A Step by Step Guide to Setting Healthy Boundaries
Relationships can be tricky. Everyone has their own likes, dislikes, personalities, etc. and when you enter into a relationship with someone, whether that is a family member, a friend, a romantic partner, or a coworker, you have to learn how to peacefully coincide with those people.
Unfortunately, most of us have been through some shit and have developed bad habits or personality traits due to the way we were raised, who our friends are, or survival tactics our brains have developed in order to keep ourselves safe that can make other people feel uncomfortable, disrespected, or hurt.
I've been in therapy again since July and one of the things I've learned about myself since then is due to the way I was raised, the abuse I experienced as a child, and some other reasons, is that this is something I really struggle with. I have a hard time setting and respecting other people's boundaries.
This is a problem.
Boundaries are important because those are what keep us and other people feeling safe, happy, respected, loved, etc. in relationships. If you are constantly letting people walk all over you just for the sake of keeping them happy, you're going to be miserable. The same is true for the opposite side: if you disrespect other people's boundaries, you cause them to feel negative feelings towards you that may lead to them not wanting to be in a relationship with you.
Why do I bring this up?
This is actually a topic that my therapist and I have been working on: both setting and respecting boundaries. Today I want to focus on setting boundaries because one, if you're a people pleaser like me, you probably struggle with setting boundaries more than you do respecting them, and two, the holiday season is officially upon us and if there ever was a time to practice setting boundaries with other people, this is the time of year to do so.
I'm going to share the steps that my therapist is having me practice in my own personal life along with my experience and observations in walking through this process myself. I won't lie to you and say that this is easy and once you read this post, you'll be an expert at it, but you'll at least have some of the tools and steps you need to practice this in your own life and relationships.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health or people expert, I am just a woman who has been through a lot of fucked up things, dealt with a lot of toxic and unhealthy people, and been to a lot of therapy. As the Farmers Insurance commercial says, "We know a thing or two because we've seen a thing or two." I'm just sharing my experiences and knowledge. If this is something you also struggle with, I recommend speaking to a mental health professional and not just taking my word for it.
Define What Line is Being Crossed
Whenever I'm in therapy and I'm telling my therapist about a situation that happened during my week that either made me uncomfortable or left me feeling hurt, the first thing she usually does is asks me what specific instance in that situation caused the initial negative reaction. Sometimes it's things people say, sometimes it's something they did, sometimes it's the things they didn't say or didn't do, etc.
An example of this is when people are passive agressive towards me and say things like, "Oh I would have done xyz, but you told me not to" or "guess I'll just do it myself" it really really frustrates me. That's a boundary that is being crossed because it creates a negative reaction in me, and I don't like that for myself.
Decide an Appropriate Boundary
In my experience, there are different levels of boundaries : common sense, casual, and extreme. Depending on the situation and how the person responds depends on what boundary needs to be set.
Common sense boundaries are exactly that: common sense. Things like don't bother someone while they're working, don't touch people without their consent, knock before you go into a closed room, don't listen to blaring music when people are sleeping, etc. would be instances I would classify as having a common sense boundary; you shouldn't have to set these out loud (unless you're dealing with a child, in which they are still learning what boundaries are and have very little common sense).
Casual boundaries are what I've learned you would use in situation where either a common sense boundary is being ignored or you're dealing with something that can be easily solved with a spoken boundary. "Please don't borrow my clothes without asking first," "In order to help us manage our money better, we will both discuss purchases over $100 before we go out and spend that money," "We're not going to discuss politics during the holidays anymore," etc.
Extreme boundaries are for instances where your physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual, intellectual, and overall general health are in some sort of danger. An extreme boundary can look like not allowing people to visit your home because they don't respect your space, cutting off contact with someone because they're extremely toxic and cause you to feel anxious, depressed, etc., refusing to let someone be around you or your children because they've given you reason to believe they're not a safe person to be around, or blocking someone on social media because they are constantly attacking you or making you feel unsafe or uncomfortable.
Make the Boundary Clear to the Other Person
Unfortunately, people are not mind readers. If you want someone to change their behavior, you have to tell them what behavior you want them to change. Now there are two ways to do this: you can either address the boundary as it's being broken or you can have a separate conversation with the person.
An example of addressing the boundary in the moment can be when someone calls you a nickname you don't like, you can say, "Hey I really don't like that nickname, please don't call me that." This is a good way to address isolated incidents, such as it's the first or second time that boundary has been broken.
Pulling the person aside to address a broken boundary is what I personally save for more serious things or when addressing it in the moment will do more harm than good. For example, when my husband and I argue, if he does something that crosses one of my boundaries, I won't bring it up then, but I'll wait until both of us have calmed down or the argument is over before saying someone like, "Hey, I didn't like the way you reacted about this when we arguing." and have an entirely separate conversation about it.
It's important to be very clear about what boundary you are setting and why it's an issue to break it because then the other person has no excuse or way to blame you for miscommunicating if they break it again.
Offer an Alternative Appropriate Behavior
Let's go back to the nickname example from the last point. They call you a nickname you're not a fan of, and then you say, "Hey I really don't like that nickname, please don't call me that." You've then set your boundary very clearly, now give them an alternative behavior to practice. "You can call me xyz instead."
This is important because, in my experience, people don't like to be told no and have a hard time completely stopping bad behaviors just because they were told to stop them. By giving them an alternative, they now know what your preferred behaviors are and are more likely to try and change.
Set a Consequence For a Broken Boundary
I'm really bad at this because I'm an insane people pleaser, but my therapist says that this is important to do because if you don't then there is nothing stopping them from continuously disrespecting your boundaries. It doesn't have to be a crazy boundary; it can be as small as "If you keep talking to me like that, I'm going to hang up the phone," to as big as, "If you cannot respect me and my home, I will not allow you to come over to visit anymore."
The other important thing about setting a consequence for breaking a boundary is that you have to follow through on it after you set it. Hang up the phone, walk away from the conversation, don't invite that person over to your house again, etc. Make it clear to the people around you that they have to respect you and the boundaries you set with them.
There you have it, my step by step guide to setting healthy boundaries within your relationships. This method isn't a guarantee that when you set those boundaries that people will listen or respect them, but it will show you who in your life wants to be a positive asset to you and will respect your boundaries and who is selfish and only cares about themselves and doing what they want.
What you do with the information from this post is up to you; you may have to decide if the relationship with the selfish people are worth your mental health being negatively affected, but you will also have an opportunity to develop and grow the relationships with the people who do listen and respect you.
You are worth being listened to, respected, and loved. I hope that this method helps you find the relationships that do that for you.
Take a shot for broken boundaries, and toast to setting boundaries that help other people respect and love us in the ways we need them to.