“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.”
- Brené Brown
Setting boundaries with others may feel uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or even scary to some people. Depending on one's relational history, setting boundaries may be associated with being selfish, disrespectful, or controlling. When done effectively, however, boundaries can actually strengthen a relationship, and free you to live a more balanced, intentional, and fulfilling life. Below are some tips to help you recognize when and how to set a boundary.
Signs you may want to set a boundary
You feel resentful or taken for granted. A lack of reciprocity in a relationship often reflects a need for stronger boundaries. This feeling of imbalance may be due to you taking on too much for the other person, or not having enough space of your own in the relationship. Examples of this dynamic are: (1) repeatedly cleaning up after your partner's messes (2) a friend who talks your ear off on the phone but shows little interest in how you're doing, and (3) always agreeing to cover a coworker’s shift due to feelings of guilt or obligation.
You feel burnt out and overwhelmed. Relationships without boundaries can feel exhausting. Without saying "no" from time to time, we can't effectively protect our time, energy, and emotions.
You feel guilty or nervous to state a limit. It's understandable to want to be accepted, and it's important to be considerate of others' feelings. At the same time, you should not have to repeatedly suppress your needs, feelings, or time in order to maintain connection with someone or "keep the peace."
You don’t know what your boundaries are.Without identifying your boundaries, people may make faulty assumptions about what you're comfortable with. If you find yourself feeling like distressing things keep happening "to" you in your relationships, this may be an indication you are out of touch with your boundaries.
Setting a boundary
Perhaps you've recognized a need for a boundary in one of your relationships. Now what? Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you set a boundary:
What actions or words are upsetting me? Start by focusing on the facts of what happened without adding any interpretations, opinions, or accusations. For example, in the case of that one friend who talks your ear off on the phone, you may point out how many times you've talked on the phone this week, how long you've talked on the phone, or whether or not you've shared about your life in your recent conversations (whatever it is that's not working for you).
What am I feeling? Share the specific emotions that come up for you in response to these actions or words. Pro tip: expressions like "uncared for" or "walked all over" are not feelings, and can lead to defensiveness in the other person because they imply that the other person has bad intentions. More helpful feeling words are hurt, lonely, sad, depleted, or resentful.
What need of mine is not being met in this situation? Ask yourself what need is not being fulfilled in this particular situation. Are your friend's long-winded phone calls taking from your need for space? Or is her lack of expressed interest in how you're doing keeping you from feeling connected or closeness with her?
How can my unmet need be met in this situation? What do you want in this situation? Remember, this is different from what you're willing to do or tolerate out of guilt, anxiety, or wanting to please others. You're willing to drop what you're doing to listen to your friend's monologuing phone calls, but do you want to do that? If your answer is no, what would feel better to you instead? If this dynamic is taking from your need for space, maybe you could propose limiting the conversation to 10-15 minutes. If it's a matter of feeling disconnected, you could let your friend know you also want to share things with her and would appreciate time being made for that too. Try to be as concrete and specific as possible so that the other person has a clear idea of how to honor your boundaries.
Boundaries are key to healthy relationships, but setting boundaries does not necessarily feel good or result in positive reactions from others. Even if your boundary setting results in anger, hurt, or tension, you are still entitled to your boundaries as a human being, and you are not responsible for that person's response. Healthy relationships make room for and honor the needs of both individuals (assuming those needs are respectful and reasonable) and setting boundaries helps ensure that happens.
If you'd like support with navigating your boundaries, communication, or relationships, please feel free to contact me today.
To learn more about setting boundaries and communicating your needs in your relationships, check out the resources below which inspired this blog post:
Katie Virga, Associate Marriage & Family Therapist #113323
Supervised & Employed by Alexis Donato, LMFT #44732