If you struggle with any kind of invasive relationship, whether it’s in a romantic relationship, a familial relationship, or a working relationship, you may have been told that you need to “set better boundaries.” This advice always sounds great, but sometimes it’s easier said than done. It isn’t always simple to figure out how you should go about setting boundaries. As you read through the advice below about how to get started with setting firmer boundaries in your life, remember that poor boundaries can exist in any kind of relationship in your life, including professional ones.
1. Be intentional about defining your boundaries.
Too many people know that they need to improve their personal boundaries but get stuck thinking thoughts like, “I’ve got to fix this” or “There have to be improvements here.” It’s good to realize that you need change, but if you don’t get specific about exactly what needs to change, then you probably won’t make any headway. Try following this advice from Tris Thorp:
“…Make a list of the things that are important to you. These are your values. Jot down a few words about what each of those things mean to you and why they are important.
As you look at this list, ask yourself, ‘If all these things were present in this area of my life, is there anything that would make me feel unhappy/unfulfilled?’ Write down the things that come to mind. These are your boundaries.”
2. Visualize what violations of your boundaries would look like.
Once you’ve defined your boundaries, you might be tempted to let some behavior that violates them slide. It can be easy to make excuses for people when you’re in the habit. Therefore, it’s important to think ahead. What kinds of specific behaviors can you think of that have violated your boundaries in the past and in what situations might they come up again? This article by Abigail Brenner, M.D., offers a good breakdown of what verbal, emotional, and physical boundary violations look like in general, and can, therefore, help you get started in thinking about specific examples of these in your own life.
3. Stop thinking of people as projects.
If you think about people you’re in relationships with as fixer-uppers that just need your help to turn their lives around, then you’ll probably never be able to set the boundaries you need for your own emotional health. While this doesn’t mean you can never offer help and support, you can’t put the burden of someone else’s success or happiness on yourself. That’s the perfect setup for a relationship with no boundaries.
4. When possible, start small.
While there may be some situations in which it’s better to set really firm, significant boundaries immediately (such as situations in which you’re being abused), lots of relationships will allow you to build up your boundaries small step by small step, which will make the process easier for both you and the person you’re setting the boundaries with. For example, you can start with a statement like, “I can’t stay at work for 2 hours after the formal workday this Thursday because my childcare can’t accommodate that” rather than “You need to seriously revise your maternity/paternity leave policies or I will quit tomorrow!”
5. When possible, state your boundaries when things are going well in the relationship.
This won’t always be possible; in some relationships, if you waited for this moment then you’d be waiting for way longer than you should. But if you’re in a relationship with someone that has its ups as well as its downs, then try to establish the new boundary on one of those “up” days. That way, you have a better chance of your statement not being misinterpreted as a punishment or an insult. Your language will be very important in creating this impression as well. A statement like, “It’s important to me to not feel judged and criticized in this relationship” sounds more peaceful than a statement like, “You do nothing but judge and criticize me and I’m sick of it and sick of you!”
6. Establish what will happen if the boundaries continue to be violated.
While tact is necessary, so is firmness. You might not want to state a particular path that you’ll take if someone doesn’t respect your boundaries the very first time you talk about those boundaries – that might come off as unnecessarily aggressive – but if it looks like the person isn’t doing their part to respect you then it becomes appropriate to have a conversation about what will happen if the boundary continues to be violated. The repercussion is up to you-you might want to go so far as saying that you’ll separate from the person if things don’t change, or you might want to start out with a smaller, less drastic repercussion. Also, remember that these decisions should be based on the personality of the person you’re trying to set a boundary with: in most cases, you probably don’t want to start out by saying what the consequences of violation will be, but if you think you’re dealing with a particularly clueless or manipulative person, then it might be appropriate to state such things right from the first conversation.
Do what feels comfortable for you.
You’ll feel stronger about setting boundaries if you have people in your corner! This might mean going to a family member, a friend, a therapist, a church group, a support group, or even a good book on the topic. Whoever it is, though, try to find someone who will support your choices and who will hold you accountable for maintaining the new boundary. Remember: being taken advantage of, manipulated, or pushed around is not something you have to keep doing for the rest of your life. Decide to make the change today!
If you think you might need some extra support establishing healthy boundaries in your relationships, you might want to consider enrolling in our online workshop, Daring Greatly™. In it, you’ll learn all about boundaries – what they ARE and ARE NOT – and how to go about setting them and sticking to them. Click here to learn more about the workshop.