There are many things that come together to define who we are, but one thing you may not think of as a defining characteristic is a boundary. But we aren’t talking about walls you build to keep things out: boundaries are a way to communicate what we want and need from those around us.
Boundaries come in many forms. They can be simple requests you drop in casual conversation such as, “I haven’t watched that episode yet. Please don’t spoil it for me.” Or they can be a more monumental boundary like, “I won’t be attending the family gathering if you continue to insult my viewpoints.” But no matter the size of the boundary, they share the common goal of taking care of our mental and emotional well-being.
In this article, we are going to guide you through the process of setting healthy boundaries and preserving them.
Start by thinking about what you need
Boundaries are not lines we draw-- they are a way of telling the world how we want to be treated. Creating boundaries isn’t a solitary act: it is a dialogue you are starting that opens the door to more effective communication and, ultimately, stronger relationships. Think of boundaries as a way to reach the ideal relationship you want with a person.
So, be honest with yourself and write down everything you need and want. Nothing is off-limits, so don’t hold any punches. At the end of the day, we are the biggest ambassadors for our mental well-being and it does us no good to harbor resentment with uncommunicated boundaries.
When you sit down to think about your boundaries, writer and wellness consultant Alex Elle suggests documenting your wants and needs in a boundary circle. Draw a circle on a page and inside of it, jot down everything you need to feel seen, supported and heard. The things that distract you from that stay outside of the circle.
Be ready to be comfortable with the results
When we talk about the results of your boundary setting, we’re not saying you need to be a fortune teller and try to predict every single outcome. But depending on who your boundaries are with, there may be some discomfort on both sides, especially if you have not set this boundary with them before.
As you’re thinking about your boundaries, you may want to ask yourself some questions like:
- Am I willing to correct this person again if they don’t listen the first time?
- If this person treats me differently after the boundary is set, am I okay with that?
- If this person disrespects my boundaries after multiple warnings, can I follow through with not speaking with them?
These types of questions may sound intimidating, but prioritizing your health and well-being is important and worth a little initial discomfort. After all, the desire to take care of yourself is why you’re setting boundaries in the first place.
How to implement and preserve boundaries
It’s one thing to have a conversation with ourselves about what we want and need. It is an entirely different matter to put the plan into action. But it absolutely can be done: the key is to be confident in your boundaries and be willing to take this important step for yourself.
When setting boundaries, it is important to not attack the other person. Since this is a boundary you are setting for yourself, put yourself first and use “I-statements.” For example, “You need to leave me alone at work,” doesn’t communicate how their behavior affects you. But think about what changes if you say, “I have a hard time focusing when you frequently come by my desk to chat. Can we catch up at lunchtime?” In this case, you are communicating two important things: how their behavior affects you and the ideal outcome you’d like to see happen.
In many cases, you may not need to communicate the consequence of the continued boundary violation: letting them know how you want to be treated could be all you need! But depending on the nature of your relationship and the boundary being set, you may also need to communicate what could happen if the boundary isn’t respected.
For example, if you have a relative that constantly makes jokes that offend you, you could say, “Your comments about my lifestyle hurt my feelings and make me feel very uncomfortable. Please don’t make them around me because I will not be attending the family cookout if you continue to make those jokes.”
If your boundary is violated after you have shared it, go back to the list of questions you asked yourself. Sometimes, people may just need a little grace and a gentle reminder. Other times, you may need to be more assertive and follow through on another action that protects your well-being and safety, such as not attending that family cookout.
And don’t forget: boundaries can shift with your needs and personal growth. The boundaries we may have set years, months or even weeks ago may not be the same boundaries we need today. And you know what? That’s completely normal and okay. The important thing is to be honest with yourself about your needs and communicate them.
Setting boundaries can be hard. You have help.
Like many things in life, setting boundaries becomes easier the more we practice doing it. Being assertive can be intimidating, but you’re not being rude or unkind. By setting boundaries, you are being fair and honest with others, while staying true to yourself and your needs.
To practice, you can start small and see how you feel by setting a casual boundary, such as asking a friend to not spoil a movie’s ending, setting a firm time to leave a party or being honest about what really sounds good for dinner tonight. Or, ask a close friend or family member to practice setting boundaries by role-playing how the conversation may go.
Speaking with a counselor can also be beneficial in helping you set boundaries. To help find one from the comfort of your home, we have an entire article on teletherapy that covers how it works, what to look for in a counselor and what to expect.
The bottom line: Setting boundaries isn’t about pushing people away: it is about communicating your needs and building stronger relationships with those around you. Using “I-statements” allows you to express how people’s actions affect you and how you’d like your relationship to be. Be comfortable with taking steps to protect yourself if your boundaries are continuously violated: your health is worth it. Finally, boundary setting is easier the more you do it: keep practicing and remember to stay true to your needs.