I’ve always had trouble setting boundaries.
When I was a teenager, I went along with whatever parents, teachers, and others in authority said. I didn’t question them for a moment, even if it didn’t feel right to me, and would resent them for my own obedience afterward.
In my early 20s, I wanted so very badly to please my first husband that I lost my sense of self. What did I like? What did I want? I couldn’t remember anymore.
I never felt as if he respected me in the way he should, but I’d excuse his behavior. He didn’t mean for it to come across like that, I’d tell myself.
In the past five years (my 30s, if you’re keeping track!), I’ve said yes to countless things that I loathed. I wanted nothing more than to run the opposite direction, but then I’d disappoint someone. And their unhappiness would be all my fault.
I’ve always had trouble setting boundaries.
Signs You Need Boundaries
…feel responsible for others’ happiness?
…feel responsible for resolving or helping to resolve others’ problems?
…feel guilty for the smallest things?
…believe others don’t respect you?
…find yourself doing what others want you to do over what you want to do?
…hardly ever say no?
…almost always go along with the decisions of your parent, spouse, or boss, even if/when you don’t agree?
…feel resentful toward others, even though you agreed to their requests or expectations?
…excuse others’ poor behavior, even at the expense of your own well-being?
…feel as if you are the victim in most situations?
…act passive-aggressively toward others?
…find it difficult to make a decision for yourself?
…lack a sense of who you really are?
What Exactly Are Boundaries?
If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, you might just have trouble setting boundaries too!
I never realized I had trouble with boundaries until this year when, within just a few minutes of meeting me, my therapist asked me what I knew about boundaries. And frankly, I didn’t know much!
I love how the Harley Therapy Counseling Blog defines boundaries. “Personal boundaries are the limits you decide work for you on how people can treat you, how they can behave around you, and what they can expect from you.”
Boundaries help to define what’s most important to you and then protect it from being trampled over by others. They help to safeguard your time, energy, and emotions from being controlled, manipulated, or abused by others.
Contrary to what some of the boundary “pushers” in my life would have me believe, boundaries are not selfish, insensitive, or unloving. Quite the opposite, boundaries are at the heart of every healthy and loving relationship!
An Example of Setting Boundaries
They might be easier to understand using an example. Someone might set the (very healthy) boundary that they will not participate in fights where name-calling or item-throwing is in play.
This is a fair and reasonable boundary. Two adults should be perfectly capable of expressing and working out differing opinions without calling one another names or throwing/breaking things in anger.
So the boundary-setter would express to their spouse (or whoever it is) that they’re open to civil discussion but will leave the conversation if either they or their spouse resort to name-calling or breaking things. It’s best to set this boundary before the situation actually comes into play, if possible.
The next time their spouse throws something in anger during a disagreement, the boundary-setter will take their stand. “I’m open to discussing this, but I won’t stay here while you throw and break things. Let’s try this another time.” Then the boundary-setter will leave, as promised.
A Step-By-Step Guide to Setting Boundaries
Did reading that scenario give you anxiety? Setting boundaries will give you anxiety at first! After all, you’ve been pushed around your entire life and it’s likely none of your boundary-pushers will be happy about this change.
But I can promise you from my own experience, it gets easier every time you practice it! So how can you get started setting boundaries?
Identify your limits.
You can’t set boundaries until you identify exactly where to set them. So start by taking a few moments to think about your physical, mental, and emotional limits.
What level of involvement feels doable? What level makes you uncomfortable and/or stresses you out?
For example, I feel as if stuffing backpacks at my daughter’s preschool for 20 minutes Wednesday mornings is a completely doable level of involvement there. But the idea of volunteering one full day a week? I could probably pull it off, but it would be to the detriment of my current workload, stress levels, and self-care.
So there’s my limit! I cannot volunteer one full day a week, even if they ask me directly. It’s just not in the cards for this season of my life.
Listen to your feelings.
Discomfort and resentment are the two biggest indicators that boundaries have been crossed. So the next time you feel resentful, take a moment to assess the situation and ask yourself why exactly that is.
Do you feel the other person is setting unreasonable expectations for you? Or maybe they’re not appreciating the hard work you’re putting in? This might be an area in dire need of boundary setting.
Be direct and specific.
Other people cannot read your mind. For example, you might believe it’s obviously insensitive when your spouse steamrolls your feelings and calls them “silly.” I agree that seems pretty obvious.
But your spouse might not see it that way! They might have grown up in a household where their father treated their mother that way and everyone just accepted it. Or they might have lower emotional intelligence and find it difficult to identify and respond appropriately to others’ feelings.
This is exactly why you have to communicate directly and with specific details. “It makes me feel unimportant when I express my feelings and they aren’t acknowledged. I need others to respond respectfully when I express my concerns.”
Make it about you.
Did you notice how the statement above shifted the focus to how you feel and what you need? “It makes me feel unimportant when I express my feelings and they aren’t acknowledged. I need…”
In fact, the statement above doesn’t even include a single “you” directed at the recipient. Instead of saying, “you are not acknowledging how I feel,” it says, “when my feelings aren’t acknowledged.”
It seems like a very slight difference and perhaps a silly, overly-sensitive play on words. People just need to stop being so easily offended, am I right?!
But this is an area where wordplay can pay off big! Because the second someone receives a direct accusation, they jump into defense mode, making your conversation much less productive. It’s easier for people to hear and receive your message when it’s positioned more generally.
The fact is that you don’t owe anyone a justification for your feelings or actions. And when you overly explain and justify your boundary, the message you’re really sending is that you don’t deserve to be respected without justification. And friend, that’s just not true!
As challenging as it may feel, state your boundary and stop talking. Simply lay it down and wait for the other person’s response. You might just be surprised by the outcome!
Your boundaries won’t mean much if you never follow through. Although you’re likely setting boundaries with adults, it’s very similar to setting boundaries with children.
So if you say to your child, “If you do XYZ, you’ll have to sit in time-out for five minutes,” but never follow through on that promise, your child won’t have much motivation to respect the rules you’ve set.
The same is true with adults. If you say you won’t be a part of conversations that involve throwing and breaking things, but then stick around the next time it happens, your boundary won’t hold any weight with the other person.
The first boundary you set will feel challenging and most likely a bit awkward. So before you jump straight to that huge boundary you know you need to set, start by setting a much smaller boundary with minimal consequences to you. The practice will build your confidence, provide valuable feedback, and help you to tweak your approach for the next boundary.
Setting boundaries can feel incredibly daunting on your own, especially if it’s your first time doing it. I personally started talking through and setting boundaries with the help of a licensed therapist.
She helped me to decide on reasonable expectations for different relationships, talked through the conversations with me before I held them, then acted as a valuable sounding board afterward. It also helped to talk with someone who didn’t know me or the other person personally, and so was less likely to choose sides.
You’re Gonna Love Setting Boundaries
If you’re ready to stop feeling guilty and resentful all the time then you, my friend, need to start setting boundaries. Identify your limits, be specific and to-the-point, follow through, start small, and seek help.
It will feel challenging and a little anxiety-inducing at first. But I can promise you, you’ll love the results!
P.S. Ready to start living life on your terms? Then be sure to nab our free Take Charge Collection of 15 printable resources here!
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