Boundaries. We’re hearing a lot about them lately.
But what exactly are they?
Boundaries are limits we set with other people in order to protect our relationships – and ourselves. They are guidelines we communicate to others regarding how we want want (and need) to be treated. In fact, a healthy relationship cannot exist without boundaries. Without them, frustration and disappointment can fester and resentment is sure to build.
For some, boundary-setting comes naturally. For others, the process is unintuitive and must be learned. Learning how to set boundaries is a skill that can be acquired and rehearsed until it becomes more second nature.
A Beginner’s Guide to Setting Effective Boundaries
So, how do you do it? Here’s a quick and simple guide:
1. Know yourself. Knowing who you are and what you stand for is an important first step in setting boundaries. How can you get what you want – and avoid what you don’t – if you don’t know yourself well? Focus on identifying what makes you uniquely you. What makes you tick? What are your values, interests, and goals?
2. Observe others. Identify people in your life who are good at setting limits. How do they manage this? What common behaviors can you identify that help these folks with setting appropriate boundaries? Observe and see if you can model any of these behaviors.
3. Be intentional with your time. Are you mindful of how you spend your time? If you were to “pie chart” how you spend your days and weeks, is the chart representative of your values? If not, make adjustments (if possible) to account for any discrepancies.
4. Assess your needs. In any situation, see if you can check in with yourself and figure out what you need – and what you don’t. State your preferences clearly and unapologetically.
5. Say no. As the saying goes, “‘No is a complete sentence.’” Practice saying no firmly and confidently. A variation of no I like is, “That doesn’t work for me.”
6. Be direct. Don’t beat around the bush. Be clear and concise with your communications.
7. State your feelings. In order to do this, first you have to know what you’re feeling. Practice identifying your emotions by recognizing physical sensations and mental signs, as well as action urges (what you want to do behaviorally). Then communicate your feelings without apology (e.g., “I’m frustrated that. . .”, “I’m sad because. . .”). With practice, emotional communication gets easier over time.*
8. Prioritize yourself. This might seem selfish at first glance, but making yourself a priority is self-preservational. After all, who else is going to prioritize you? Take care of yourself for yourself and so that you can care for others. You can’t pour from an empty cup, they say. Know what you need and prioritize your needs in order to avoid resentment.
9. Take breaks. Build in space from tasks, people, and demands in order to rest and engage in self-care. Breaks don’t necessarily need to be long or drawn out – just sufficient to allow you to return to a person, situation, or demand a bit more replenished. Breaks can be physical or mental, brief or more extended.
10. Practice and fine-tune. Many of these behaviors are foreign and may be uncomfortable at first. Experiment with them. What worked? What could use a little finessing? Just like anything else, boundary setting takes practice. Rehearsal will lead to greater ease and efficacy over time. In the long run, establishing boundaries will help you to feel less resentful and more in control of your time and your life.
*Group therapy is wonderful venue in which to learn how to identify and express your feelings.