How to get started with setting boundaries
In today's article, I want to help you to get started with boundaries. Unfortunately, we aren't taught about boundaries in school and we rarely learn them from our parents or caregivers either.
It's usually not until we find ourselves exhausted from spinning round the hamster wheel or in a crazy-making relationship that we are likely to stumble across the concept of setting limits with others.
And when we have the tendency to please others (more than ourselves) and overgive, we probably quickly dismiss the notion of setting boundaries as selfish and unkind and head off in a different direction looking for something easier and less scary to fix our problems!
However, I am here to tell you that setting boundaries is not selfish or unkind.
In the words of Author Terri Cole, boundaries are the key to breaking free from over-functioning, over-delivering, people-pleasing, and ignoring your own needs so you can finally live the life you deserve.
You see, people are not mind readers. They won't 'just know'. So we have to communicate our needs and limits and uphold them, otherwise, people will continue (often unknowingly) to behave in ways that are frustrating and unacceptable.
Boundaries are not walls meant to keep people out.
They are there to show them where the door is! It's up to us to give people directions about what is and isn't acceptable so they can find the way in.
The hard truth is that if the people in your life are behaving badly and taking advantage of you, it's because you are letting them. So let's explore how to identify your limits and begin to communicate them to others so you can start to create a life that includes your needs too...
How to identify when a boundary is needed
Your emotions are your indicator that a boundary is needed or that someone has crossed that invisible line that depicts where you end and they begin.
In her book Boundary Boss, Terri Cole outlines the following boundary baseline checklist that can be a useful guide to the areas that might need some work:
- Do you feel dread or anxiety about speaking up and advocating for yourself?
- Do you avoid telling people if you are unsatisfied?
- Do you tend to ignore your preferences or needs for too long and then explode in frustration?
- Do you have a clear idea of how things should be done and feel frustrated that others appear to be clueless?
- Do you feel sad, angry, hurt or resentful that people don't 'just know' or respect your boundaries?
- Do you go quiet rather than speak up if you disagree with or have a different opinion?
- Have you created problematic relationships because of not being able to speak authentically, share your preferences, or say no?
- Do you often feel offended by or compelled to correct the behaviour of others?
- If you feel betrayed, do you cut people out of your life or avoid them rather than initiate a difficult conversation?
- If friends or family have an issue, do you feel compelled to make suggestions or find solutions for them, even if they have not asked for your help?
When you feel uncomfortable emotions like these, they are your cues to get curious about what is going on inside you. What need is not being met? What are you scared of? What aren't you saying? What feels wrong or difficult?
This is not the time to stuff your feelings down and put some wine and pretty shoes on top and hope they go away! This is the information you need to get started with setting boundaries.
Different types of boundaries
There are a number of different types of boundaries. Here are some examples:
This is about how comfortable we are sharing emotionally with others eg. I'm not comfortable talking about my weight with you.
This is about how we use our time, what our time is worth and what we choose to prioritise eg. I can't help you today but I have time on Monday.
This relates to our thoughts and ideas including how we respond to someone not respecting our ideas, how we communicate with others and when we discuss something Vs when we know it's not a good time eg. if you are going to talk about politics tonight I'm not coming.
This relates to your space and your body. It includes who has permission to touch you and how, and how much personal space you require eg. If you want to pop over please ask first, or, I can't tonight as I'm having an early night.
This is about your material possessions and how others may (or may not) access them. This might look like deciding what you can afford and what you will share with others eg. I can't lend you money this month, or, please take your shoes off when you enter the house.
How to set and uphold a boundary
Take some time to think about the areas of your life (and work) where you'd like to implement some boundaries. You don't have to have a long list, just start with a few.
If you are struggling, think about the things that cause you to feel frustrated, sad, hurt, angry and resentful. These are often signs that someone is crossing your boundaries.
Consider what is it about these situations that are troubling you? How would you like them to be different?
Once you are clearer about where you need some boundaries, you can then start to play with communicating your needs to others.
Now, this is probably going to feel awkward and scary at first because it's new, so give yourself permission to take imperfect action and learn from each experience.
It's also a good idea to start small. Try advocating for yourself and your preferences in low-risk environments and then slowly build up to the bigger and scarier situations.
So how do you communicate your boundaries?
There are many different ways but I really like the collaborative approach taught by Dr Joanna Martin, the founder of the coaching company 'One Of Many'.
This is an approach to use with people you care about rather than the waiter at the restaurant. This way of setting boundaries tries to balance both your and their needs in a respectful way, although this might not always be possible.
Remember you aren't responsible for meeting everyone else's needs!
The process is this:
1. acknowledge the person (validate their position)
2. state the boundary (what you want)
3. consider whether the boundary is a deal-breaker
4. collaborate on the way forward
eg. "It's fine if you choose to work late every night, but that behaviour really doesn't work for me. I feel lonely and disconnected."
Then consider if this is a dealbreaker. If it is, then you need to make that clear by saying:
"If this continues, then the relationship has to end."
However, if the behaviour is annoying, but not necessarily a deal-breaker you would skip this step and instead look for ways that both of you can get your needs met:
"What can we do to balance your need to work and my need for some quality time together?"
The consequences of boundaries
When we start setting boundaries the reality is the people that benefit from our lack of boundaries probably aren't going to like it.
Whilst I'm not suggesting we disregard our relationships with others, it is important to remember that healthy relationships honour our needs and feelings too.
Often when we start to set boundaries understandably we worry about how they will impact others. And I'd like to invite you to also consider how it will impact you if you don't set them and continue to give your power away to other people.
Is your current situation really sustainable? Is it worth sacrificing your health, wellbeing, self-respect and self-worth just to keep the peace and not rock the boat?
Only you can know when you have reached your limits. But my advice is don't wait until you reach a breaking point...
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