How to create healthy boundaries
Do you have a hard time standing up for yourself? Do you get pushed into doing what you don’t want to do?
The good news is that, if you haven’t learned how to set boundaries growing up, you can learn, starting right now.
But - and you knew there would be a but - there isn’t a quick fix. It’s a bit like when you see all these 'how-to' guides for dating and what to say/what not to say to attract the right person. They are quick fixes that don’t work, because what it really takes is deep, inner work so that you grow as a person and in self-confidence. Then, you don’t worry about what to say anymore - it comes naturally.
Learning to set and maintain boundaries is very similar. Yes, I could tell you neat ways to express your boundaries, but if you don’t know who you are, what your values are, and have little self-confidence, your boundaries will be paper thin and get blown away all too soon.
What do we mean by boundaries?
In short, it’s what we communicate to others about how we want to be treated. These can be physical, emotional, time, or otherwise. For example, you might have a boundary about how much time you want to spend with your partner’s family, or on hobbies, etc. Or, you might have a boundary about how much you spend when out with friends.
Six steps towards creating healthy boundaries
1. Turn your attention inwards
If you are someone that is a natural giver and sensitive to how others are feeling, you are probably spending most of your time concerned with how others are feeling. However, for the purpose of setting boundaries, you need to turn your attention to yourself.
Start asking yourself how you feel about a situation - what do you think?
2. Know what your values are
Think about what is important to you and then why it is important. Our values are unique to us individually, and we get much more out of life when we live in alignment with them. Quite often, someone breaking one of our boundaries will link into our perception that they haven't honoured one of our values.
Try completing these sentences:
- 'People may not...'
- 'I have a right to ask for...'
3. Listen to your feelings and your body
It can be all too easy to live day to day in our heads. We are just busy getting on with what we need to get done. We need to take the time to slow down and register what we are feeling to understand where our lines are being crossed.
If someone does something and you feel uncomfortable, tighter or smaller in some way, tune into that and see what might be underneath.
Don’t start making up stories about the other person’s intentions. Focus on your own feelings and your own needs. How do you feel? What do you need?
4. Do the work to build your self-esteem
If you are someone that is scared of being alone, prioritises relationships and avoids conflict at all costs, your default may be to seek external validation, and therefore you are going to have a hard time asserting your own needs and wants.
It is time to learn to approve of yourself. You may feel guilty for making yourself a priority. See that as a sign you are on the right track.
Learning to approve of yourself also helps you develop a filter for other people’s comments so you can protect your internal boundaries. When you receive a critical comment, for example, you don’t let it into your heart automatically. You assess it and ask questions about whether there is any truth in it and how much is actually about the other person. You ask what you need to do to stand up for yourself.
These are big areas to work on - knowing what’s important to you, connecting with your feelings, and growing your self-esteem. However, they make for solid, strong building material for any boundaries you may then set.
5. Communicate your boundaries
Use simple direct language. For example; 'It is not ok for you to yell at me. If you continue, I may leave the room', or 'Although this group is important to me, I am going to say no to volunteering so that I have enough time with my family'. There is no need to defend or over-explain your boundaries. If questioned, just repeat them.
Don't give in on your boundaries! If you do, you are inviting others to ignore your needs.
6. Finally, be kind to yourself
If this is new to you, it is something you will need to practice. Like any new skill, you are not always going to get it right! You may find for a while that you swing between being really strict and too lenient. You are learning, so be kind to yourself when you mess it up a bit. With practice, you will improve and you will feel both the power and vulnerability of owning your own boundaries.
You may also find it helpful to get some support in setting boundaries so you have encouragement to keep at it! Remember, when you put yourself first, you make yourself fully available to others from a place of fulfilment, without anger or resentment.
Creating healthy boundaries, if you didn’t learn them when young, can seem daunting. Give yourself time and permission to learn, make mistakes, and try again. You are creating a better future for yourself and your relationships. Healthy boundaries let us know where we stand, and that is a loving and safe place to be.