Last time I wrote about boundaries, I explained what boundaries are and why they are important. This week’s post will teach you about establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries through a simple four-step process. Setting boundaries is never easy, but we hope this process will reduce your level of discomfort and increase your chances of success.
Step 1: Identifying areas where you need personal boundaries
If you’re inexperienced with boundaries, you may be wondering what kinds you need. Check out this video to learn about six different realms in which you should consider boundaries. No one can tell you what your boundaries should be, but you can figure it out for yourself by paying attention to how you feel in certain relationships.
Regularly check in with your emotions during your interactions with other people. If you regularly feel resentful, angry, or burned out, that may indicate that you lack strong boundaries. For example, imagine you come home after a long day to find that your partner, who previously agreed to be in charge of dinner, has forgotten again. You resent having to cook dinner when you also made breakfast and packed your lunches lunch. You might also feel angry or disappointed—all signs that you need better boundaries.
Feelings of burnout and overwhelm are also common among individuals with weak boundaries. Do you rarely have time for yourself? Are you often saying “yes” to invitations/requests solely out of obligation? Do you ever imagine running away from your problems? For example, you might fantasize about giving your boss a piece of your mind and walking out the door.
Your physical health and reactions can also clue you in on areas where boundaries are needed. Does your stomach clench up when your mother-in-law shows up at your house unannounced? Do you sigh and slump your shoulders when you receive yet another work email asking for help with someone else’s problem? Are you so chronically exhausted that your immune system seems to be on strike?
You may also avoid certain people if you lack strong boundaries. For example, perhaps you know from experience that your brother only calls you when he needs money. Instead of telling him that you’re unable to provide any, you avoid the issue by completely ignoring his phone calls.
If you’re a chronic people-pleaser, there may be many areas of your life where you need better boundaries. Certain relationships may need a complete overhaul. Nevertheless, we encourage you to start small by identifying a relatively inconsequential boundary to focus on. This will help to build your confidence and give you practice for bigger boundaries down the road. It will also give the people in your life some time to adjust to the new, more boundaried you.
Step 2: Establishing boundaries that are clear and enforceable
Consider where you will draw the line and what you would do in response to someone overstepping your boundaries. For example, imagine you’ve been feeling overwhelmed at work and resentful that your boss is asking so much of you. You’ll need to figure out how much work is acceptable to you so you can communicate that.
Consider at what point your job is no longer worth it for you. Are you willing to work until 6 p.m., or do you need to leave promptly by five? Are you willing to work weekends? If so, under what conditions, and how often? As you think about where to draw your boundary, forget about what other people consider acceptable. Don’t worry about what you think you “should” be able to handle. Your needs and values are unique to you, so you need to trust yourself.
Establishing boundaries means setting consequences for crossing them. If it’s 4:30 p.m. on a Friday and your boss gives you a new task to finish by Monday, how will you respond? What will you say? Keep in mind that it’s not possible to control other people, so you’ll need to focus on what YOU are willing and able to do if the boundary is crossed. If you’re worried someone might push back against your boundary, rehearse what you might say in response to their objection.
Consider when would be the best time to communicate your boundary. If you anticipate a boundary might be crossed in the future, it might make sense to communicate it in advance. For example, maybe you have a personal boundary that you don’t get drunk with strangers. If so, you could give your upcoming blind date a heads-up that you’ll only have time for one drink or that you’d rather meet for coffee instead.
On the other hand, it might make sense to wait until they’re crossed before communicating boundaries. It’s also okay to wait for a time when you’ll feel more comfortable. In general, though, if you know you need to address a boundary violation, we recommend doing so at the same moment it is crossed, soon afterward, or the next time it happens.
Step 3: Communicating your boundaries
The secret to the effective communication of boundaries is to avoid being overly passive or overly aggressive. For example, imagine your teenager borrows your car and returns it filled with fast-food wrappers—and empty of gas. If you avoid mentioning it because you want to preserve your close relationship, their messy behavior will continue. Meanwhile, you’ll end up feeling disappointed and resentful.
On the other hand, you don’t want to be too aggressive when communicating boundaries—even if you’re upset. If you accuse your teen of being a slob or living in a pigsty, for example, they’ll likely respond defensively and stop listening to you.
The trick is to communicate calmly and assertively. Pick a time when you’re not too upset and when you have your teen’s full attention. Then explain what’s bothering you and set expectations for the future: “I noticed you brought the car back dirty and without any gas. Next time, I’d like you to remove all trash and gas it up before returning it. If you could do that, I’d be happy to keep lending it to you.”
In some cases, you might feel nervous about communicating boundaries because you worry they will hurt your relationships. To soften the blow, you might be tempted to apologize when setting your boundary, but we caution against that. There’s nothing wrong with healthy boundaries, so there’s nothing to apologize for. Doing so would only suggest that you’re unsure about your own boundary, which could send them the message that it’s okay to test it or cross it.
There are more assertive ways to help your boundaries be better received. For example, you could start by reminding the person that they’re important to you: “I always enjoy our summer camp trips, but unfortunately, I won’t be available to go this year.” You could suggest a solution that doesn’t involve you: “I’m unable to host Thanksgiving this year, but I do know of a restaurant that’ll be open.” It can also be helpful to express your gratitude: “I’m honored that you would trust me with this, but I don’t feel comfortable being the executor of your will.”
Keep your statements short and assertive to avoid being drawn into a debate. To reduce the chance that the other person will get defensive, avoid blaming language. Word your boundary carefully. For example, when aunt Judy asks why you haven’t married your partner yet, don’t say, “My god, you are so nosy!” If you want to create a boundary without being too aggressive, you could say something like, “I don’t feel like talking about that right now. Let’s talk about something else.”
Step 4: Enforcing your boundaries
If you’re lucky, the people you set boundaries with will be understanding and polite, even if they don’t like your boundaries. Respecting boundaries often sounds something like, “Okay, no worries,” or “Sure, I understand,” or “Fine. If that’s how you feel.”
On the other hand, some of your relationships may be less healthy. Some people may be accustomed to getting certain things from you, and they will try to change your mind in an attempt to maintain the status quo. If you’re planning to set a boundary that feels long overdue, you should expect to receive some sort of pushback.
The person might completely overstep your boundary. It’s possible they honestly forgot about it, or they may just be pretending to have forgotten. In either case, you can gently remind them: “Remember how we talked about avoiding gossiping about our colleagues at lunch?” If they continue to ignore your boundary, you will need to lay down consequences. For example, you might decline their lunch invitations in the future.
Another type of pushback you might see is overstepping boundaries just a little, just to see how you’ll react. For example, your partner might sit in bed and talk to you for a few minutes after your established bedtime. If you want your boundary to be taken seriously, you will need to restate it as many times as needed (even as you acknowledge your partner’s feelings): “I know you’d rather stay up later, but I need to get enough sleep for work tomorrow. You can stay up as long as you like, but I need our bedroom to be quiet after 10 p.m.”
Some people will react defensively or bring up old issues in an attempt to shut down a new boundary: “I never complain when you forget to take the trash out. Why are you making such a big deal about the dishes?”. If this happens to you, you can acknowledge the person’s concerns without getting drawn into old arguments: “I’d be happy to talk to you about that later if it’s still an issue. Right now, we’re talking about dishes. Given how we’ve divided up our chores, here’s what I expect in the future.”
It can be uncomfortable setting and maintaining boundaries, and it will probably take the people in your life some time to adjust. But don’t give up! Boundary-setting is not a one-time thing; it requires patience and perseverance. Enforcing boundaries often involves having multiple discussions and laying down unwanted consequences. However, the benefits to your emotional and physical health will be well worth the effort.
We can teach you how to set healthy boundaries
If you struggle with establishing and maintaining boundaries, working with a therapist can help. We can provide the supportive environment you need to learn where your limits lie and how to effectively communicate them to others. Our executive and other successful professional clients tend to like our executive coaching style when it comes to setting strong boundaries. It helps them preserve their limited time and energy for the things they really care about. Also, continue checking back, as we’ll have more posts about boundaries soon!