Boundaries is a scary word for a lot of people. We often struggle with the concept because we don’t really understand what boundaries are and why we need them. For some, trying to say no or stand up for yourself in the past may have led to anger, rejection, guilt-tripping, or shaming behaviors. Others may feel like they’ve never even seen a boundary in a relationship, let alone considered implementing any.
There are also a lot of misconceptions about what healthy boundaries look like, let alone why they’re so valuable. Setting boundaries is not about cutting people off or isolating yourself; it’s about creating space to take care of yourself and teaching others how to be in relationship with you! They are relationship roadmaps that allow you to protect your space and care for yourself first. When you care for yourself first, you can bring your best self into your relationships—and your relationships overall will be stronger and healthier.
Let’s take a look at these 4 tips that will help you check your boundaries and identify what works, what doesn’t, and what you can do about it.
Boundary Tip #1: Know your goal in setting boundaries.
Before you can effectively set boundaries in your relationships, you need to be clear on why you are doing so and what you hope will come from setting them. Many people set out to create their relationship roadmaps in hopes of making someone else stop doing something they find upsetting. The problem with this is that we cannot control what someone else does. Setting boundaries with the goal of changing someone else is a setup for disappointment.
Think of setting boundaries instead as being about making choices about your own role in the relationship. It is your way of saying what you are and are not ok with; where you end and another person begins; and what you will do if the other person ignores your request to stop an upsetting or disrespectful behavior. Boundaries are about how you will participate in relationships. How the other person responds is up to them.
Boundary Check #2: Understand what makes it hard for you to create boundaries.
Defining our space in close relationships can be hard for many reasons. Some people feel guilty saying no, because they have been taught and conditioned to put their own needs last. Some feel like they will hurt the other person by saying no. Others may feel there’s no point, since the other person will continue to be abusive, controlling, or unloving no matter what they do.
All of these are very real and understandable concerns, and they can make it challenging to create the kinds of relationships that nurture and support you. Be curious about the parts of you that cringe at the idea of saying no or speaking up for yourself. What do they fear will happen if you do? What will happen if you don’t?
Boundary Tip #3: Define healthy boundaries for yourself.
What do you picture when you think about boundaries? A brick wall? A chalk line on the floor? A castle moat full of crocodiles with the drawbridge up?
This is probably the most complicated piece of the puzzle, but it’s one that can’t be placed without the others. Deciding where your boundaries lie is fundamentally a question of personal values. It’s also a nuanced question. Look deep inside and ask yourself what you believe loving, healthy relationships should look like. How do you want to be treated? What are your hard no’s, your maybe’s, and your absolutely yes’s? When you have these answers, you can begin the work of actually setting the boundaries.
Ideally, healthy boundaries should be neither a moat nor a chalk line. They should most closely resemble a fence with a gate that you can open or close as needed. Boundaries that are too loose or porous let too much in (or too much out). Overly rigid boundaries may keep you from asking for help when you need it, or limit your ability to change and adapt in life. What do your boundaries look like?
Boundary Check #4: Understand why your good relationships work – and know that you can bring that to the rest.
When we are struggling with a difficult relationship, we can sometimes lose sight of relationships that are healthier. Maybe it’s your sister, who treats you much better since you stopped letting her make jokes at your expense. Maybe it’s a close friend who respects when you can’t make a social event and accepts your response without pressuring you. Maybe it’s your partner, who started backing you up when his mom criticizes you after you told him you needed his support.
Take a closer look at the positive relationships in your life. What works about these relationships? How do these people respond when you say no, can’t accommodate them, or need something from them? What happens when you stand up for yourself in these relationships? Your strongest relationships can give you good information about how healthy boundaries benefit both parties. And they can provide a gentle reminder to the parts of you that fear setting boundaries that it can turn out well.