The Art of Setting Boundaries

How to set BoundariesDo you have a difficult time saying no?  Do you feel like people walk all over you? Do you let things slide too often? You may be lacking boundaries. Everybody needs to be able to set boundaries. They are absolutely necessary for getting your needs met and feeling good about yourself. Boundaries are essential to your self-respect. But, what is a boundary really?

Well, a boundary is something we put in place to ensure that we are safe.   It defines what we are and what we are not. What is our responsibility and what is not. It keeps the bad out and the good in.   Boundaries teach people how to treat you. Imagine yourself in a room. You feel completely safe and protected in this room. Now imagine the room you are in has a locked door (with a peep hole).   You get to decide who/what comes in and who/what leaves. Now imagine yourself in the same room only this one has a revolving door. Do you still feel safe? You can no longer control what comes in and what goes out. You are at the mercy of others. This is the difference between healthy and poor boundaries.

Boundaries act as a divider between what is “our stuff” and what is “everyone else’s stuff.” They give us a sense of ownership and responsibility. Many people have a difficult time not taking on other people’s stuff or not owning up to their own stuff. The “stuff” can consist of pretty much anything: our feelings and emotions, our bodies, our wants and needs, our choices etc. and boundaries need to be set for all of them. You probably do some of it already without even noticing.

Why is it so difficult to set boundaries?

Most people have a difficult time setting boundaries because of fear. It’s scary to stand up for yourself, especially if you’ve never done it before.  You may be nervous that you are going to upset or offend someone. You may fear that you might lose a relationship or friendship. Or you just don’t want people to think you’re being selfish.

I have always been someone who struggles with setting boundaries. I don’t like to rock the boat if I don’t have to. Unfortunately, this can lead to people taking advantage of me and getting away with more than they should. As a recovering people pleaser, I was always so scared that setting boundaries would make people not like me, that they would think I was being rude. It’s still a struggle for me to not just let things slide.  But I find that when I do muster up the courage to set good boundaries, most of the time people rise up and respect them and I feel good about myself for standing my ground.

Here’s the hard truth. People may not respond well when you start to set boundaries, especially if you have never done it before. Especially if you’re the “nice girl” or “nice guy,” who doesn’t like to make waves. You might start to hear this a lot “What’s wrong with you?  You’re acting so weird.  You never act like this.”

Setting limits is necessary to living in your truth. If you don’t enforce your boundaries, you’re the one who is going to be feeling bad, not them.  The more we let people cross our boundaries, the worse we feel.

How do I set boundaries?

1.  Start from a place of love

Boundaries should be an act of love and respect for yourself and others. When you set boundaries, it is not because you are trying to manipulate them or make them feel bad. You are simply explaining to them what is acceptable to you and what is not. Conversations about boundaries should be had when you are calm and your intentions are pure. If you find yourself in the middle of a heated argument, take a break and come back to this conversation when you are feeling more level headed.  It may take several attempts to really get the other person to understand where you’re coming from.

2.  Use I-messages

This is a pretty basic formula for expressing your needs, but it can be really powerful.

I feel ______(emotion)_______ when you _____(action)________.

Could you please do _____(request)______.

If you do not do _____(request)_______, I will/will not do _____(action)______.

Here is an example of what this looks like:

“I feel frustrated and unappreciated when you don’t clean up after yourself. Could you please pick up your things when you are done with them. If you do not put your things away, I will not continue to pick up after you.”

Use these other phrases to help you set boundaries

  • “No” (Is this one scary?)
  • “I have a problem with that.”
  • “This is what I need.”
  • “I’ve decided not to…”/”I don’t want to…”
  • “I’ll think about it.”

Remember, you don’t need to give people an explanation. If you’re anything like me, you may feel like you need to make up a legit excuse in order to get out of an event or say no. That is not the case. You do not owe them an explanation. Be kind, but be firm.

3.  Stay away from absolutes

When speaking with others, stay away from using absolutes such as always and never. “You never pay attention to me.” “You always yell at me.”  These words trigger in others the need to defend themselves. People who are on the defense are not going to hear what you have to say and probably will not be receptive to your boundaries. The conversation is not going to go anywhere positive. It’s almost better to take a time out and try to have the same conversation at a later time, when everyone is calmer.  Besides, absolutes are never always true.  Try to stick to the situation at hand instead of dredging up the past and bringing up every instance where someone violated your boundaries.

4.  Follow Through

You finally mustered up the courage to set a boundary. Yay!  People will have a variety of responses to this, from positive to push-back. The important thing is that you stand your ground and follow through. If you tell your sister you are not going to lend her money anymore, stick to your guns and don’t cave. You will definitely want to, especially when she tells you it’s an emergency, but remember, you are setting this boundary for a reason. A caveat to this is, make sure that when you set this boundary, it is realistic and something you can actually follow through with. Parents make this mistake a lot when trying to set boundaries with their kids. They say things like, “If you don’t stop fighting with your brother, I’m going to give all of your toys away” or “I’m going to tell Santa you don’t get any toys for Christmas.”   You aren’t actually going to follow through with them and your kids realize this. Empty threats are useless. Follow through is key for changing behavior.

5.  It may get worse, before it gets better

When you start to assert yourself and set boundaries with others, you may feel some push-back. Especially, if you are more passive and have not stood up for yourself before. People may not know what to think when you finally begin to draw lines that they cannot cross. There may even be relationships that do not work out because the other person refuses to accept your boundary. On the surface this may be devastating, but do you really want people around who are making you feel bad in some way? This provides the opportunity to be upfront with people from the start. To be able to teach people how to treat you well.

Those people in your lives who do learn to accept your boundaries, deserve gold stars for their effort. Let them know often that you appreciate what they are doing and how much you appreciate that they are trying to be respectful of your limits. They deserve praise for this!  (They are also keepers!)

Boundaries vs. Compromise

For some of you out there, if you’ve gotten this far, you may be feeling a bit anxious about this whole setting boundaries endeavor. (I am a little just writing it!) You may even be thinking, but I can’t always get my way right? That’s selfish. What about compromise? Here’s the difference:

Boundaries are set to protect your rights, your truth, your values, your beliefs and your limits, whether these are mental, emotional, spiritual or physical. These should be the non-negotiables. The things that in a perfect world, you would not tolerate because you have a great deal of self-respect and know how much your worth. When people violate your boundaries you tend to get that sinking feeling in your gut, anxious, angry, like something is just not right. You begin to feel bad about yourself.  Typical boundary violations include: people asking for money, people not respecting your limits in relation to your body, name calling, shaming, and people who take advantage of your time or energy.

Compromise is more of a difference of opinion. Compromises tend to be smaller (not always). They are usually done for the greater good and each side is OK with the decision. I repeat, both sides agree to this! Compromise is a two-way street. Boundary violations are one-sided.

The flip side

Ok, so there is always the flip side to the coin.  Here’s the other side:  you are well on your way to being a boundary setting superstar.  Remember, that other people are allowed to set boundaries too.  Now that you are aware of all this, be receptive when people try to set boundaries with you.  Remember, they are not trying to hurt your feelings, they’re trying to keep themselves balanced.  It may even be helpful to be proactive in this and discuss with your loved ones if there are any areas where you are stomping on their boundaries.  (You might even get karma points for this!)

Boundary setting as a journey

This may seem like a giant endeavor to embark on, start by taking baby steps. This is a process that takes time, especially if you are new to all of this. Reward yourself when you finally begin to stand your ground. It’s going to be hard work.  It’s going to be scary, but it’s going to be worth it because you are worth it!  Remember how valuable you are!

How are you doing at setting boundaries?  Are there any areas where it is particularly hard for you to set your limits?

I’ve created a worksheet for you to start examining what you are tolerating in your life, that you shouldn’t be, and where you need to begin to set boundaries. Get it below.

setting boundaries worksheet

4 comments on “The Art of Setting Boundaries

  1. Thanks for reading Megan! (P.S. Great name! 🙂 ) It’s a subject that is so important, yet seems to be a mystery to most. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. This is such a wonderful article! Growing up, I struggled with setting firm boundaries for myself as I was a people-pleaser. It took years of experience and maturing to come to a place where I can draw the line in a graceful but firm manner.

  3. Thanks Anna! This is definitely not an easy process, especially for us people pleasers, but so necessary! Glad you’re in a place where you can finally set boundaries.

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