings of resentment, contempt, or burnout.
Remain calm and be polite.
Remember, boundaries can ruffle feathers, so there may be some pushback from others. Try your best to keep your defenses in check. Anger, arguing, yelling, being condescending, or defensiveness all distract from the boundary being set and again, undermine the fact that you’ve put a lot of thought into this boundary. Remain calm, remind yourself why your boundary is needed, and disengage from an argument if one flares up.
Start with a tighter boundary.
Remember, boundaries vary in how tight or loose they are and they’re meant to be flexible at times. Tighter boundaries are easier to loosen as needed, while loose boundaries can be difficult to firm up. Start with a tight boundary, even tighter than you might feel you need, and then loosen it as needed.
7. Address boundary violations immediately and firmly, but politely.
Boundaries are easier to maintain if you address any violations early and immediately. It can take time for people to get use to your new boundaries, or to recognize boundaries if you’ve just met. Usually if boundary violations happen, people are either trying to push our boundaries and see how firm they actually are, or they simply forgot. Either way, the easiest way to handle it is to address it directly, immediately, but politely and compassionately.
Don’t make it personal.
When stating your boundary, you don’t need to attack the person on an individual level. Try starting your boundary with a positive from your relationship and/or using I statements. For example, instead of getting irritated with your sister for jabbering on for an hour, try something like: “I love talking with you, but I only have thirty minutes right now.” Instead of snapping at your boss after three days of staying late in the office, try: “I’m happy to help with what I can while I’m in the office, but I can’t stay late today.”
Surround yourself with people who support you and lean on them when needed.
Setting boundaries can be difficult to begin with. Having people in your life who support you, love you, and will help you remember why boundaries are needed can be invaluable in the process. Share your boundaries with those you trust and ask them to support you in maintaining them. This will keep you accountable and provide the support needed for this, at times, challenging task.
Too often in life we let ourselves go on autopilot, not really paying attention to how thing are affecting us or where we’re putting our efforts. This is often how we lose track of our boundaries in the first place. Be sure to take the time to slow down and pay attention to what you’re feeling. If something doesn’t sit right with you, you have the right, as well as the responsibility to yourself, to change it. Trust yourself and don’t hesitate to turn to those you trust when you need additional insight.
Personally, I have found this last tip to be the most beneficial to remember when setting boundaries. The first and most important boundary to set is with yourself. Set the boundary that you are going to trust yourself to know what’s good for you and what’s not and than promise yourself you’ll follow through on it. As I said earlier, you have the right, as well as the responsibility to yourself, to change things that aren’t making you happy in life. If you feel you need additional help in exploring what’s best for you, therapy can be a great place to start and build that needed confidence.
By Susie Lee, AMFT