Why and How To Set Personal Boundaries
If setting boundaries is such a healthy practice, why are they so hard to establish? There are a few reasons.
What Is a Boundary?
First, we don’t know what a boundary is. A boundary is a definite place where your responsibility ends and another person’s begins. It stops you from doing things for others that they should do for themselves.
Boundaries also prevent you from rescuing someone from the consequences of their destructive behavior that they need to experience to grow. Sounds great, right? But even with this understanding there are still a few things that get in our way.
Fear and Boundaries
Most people struggle to set boundaries in their relationships with others because setting them can be uncomfortable and scary, especially when they are afraid of how it will affect the other person. There are different reasons behind this fear, but they all come from being afraid to inflict some type of hurt and pain on others or on ourselves.
When we learn to confront our fears in healthy ways, we can be better prepared to set boundaries to maintain healthy relationships with others.
The typical fears we experience when we need to set a boundary are upsetting, disappointing, or hurting others. Then there are other fears you may face, like not wanting to look selfish and weak or being abandoned and rejected.
When it comes to upsetting, disappointing, or hurting others, we must understand we do not have control over another person’s response to our boundary.
You see, boundaries imply a certain level of conflict. So, when we decide to set boundaries with others, there’s an underlying level of concern that the person isn’t going to respond well to that confrontation. You mind find yourself thinking, “How will they react?” or “What will they do?” These are not unreasonable concerns.
The reality is a lot of people have a hard time with boundaries being set on them. If you are having to set a boundary in a relationship, it may imply the other person is not good at respecting boundaries or responding well to boundaries in relationships.
Another thing that helps when setting boundaries is to be prepared for some level of conflict beforehand, so that it can be dealt with in a healthy way. Think or talk through the worst-case scenario. If the worst happens, what’s your plan? If the other person starts becoming angry and the situation escalates to the point where you start to feel unsafe, what’s your next move? What if they start crying? What if they say they are disappointed in you? If you know you have a plan in case the worst happens, you will feel much more confident when you set your boundaries with others.
The next thing you can do to help overcome this fear is to think through and remember what you’re responsible for and what you’re not responsible for. If you think you are responsible for managing other people’s expectations or for overextending yourself to meet their demands, then you’ve likely given them too much power to define your identity and self-worth.
How To Set Boundaries
Now that you have a few tools in your toolbox it’s time to practice setting some boundaries. Personal boundaries are a good starting point. These are limits and rules we set for ourselves within relationships. An example of a personal boundary I have set for myself is that I refuse to take responsibility for uncommunicated or poorly communicated expectations. Another is, I will not say yes to things that cause me an abnormal amount of stress and anxiety. What personal boundaries can you set for yourself?
Once you are ready to set a boundary with another person, it’s helpful to have a formula to work with while you grow courage and understanding in boundary setting. Try using this one:
“When you ______, I feel ______, which makes me think ______. Could you please do/don’t do _________?”
You don’t have to use these exact words, but it’s important to notice that it gives both people ownership. You have ownership over your thoughts and feelings, and it places their ownership over their action or behavior.
I used this formula in my life when I set a boundary with a relative who struggles with alcoholism. I said, “When you drink you say hurtful things, this makes me feel disrespected and unloved. Please do not call me when you have been drinking.” As you can imagine this was an uncomfortable boundary to set. I was nervous about how this person would react, but I knew the benefit of a healthy boundary far outweighed their potential reaction.
Unfortunately, this boundary was violated so then I followed the boundary with a consequence. I restated my previous boundary, but added to it like this, “As I said before, when you drink you say hurtful things, this makes me disrespected and unloved. Please do not call me when you have been drinking. If you continue to do this, then we will not be able to continue our relationship.”
Again, my boundary was violated and because my happiness, mental health, and overall wellbeing are important, I reminded the person of the boundary and consequence and I added action steps to be taken in order to restore our relationship.
This is how that was communicated, “I have told you several times that when you call me and you have been drinking you say hurtful things, and I have asked you to not call me when you are drunk. Because you continue to violate the boundaries I have set, we cannot continue our relationship. For us to move past this and repair our relationship, you will need to have reached a minimum of 18 months sobriety and completed a treatment program.”
Boundaries are hard, but they do help establish healthy relationships. The temporary discomfort of a hard conversation is totally worth it. Your quality of life is important, and you deserve healthy relationships.
Boundaries are normal and healthy for every relationship, so when someone is respectful and courageous enough to set one with you, try to remember to respond with grace and empathy.
Want to learn more about boundaries? Check out our Illuminate or Boundaries groups.