When mental health professionals talk about setting healthy boundaries, they don’t just mean physical boundaries, although those are – of course – very important. But mental health professionals are also talking about invisible boundaries – verbal boundaries, emotional boundaries, psychological boundaries. (For a really good explanation of each of these different kinds, check out this Psychology Today article.)
In a blog for tinybuddha.com, Britt Bolnick gives some great advice for how to figure out if your personal boundaries are being invaded by others. That advice is to pretend that you’re a car.
…Stay with me here.
Pretend that you’re a car, and then think about how someone that you suspect might be crossing a boundary with you – any kind of boundary – makes you feel. What’s the state of your emotions? Your body? Your mind? I’ll let Bolnick’s own words take it from here:
You’ve just identified what I like to call the “check engine light” for your personal boundary system. When our boundaries are weak, unguarded, or unclear, we let in all sorts of stuff that isn’t actually our stuff, and we give away our own personal energy unconsciously. That means you’re dealing with a breach of your energetic security system and a leak of your own personal energy. You’re looking at warning signs indicating that some work needs to be done, some boundaries need to be shored up, and you need to return to center.
If you think your personal “check engine light” is going off with any of the relationships in your life, keep reading for some tips on how to move toward setting healthy boundaries in your relationships.
Tip #1: Check In With Your Feelings When Setting Healthy Boundaries
This great piece of advice comes from Dana Gionta, Ph.D. She suggests thinking about any relationship in your life that you think might be in need of firmer boundaries and evaluate your level of “discomfort and resentment” toward that person. Rate it on a scale of 1-10. If your discomfort/resentment level is 6 or higher, then you need to stop resenting and start taking action to change the relationship.
Tip #2: Set Specific Limits
If you’ve been in a relationship (any kind, not just romantic) with someone who crosses your boundaries for a really long time, then you may not even be in touch with what you’d like your boundaries to be. Look around and take stock of what specific things you’d like to be different. Maybe for you this means the right to say “no” to a certain number of things per month. Maybe it means not having to act as a constant caregiver for someone who’s capable of taking care of themselves. The limit will vary depending on your situation, but if you can’t articulate specific goals then things aren’t going to magically change.
Tip #3: Adjust your thinking
Depending on the nature of the relationship that you want a stronger boundary in, it might seem cruel or irresponsible to you to set that boundary. Maybe for you it’s a work relationship and you feel like you’d be letting down the whole company or office if you set a stronger boundary. Maybe it’s a relationship with a spouse who you think would fall apart if you changed your boundaries. But if you’re tempted to think things like this, remind yourself that you’re not actually doing that other person any favors. If it’s a work relationship, what’s going to happen when you eventually leave that job? Even if you never move to another job, you’ll at least retire someday. If it’s an S.O. or spousal relationship, then how are you helping that person be the best, most fulfilled version of themselves by enabling their dependence?
Tip #4: Think About Communication Styles When Setting Healthy Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries in a relationship can go differently depending on what kind of person you’re trying to get some distance from. Some people might get the hint just from your withdrawal. Others might need you to explicitly spell it out for them. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to approach setting up stronger boundaries. Consider the personality and communication style of the person you need to establish the boundary with, but when in doubt, lean toward being more direct so you can avoid awkward “Why aren’t you getting the hint?” conversations.
Tip #5: Plan Out Conversations
For the people that you will need to have a very direct conversation with, plan out what you’re going to say ahead of time. You don’t have to memorize a script word-for-word, but you do want to practice the gist of what you’re going to say. If you don’t, you might end up being more hurtful than you want to be or more timid than you want to be.
Tip #6: Think About Possible Reactions
Obviously, you can only do this to a certain extent. You can take an educated guess, but you don’t know for sure how the other person is going to react to the new, more assertive you. But try to think about the range of possibilities before the talk. What will you do if the person acts like you’re breaking their heart? If they get angry and start screaming at you? If they clam up and give you the silent treatment? Again, if you have a plan of action for how you’ll react in any scenario, then you’ll be less likely to walk back the new boundary you’ve just set up. As Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C, writes for Psychology Today, “Setting healthy boundaries with people can actually help to improve your relationships in the long run. The people you want to surround yourself with are those who will respect your boundaries, even if they initially feel upset or disappointed.”
If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, then you might want to check out John Townsend and Henry Cloud’s book series on boundaries. Also remember that having a support system will be very important for you. This might consist of a professional therapist, trusted family members, trusted friends, co-workers, or any combination of these. But it’s always better to have to encourage you and hold you accountable to your changes than to try to go it alone.
Deciding to set stronger personal boundaries in your life can seem like a difficult project. If you want to talk more about how you can make a start at it, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult .