Setting Boundaries With Others

by Carlene Townley

Boundaries are essential to healthy relationships and, really, a healthy life. Setting and sustaining boundaries is a skill. Unfortunately, it’s a skill that many of us don’t learn. We might pick up pointers here and there from experience or through watching others. But for many of us, boundary-building is a relatively new concept and a challenging one. Having healthy boundaries means knowing and understanding what your limits are and enforcing them.

Here are some strategies for building better boundaries and maintaining them.

Name your limits
You can’t set good boundaries if you’re unsure of where you stand. So identify your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits. Consider what you can tolerate and accept and what makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed. Those feelings help us identify what our limits are.

Tune into your feelings
There are two key feelings that are red flags or cues that we are letting go of our boundaries: discomfort and resentment. Think of these feelings on a continuum from one to 10. Six to ten is in the higher zone. If you’re at the higher end of this continuum, during an interaction or in a situation, ask yourself, what is causing that? What is it about this interaction, or the person’s expectation that is bothering me?

Resentment usually comes from being taken advantage of or not appreciated. It’s often a sign that we are pushing ourselves either beyond our own limits because we feel guilty (and want to be a good daughter or wife, for instance), or someone else is imposing their expectations, views or values on us.

When someone acts in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s a cue to us they may be violating or crossing a boundary.

Be direct
With some people, maintaining healthy boundaries doesn’t require a direct and clear-cut dialogue. Usually, this is the case if people are similar in their communication styles, views, personalities and general approach to life.

With others, such as those who have a different personality or cultural background, you’ll need to be more direct about your boundaries. Consider the following example: one person feels that challenging someone’s opinions is a healthy way of communicating, but to another person this feels disrespectful and tense.

There are other times you might need to be direct. For instance, in a romantic relationship, time can become a boundary issue. Partners might need to talk about how much time they need to maintain their sense of self and how much time to spend together.

Give yourself permission
Fear, guilt and self-doubt are big potential pitfalls. We might fear the other person’s response if we set and enforce our boundaries. We might feel guilty by speaking up or saying no to a family member. Many believe that they should be able to cope with a situation or say yes because they’re a good daughter or son, even though they feel drained or taken advantage of. We might wonder if we even deserve to have boundaries in the first place.

Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of self-respect. So give yourself the permission to set boundaries and work to preserve them.

Seek support
If you’re having a hard time with boundaries, seek some support, whether that’s a support group, counseling, or good friends. With friends or family, you can even make it a priority with each other to practice setting boundaries together and hold each other accountable.

Start small
Like any new skill, assertively communicating your boundaries takes practice. Start with a small boundary that isn’t threatening to you, and then incrementally increase to more challenging boundaries. Build upon your success, and try not to take on something that feels overwhelming.

Setting boundaries takes courage, practice and support. And remember that it’s a skill you can master.

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