If you are having a hard time figuring out how to set boundaries in relationships, you are not alone. Here is a sampling of recent comments from other readers of Solutions To All Your Problems:
“One thing I’ve always struggled with is boundaries. I’ve carried on friendships and relationships far too long in the past just because I didn’t know how to get out of them. A lot of my friendships have been one sided… everything is about the other person and me listening to their problems, attending to their needs… I have been working to teach my kids to establish boundaries and speak up for themselves. But even as an adult I struggle with saying no to people and doing what is best for me.”
“I would love to see your take on having boundaries – particularly when it comes to difficult people or people you cannot simply eject from your life… I find having one incident or fall out with a boundary pusher can wipe me out for days sometimes. It is that emotionally draining.”
“I have friends who want to ‘dump’ all their stress and emotional issues on me but if I try to share my struggles it’s time for them to go. It’s like I’m an emotional dumping ground.”
“Sad part is how much rejection I’ve faced even from immediate family. I’m 47 years old and just getting to that place where I totally accept and embrace me. I don’t feel bad to refuse invitations to social events nor do I feel bad to just turn away and be quiet in social gatherings. My new motto is ‘they’re not living my life’. But there’s still a bit of sadness when people ‘accuse’ me of ‘not wanting to go anywhere’ or call me boring. People could really be mean. How do you deal with that?”
Count me in, guys! Setting boundaries is H.A.R.D. A few years ago, someone gave me this piece of advice:
Schedule time for yourself first, for the people you love second, and for your work and everything else third.
My immediate response was “But, I can’t!”
The reason I felt so strongly that I couldn’t possibly use this approach to scheduling was that I had no boundaries. And because I had no boundaries, my life had spilled out of my control. I was not in charge. I was powerless. In effect, my life was owned by other people. Other people’s needs ruled.
Fast forward to today… My life is very different today. These days, I do schedule time for self care first, husband and kids second, and work third. These days, I’m the boss of my own life. 🙂
All thanks to learning how to set boundaries in relationships.
And that’s what I want for you too, dear reader. I want you to feel like the boss of your own life. So let’s go over everything I have learned about setting boundaries.
How To Set Boundaries In Relationships
1. What Are Boundaries
Simply put, boundaries are rules about what you are willing to do and how you are willing to be treated in relationships.
They are a sort of container that help keep your life aligned with what you want out of it and what is best for you. When I didn’t have boundaries – when there was no container – my life spilled out of my control. Much of what I did and how I was being treated were being decided by other people. I was not in charge.
Living without boundaries gives people the freedom to suck your life energy out of you at will.
Setting boundaries frees up energy so that you can use it toward things that matter to you the most.
Setting boundaries puts you in charge of writing the rules.
Setting boundaries is key to living an intentional life.
2. Why You Have A Hard Time Setting Boundaries
Here are a few possible reasons why you may be having a hard time setting boundaries:
- Your boundaries were repeatedly violated as a child, so you learned that your boundaries were not important.
- You were emotionally neglected as a child, so you didn’t have the opportunity to practice appropriate boundary setting skills.
- Your family, school, and/or religious institution kept emphasizing things like “being nice” and “serving other people”, but they didn’t counterbalance this message with the importance of also taking care of yourself.
- You are an empath with a keen sense of how other people in your presence are feeling at all times. You have a hard time standing up for yourself if it means potentially making other people feel bad.
3. There Are No “Right” Or “Wrong” Boundaries
One other reason setting boundaries is hard is that there is no universal set of boundaries that are “right” for everyone.
Different Boundaries For Different People
Different boundaries work for different people.
Your boundaries should be unique to you. Your boundaries should be aligned with your personality and preferences.
For example, I like to make plans and stick to them. I don’t like interruptions and I don’t like sudden changes in plans. There are certain circumstances where I might enjoy spontaneity, but even that has to be planned in advance. 🙂 A person like me benefits from strict boundaries around my schedule.
Other people might feel confined by strict schedules and love having as much spontaneity as possible in their lives. These people might choose to have a lot more flexible boundaries around their schedules.
Different Boundaries For Different Phases Of Life
Your boundary needs might change as your life circumstances change.
This summer, I have all three of my kids home with me full time. Consequently my scant introverting time is protected with 10-foot tall brick walls, barbed wire, and hunky body guards walking around with machine guns. When the kids all go to school this fall and I’ll be at home by myself all day every day, I predict I’m going to be a lot more flexible with my time on evenings and weekends. Brick walls will come tumbling down. 😉
4. Different Boundaries For Different Relationships
Most people have different boundaries for different types of relationships:
- Other relatives
- Close friends
There may be some rules that apply to everyone in your life, but you might be more flexible with people close to you. For example:
- Nobody is allowed to hit you.
- Your spouse is allowed to put his hand on your butt – a drunk acquaintance at a party not so much.
- Your kids are allowed to wake you up in the middle of the night if they need something – your workaholic boss not so much.
5. The Parts Of You That Might Need Boundaries
To help you think through all the rules you might want to set, let’s go over the parts of you that might need boundaries.
Boundaries Of Thought
- Who has final authority over how you think about things or what your opinions are? Is it you or someone else?
- Do you automatically believe and absorb what other people say about you or do you think for yourself?
Boundaries Of Body
- Who is allowed to touch you and in what ways?
- Who is allowed to interfere with and/or comment on your health and self care routines (sleep, nutrition, exercise) and under what circumstances?
Boundaries Of Preferences
- Who is allowed to interfere with and/or comment on what you like to do and how you like to do it and under what circumstances?
- Who is allowed to interfere with and/or comment on your routines or your lack of routines and under what circumstances?
- Who is allowed to interfere with and/or comment on your values and life goals and under what circumstances?
Boundaries Of Time
- Who is allowed to interfere with and/or comment on how you schedule your time or what you spend your time on?
- How flexible do you want to be about the time you allocate for sleep, exercise, household, work, socializing, hobbies, etc.?
Boundaries Of Home
- Who is allowed to visit your home, when, with how much advance notice, and for how long?
Boundaries Of Interaction
- Who is allowed to ignore you in conversation and under what circumstances?
- Who is allowed to interrupt you and under what circumstances?
- Who is allowed to dump on you emotionally and under what circumstances?
- Who is allowed to use an aggressive tone of voice with you and under what circumstances?
- Who is allowed to to raise their voice around you and under what circumstances?
- Who is allowed to criticize you and under what circumstances?
- Who (if anyone) is allowed to call you names and under what circumstances?
- Who (if anyone) is allowed to attack your personality traits, preferences, or values and under what circumstances?
6. Consequences Of Boundary Violations
When considering the potential consequences of boundary violations, it might be helpful to keep in mind different degrees of boundary violation:
- Unintentional boundary violation
- Repeated unintentional boundary violation
- Intentional boundary violation
- Repeated intentional boundary violation
Possible consequences of boundary violations might include:
- Stating your preference in a friendly tone with a smile on your face
- Stating your preference in a firm tone
- Stating your preference in a firm tone and with a warning that you will leave if the violation is repeated
- Leaving the situation
- Leaving the relationship
7. Non-Confrontational Boundary Enforcement
I’m very conflict averse and I know many of you are the same way. It can be helpful to keep in mind that enforcing your boundaries doesn’t always require conflict or major confrontation.
Here are four techniques for non-confrontational boundary enforcement. Please note that by sharing these techniques and the accompanying examples, I’m not trying to tell you what your boundaries should be or what kind of consequences you should set. That is up to you. 🙂 I’m simply sharing these examples to give you some options and to help you get started thinking about what all of this might look like in practice.
Technique #1: Preventing Boundary Violations From Happening In The First Place
In some relationships, it might be possible to prevent most boundary violations by openly talking about your “rules” before your boundaries are ever violated.
For example, a married couple might have a conversation about what each person’s boundaries are in different life areas in order to get on the same page.
Another option is to casually drop hints about your preferences in conversation:
I’m a stickler about my schedule.
I love my quiet time.
I’m just not very touchy-feeley.
Technique #2: Stating Your Preference In A Friendly Tone With A Smile On Your Face
Because there is no universal set of boundaries that are right for everyone, people often cross another person’s boundaries unintentionally. In these situations, I try to remember that other people are not mind readers and it’s my job to protect my boundaries. Since they probably didn’t “mean it” I will usually respond in a friendly tone.
Boundary Violation: A touchy-feeley acquaintance tries to hug you, not realizing that you only welcome hugs from immediate family.
Response: I’m just not a big hugger. 🙂
Boundary Violation: A go-with-the-flow neighbor stops by unannounced on a Saturday afternoon just to chat, not realizing that you have time blocked your weekend in half hour increments in order to fit in all your plans.
Response: I’m kind of in the middle of a bunch of stuff right now, so I’d better get back to it. I have a pretty tight schedule today, but let’s catch up again soon. 🙂
Boundary Violation: An extravert friend keeps interrupting you and talking over you, not realizing that you are having a hard time getting a word in.
Response: You know, I’ve been reading about introverts and extraverts lately. It’s pretty interesting. Apparently our brains work differently. It takes introverts longer to figure out what to say, so it helps if the extravert pauses or asks follow-up questions every now and then. 🙂
Boundary Violation: A relative jokingly calls you a hermit for wanting to skip family dinner in order to relax at home, not realizing that you are tired of having your preferences constantly commented on.
Response: Those kinds of comments are kind of starting to get to me. This is just who I am. I like having my down time. 🙂
Technique #3: Letting A Relationship Fade
If someone unintentionally crosses my boundaries all the time, it’s usually a sign that this person isn’t a great match for me. Even if the person doesn’t “mean it”, it’s a sign that we are probably not on the same wave-length and have different needs when it comes to relationships. Sometimes two people are simply incompatible and making things work would require more compromise than either party is willing to put into it. In these cases, I find it best to either minimize contact or let the relationship fade completely.
Letting the relationship fade may also be a follow-up action in cases where Techniques #1 and #2 don’t work. Perhaps the person is just not getting the message and I want out without a big show-down.
How do you let a relationship fade? Well, you simply don’t initiate contact and politely decline any invitations with a plausible excuse. Most people will get tired of asking and the invitations will stop in short order.
Technique #4: Blaming Yourself
Technically, I don’t think I owe boundary violators any explanation, especially if they have violated my boundaries intentionally. However, sometimes I want to decline an invitation or get out of a relationship and I feel like offering an explanation would help to keep the situation from becoming confrontational. In these cases, I just go with a version of the truth that puts the blame on me rather than the other party:
Sorry, I’m not able to be a very good friend these days. I’m going through some crap right now.
I’m cutting down on socializing for a while. I really need quiet time and I’m having a hard time making that happen.
I’ve been really stressed out lately and I just need some time to get my shit together.
Sorry, I’m way over committed right now.
I’m pretty overwhelmed with everything on my plate, so I need to focus on getting my life in order for a while.
8. Confronting A Boundary Violator
As much as some of us would like to avoid it, confrontation is sometimes required in order to protect your boundaries. In my experience, being able to talk about boundaries is especially crucial in long-term relationships. If you are in regular contact with someone and you want to continue to be, you need to be clear about your rules.
You could start by stating how the other person’s actions make you feel:
When you do X, it makes me feel Y. I need to feel Z.
When you use an aggressive tone of voice, it makes me feel scared. I need to feel safe.
When you interrupt me, it makes me feel unimportant. I need to feel like I matter.
When you criticize my personal preferences, it makes me feel sad and rejected. I need to feel accepted.
That’s all that might be needed if the other person cares about your feelings. But sometimes it’s necessary to follow up with a warning:
If you don’t stop doing X, I’m going to Y.
If you keep interrupting me, I’m going to have to end this conversation.
If you are not able to accept me the way I am, I’m going to have to leave.
9. Ways To Make Setting Boundaries Easier
Let’s be honest here. For some of us, setting boundaries will never be easy. Everything I’ve covered above sounds great in theory, but then when you think about implementing it all in the real world, you might just be filled with dread. Am I right?
With that being said, there are ways to make setting boundaries easier.
When it comes to setting boundaries, the more you prepare, the more prepared you will feel.
So I recommend that you really think all this through and even take the extra step of writing it all down:
- Write down what your boundaries are.
- Write down the consequences for different degrees of boundary violations.
- Think about how exactly you will carry out those consequences. What will you do or what will you say?
- Think about past instances of boundary violations. What could you have done or said differently? What can you do or say in a similar situation in the future?
The more clarity you have and the more you think things through in advance, the easier it will be to enforce your boundaries.
If there is one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that attempting too much change at once almost always backfires. And this applies to boundaries as well.
Know that you don’t have to go from zero boundaries to perfect boundaries overnight. You can break this process down and inch forward in baby steps rather than giant leaps. Small progress is better than no progress.
You could start by noticing when your boundaries are being violated.
You could focus on one area of your life or one type of relationship at a time when you are ready to start practicing enforcement.
You could start with the non-confrontational techniques.
You could start with someone safe.
Buy Time And Use Email
I used to be an auto-pilot-yes-girl. It didn’t matter what anyone would ask of me, my answer would be yes. On auto-pilot. Just because it was SO incredibly hard for me to “be disagreeable”, risk conflict of any kind, and say no.
The way for me to finally break this habit was not to go directly into “no” (way too scary 😉 ), but to start buying extra time for myself:
Let me think about it for a moment and get back to you.
Let me check my calendar and get back to you.
And then deliver my final answer via email or text. This way I would have time to consider exactly what I wanted to do and figure out exactly what I wanted to say. Plus, it’s much easier to say “no” in writing than face-to-face.
Remembering What’s At Stake
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I want to remind you that what’s at stake here is your life.
Your Time = Your Life.
Your Experiences = Your Life.
Your Relationships = Your Life.
You are in charge.