Tips for Setting Boundaries (Without Feeling Guilty)
Boundaries serve two main functions:
- Boundaries tell others how you want to be treated (what’s okay and what’s not okay). Boundaries protect you from being mistreated.
- Boundaries create a healthy separation (physical and emotional) between you and others. Boundaries allow you to have your own personal space and privacy, your own feelings, thoughts, needs, and ideas. They allow you to be yourself rather than an extension of someone else or who someone else wants you to be.
If you didn’t grow up with clear and consistent boundaries or expectations (this often happens in enmeshed, alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional families), they probably don’t come naturally to you. You may feel guilty or unjustified in asking for what you want or need.
But you can untwist your negative beliefs about boundaries and learn to set them without feeling guilty. These five tips can help you get started.
5 tips to help you set healthy boundaries
- Be clear about what you want.
Before you set a boundary, you need to get really specific about what you want and why it’s important. This will help you communicate your needs clearly and stay the course when it gets tough. When you’re preparing to set a difficult boundary, you may find it helpful to write down exactly what you want and why. Some people find that writing a script and rehearsing what they’ll say and do, helps reduce their anxiety.
- Be direct and don’t apologize for your needs.
When communicating your boundaries, it’s most effective to be direct and succinct. If you couch your boundary in excessive explanations, justifications, or apologies, you water down your message. Notice the difference between these two statements:
“Hey, Ethan, I’m sorry but it turns out that I’m not going to be able to work for you next Saturday.”
“Hey, Ethan, I’m really sorry, but I can’t cover your shift on Saturday. I really want to, but, you know, my son has his last baseball game. I feel like I should be there for him. I know I told you I could work, but I forgot about the game. I hope you’re not mad at me. I know I need to put things on my calendar. I’m so forgetful.”
The second example reinforces the notion that it’s wrong for you to say no. Instead, just keep it simple and remember that you have the right to ask for what you want/need – you don’t have to justify it with a “good” reason.
- Expect resistance and don’t let it deter you.
When you start setting boundaries, some people will respond poorly. This is common – they’re usually the people who have been benefiting from your lack of boundaries, so they don’t want you to change. Some people may just need time to adjust to your new behavior. While others will use anger to try to manipulate and coerce you away from setting boundaries.
One of the most common reasons for not setting boundaries is a fear of conflict. You don’t want to upset or anger people, so you sacrifice your own needs and wants to keep the peace. It’s tempting to return to passivity when others don’t like your boundaries. However, even when your boundaries provoke anger or resistance, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set them. It means that you need to ask for help and take steps to keep yourself safe (such as not being alone with a person who is threatening, aggressive, or volatile). Sometimes it helps to remember that when people resist your boundaries, it’s confirmation that the boundaries are needed.
You aren’t responsible for how others react to your boundaries. You don’t have to make them feel better or take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. You are only responsible for your own feelings and actions.
- Setting boundaries is an on-going process.
If you’re a parent, you know that you have to repeatedly set rules (a form of boundaries) and tell your kids what you expect from them. Setting boundaries with adults is the same. We need to continuously set boundaries; we can’t just set a boundary and be done with it. You may need to set the same boundary repeatedly with the same person. And as your needs change, you’ll need to set different boundaries.
- Boundaries are for your own wellbeing, not to control others.
Boundaries should never be an attempt to control or punish others. They’re actually a form of self-care – something you do for your own wellbeing (although others benefit as well). Boundaries protect you from being taken advantage of, overcommitting, overworking, feeling overwhelmed, and physical and emotional abuse or harm.
Of course, we all want people to respect our boundaries, but we have to accept that we can’t make them. We should set boundaries as a statement of who we are and what we need. Your boundaries say, “I matter. My feelings matter. My ideas matter. My health matters. My dreams matter. My needs matter.” And if others won’t treat you well, you have options. You can emotionally detach, physically distance yourself. or end the relationship. Boundaries are about doing what’s right for you, not about forcing others to do what you want.
Setting boundaries is a skill that takes practice and I hope these five tips make setting boundaries a bit easier. If you’re just beginning to set boundaries, you may feel guilty and perhaps even selfish or mean. This is because it’s new, not because you’re doing something wrong. Your needs are valid and setting boundaries will get easier the more you do it!