Out of all of the themes that emerge in my work with clients struggling with anxiety and relationship issues, how to set better boundaries is one of the most common. Boundaries are so relevant to how we relate to not just others but also ourselves. For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll be focusing primarily on the boundaries we set with other people in our lives.
Building and supporting healthy boundaries can leave us feeling more empowered, fulfilled in our relationships and connected to the things that bring us the most joy.
When our parents, caregivers and systems of oppression don’t give us the best model for what it looks like to have healthy boundaries, we may come to have boundaries that are either too porous, leaving us feeling small and disconnected from our personal power, or too rigid, leaving us feeling hardened and closed off.
It’s important to understand that whatever your current boundaries are (and they often look different across relationships and environments- for example, someone might have really strong boundaries at work but struggle to set limits with family members), they likely come from a place that was once a way of best surviving your circumstances- they just may no longer be serving you as well as they once did.
Here are some tips for establishing healthier boundaries in all facets of your life:
Check in with yourself
We can’t set boundaries that are genuine if we don’t first ask ourselves what we need and want and how certain interactions are impacting us. For folks who have grown up in environments where people-pleasing was the best way to get their needs met, taking a moment to check in with what it is you feel and what you want may seem like a novel idea.
I often encourage my clients to begin this practice of self-inquiry by getting curious about what feelings, thoughts and body sensations are coming up for them throughout the day and in particular, before, during and after interactions with key people in their lives.
You might ask yourself and jot down:
- What am I feeling? (Having a hard time naming it? Try googling “feelings wheel” to get some ideas)
- What do I notice in my body? (For example: tightness in your chest or butterflies in your stomach)
- What thoughts are coming up? (For example: “my opinion doesn’t matter”)
Pay attention to feelings of resentment
Feelings of irritation, anger and resentment are key indicators of boundary violations. One challenging aspect of setting boundaries is that it’s often easier in the short term to let your boundaries slide, but in the long term this only stacks on more layers of resentment.
When you notice that you’re feeling resentful about a particular relationship or interaction, ask yourself:
- What am I tolerating that may be betraying my own needs and values?
- What expectations do I feel like the other person is putting on me? What expectations am I putting on myself?
- What is it about the dynamics and interactions in this relationship that are bothering me?
The first step to any kind of change is naming it, first to ourselves, and then to the other person involved.
Practice assertive communication
Communicating our needs clearly, directly and matter-of-factly is a key component of setting healthy boundaries. Once we’ve gotten clear on what’s bothering us and what we are perhaps no longer willing to tolerate, it’s time to let the other person know.
Assertive communication often begins with “I” statements, but is about so much more than just what we say. How we communicate (think body language, tone of voice, eye contact) says alot about how we are valuing and prioritizing our needs. Practice standing tall, shoulders back and speaking from a place of confidence, courage and clarity.
Know that you don’t need to respond right away
For folks who tend toward people-pleasing and might automatically say “yes”, or on the other hand for folks who tend to automatically say “no” to requests as a way to protect themselves, giving yourself time to respond to an ask can do wonders. This can be as simple as saying “I’m not sure now. Let me check my schedule and get back to you by the end of the day.”
When we give ourselves permission to take some time and space before responding, we can take a moment to check in with and assess what we’re able to take on (or not take on) at any given moment.
Think about the people in your life who seem to set boundaries with ease and confidence. Pay attention to not just what they say but how they say it. Notice what you admire, and ask for tips if you think they’d be open to talking about.
Therapy can also be a great place to explore boundaries and parse out what is and isn’t working for you. Working with a therapist who specializes in relationship issues can help you feel more empowered to set and keep healthier boundaries in your relationships.