Setting Boundaries - 5 Things You Need to Know
Setting boundaries is a popular topic and something I discuss with every client I meet. One might think that with all this dialogue in our culture, we’d all be better at it. But, we’re not. Setting boundaries is a skill that must be practiced and honed over time. And, I bet you anything, that no one taught you how to do it. Until now.
Here are 5 simple (but not easy!) steps to creating better boundaries.
Know Why You’re Setting a Boundary
You know why setting boundaries is hard? Because it makes other people feel mad, uncomfortable, or guilty. You know why having crappy boundaries is hard? Because it makes you feel overwhelmed, resentful, angry, scared, exhausted, guilty, out of control….and so much more.
Before you set a boundary, you have to know what’s gonna happen if you don’t. Why is now the time to say, “no”?
You’re tired of feeling like you’re always at someone’s beckoned call. The way your boss talks to you is rude and demeaning and you dread going to work. You feel resentful of people always asking for your help, but never being around when you need something.
To set a boundary, you first need to connect with your pain. How is lacking a boundary hurting you and your relationships?
Your coworker likes to gossip and routinely stops by your desk to chat. Your work is suffering and you don’t really like the toxic dialogue anyway. This is hurting your productivity at work and sapping your energy for constructive, meaningful conversation with people you care about.
Your spouse seems distant and caught up in their own world. You feel like you’re an add-on to their life, not a partner. This is hurting your sense of connection and intimacy and undermining your self-esteem.
Your parents really like spending time with you and call you at least once a day. This was a family routine that you really valued growing up. But now that you’re in a relationship, it’s infringing on your time. Your partner feels left out and you feel guilty and frustrated.
Know What You Want Instead
What would life look like if you could say “no”? How would it feel to say yes because you really wanted to do something and not because you felt guilted into it? How do you want to be treated? How do you want to treat yourself?
When you’re learning to set boundaries, you have no idea what it’s like to think this way. You’re used to feeling guilty or resentful and can’t imagine having the freedom to let your yes be yes and your no be no. Take a minute and really think about this.
Revisiting our Examples:
Gossiping coworker: You’ll only discuss things that are work related (and by appointment only). You’re able to get your work done, keep your train of thought, have emotional energy to connect with your loved ones. You feel good about yourself and your values.
Distant spouse: You ask for what you need from your partner and trust that they’ll respond. You feel connected and can collaborate and compromise for mutually beneficial solutions. You feel valued and valuable.
Intrusive parents: You set a time to talk once a week and you’re the one who makes the call. You feel connected to your parents and traditions, but you have the freedom to make your own too. Your partner feels valued and you feel calm when you’re in the same room with everyone.
Boundaries aren’t about other people’s behavior; they’re about YOU. About what you need, what you value, and how you’ll respond. Boundaries are also not (NOT NOT NOT) punishments! Boundaries are information and expectation. They tell others where the line is and what you’ll do if it’s crossed. We cannot control others, but we can manage our response to their actions.
Know How You’ll Respond to Boundary Breaking
People will break your boundary; I 100% guarantee it. So, you have to know ahead of time how you’re going to respond. This is really hard! This is why we tolerate feeling crappy and guilty; we’re afraid of what will happen if we say “no.” But here’s the truth, saying no also allows you to say yes. Yes to healthier relationships. Yes to better self-esteem. Yes to new opportunities. Yes Yes YES!
So, what’s the consequence for a broken boundary? This is a very personal decision. It has to be something you’re willing to follow through on. If you express a boundary and then do nothing when it’s broken, you’ve taught people that your words don’t mean much. And remember, the consequence is not a punishment. It’s your positive action to achieve the goal you described above (what you want instead).
You need to be realistic about your response too. If your boundary with your rude boss is that you’re going to quit, do you really mean it? Or would it be more doable to file a complaint with HR? You know yourself and what you need. Let’s try out our examples from before (remember, there are many alternatives, based on your unique values):
Gossiping coworker: You won’t engage in gossip or unnecessary conversation during work hours.
Distant spouse: You’ll make an appointment to see a marriage counselor or clergy member.
Intrusive parents: You don’t answer your phone aside from designated times.
Know How to Say It - The Boundaries Script
Almost done! Now is the time to put your boundaries into action. You’ve thought this through and you know what you need and what you’ll tolerate. There’s a little script I like to use when I’m helping people speak their boundaries. This is directed toward the person who is breaking your boundary:
When you (behavior you want person to stop), I feel (negative impact of that behavior on you).
What I’d like instead is (behavior you want/need instead).
If you’re not able to do that, that’s fine, but I want you to know that I will (action you’ll take to keep yourself safe/happy).
Let’s try it with our examples:
Gossiping coworker: When you stop by my desk to chat, I really lose my focus and it’s hard for me to get back on track. I don’t feel comfortable talking about other people when I need to be working. I’d like for us to keep our dialogue to pertinent work issues and to set up appointments for discussion instead of dropping by. If you’re not up for that, that’s fine, but I want you to know that I won’t be engaging in non-work related conversations.
Distant spouse: When you go off on your own or zone out in front of the TV, I feel disconnected from you and I wonder if I really matter to you. What I’d like is for us to find things we both enjoy and can do together. If we can’t figure this out, I’m going to call a marriage counselor to help us.
Intrusive parents: I really love how connected our family is and I like talking with you. But, now that (significant other’s name) and I are together, I want to focus my energy and time on building our relationship and new family traditions. What I’d like is to schedule a weekly phone call together when we can share updates about the week. I can call you every Sunday at 4pm. I want you to know that if you call during the week, I won’t be answering my phone. I’ll be glad to catch up with you on Sundays.
Know How to Follow Through
This is the hardest part; where the rubber meets the road! Remember, you already know that people would break your boundary. It will happen. And it will be really hard not to give in. This is uncomfortable and can feel very awkward and even wrong. But it’s worth it. Setting and keeping boundaries is a practice. It takes time and repetition. And you’ll make mistakes. This is how we learn.
When someone breaks your boundary, politely, but firmly remind them of your boundary. People often forget because they’re used to relating to you in one way and you’re asking for something different. Usually, a gentle reminder is all it takes.
If someone tries to push your boundary, repeat your boundary again. If you need to, just keep repeating yourself word for word. If the person continues, enforce the consequence. “You teach people how to treat you” (thank you, Tony Gaskins). If you don’t enforce the consequences of broken boundaries, you’ve taught people that your words are meaningless. People who truly care about and want relationship with you will respect your boundaries. People who don’t, won’t. If someone refuses to treat you the way you want to be treated, it’s time to make a more serious decision about the future of that relationship.
Whew! You did it! Give yourself a high five, bear hug, round of applause (whatever!) because you’re taking important steps toward creating the life and relationships you want. There will be setbacks, but you’ll keep going! Start practicing with people that are safe. You can try this with a close friend or partner who can tolerate disappointment and is good at listening. If you’re seeing a therapist, they can be a safe person to try this with as well.
If you’d like to work on creating a healthier relationship with better boundaries, I can help! Schedule a phone consultation and we’ll start this process together.