How to set & hold a boundary.

One of the most frequent issues that come up in my work with therapy clients is boundaries: How to recognize when boundaries are needed, how to set them, maintain them, not feel guilty for having them, and the list goes on!

Boundaries are the limits and rules you set for yourself within relationships. In order to have healthy boundaries, it’s important first to be aware of and prioritize your preferences, needs, desires, limits, dealbreakers, then communicate them to others. This article will explain how to reconnect with your emotions in order to recognize when a boundary needs to be set, and how to communicate and maintain boundaries in your relationships.

Let your feelings be your guide. In a recent post about people-pleasing, I wrote about how feelings are information. For example, if you’re sad, maybe it’s because you miss someone or lost something important to you. If you’re scared, maybe there is a threat in your presence and you need to get to safety. Often, feelings are trying to provide you with information for you pay attention to, including alerting you to the possibility that you may need to set a boundary. What feelings (i.e. anger, hurt, resentment, exhaustion, bitterness, etc.) tend to alert you to the fact that a boundary may be in order? Use mindfulness to help yourself recognize when these feelings are present and what they’re trying to tell you.

Pro Tip: Try not to wait until your feelings have reached exploding doormat stage before you finally decide to act on them by setting a boundary. You will have a much higher chance of success by being calm and levelheaded when setting boundaries, and/or setting them earlier rather than later.

Decide your terms. Be present with the feelings that have come up and allow them to inform your needs. Let them help you decide what needs to change in order for you to feel safe/better about a situation or relationship. For example: Do you need to say no? Stop giving as much of your time/money/advice? Take a break? Tell someone what they did upset you and not to do it again? Seek clarity? This part of the boundary-setting process may take a little time, so resist the urge to react immediately if you don’t have to.

Pro Tip: A key point to remember about deciding your terms is that no one else can do this for you. Why? Because they’re not you. The things they might be fine with might not be okay with you and that doesn’t make you less of a person. Try to be as honest with yourself as possible about your needs, limits, the things you can accept and the things you can’t, because only honesty with yourself will allow you to arrive at boundaries you need.

Communicate said terms to the appropriate parties. I could probably write an entire post about how to communicate boundaries to others, but for now I’ll simply advise you to use as much confident body language as you can, think about what you what you want to say ahead of time, be respectful (opening the conversation with something positive never hurts), and be open to the other person’s perspectives and feelings.

Pro Tip: Just because you communicate a boundary to someone doesn’t mean they’ll respect or even agree with it, and you have to be prepared for this. Remember that you can only control yourself, which brings me to…

Commit to having your own back, even when it’s hard. People who struggle with boundaries have a tendency to second-guess themselves and have trouble saying no. You may set a boundary with someone and they’ll receive it well…maybe even with appreciation. Alternatively, you may be met with pushback, denial of your reality, manipulation, guilt-tripping, or attacks on your character. People who already struggle with feeling they have a right to their feelings and needs can find themselves crumbling under the pressure from a negative or invalidating reaction. If this happens, remember that your boundaries are valid (they’re based on your needs, after all) and that you can’t get another person to change.

Pro Tip: Even though you can’t change another person or control their reaction to your boundaries, remember that you can still maintain your boundaries by choosing to continue to honor your needs or removing yourself from an unhealthy situation. You are in the driver’s seat!

Boundaries are a means of holding both yourself and others accountable, and a necessary hallmark of all healthy relationships. If you struggle with boundaries and want to improve in this area, I recommend the book Boundary Boss by Terri Cole. You may also consider enlisting a boundary “buddy” (someone who can encourage you as you practice this new skill and vice versa) or working with a mental health professional.

You can do this!

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© 2022 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

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