Communicating your boundaries can be difficult, especially when it is an important relationship to you. Maintaining those boundaries when they’re challenged or when the consequences become distressing is even harder. The following strategies will help you set and maintain boundaries within your relationships at home, at work and in the world at large:
Learn What is Important to You
If you try to set boundaries about everything from the words people say around you to the gifts that you’ll receive, you’ll come off as high-maintenance at best and a complete and total ass at worst. Boundaries are powerful and work best when they are applied judiciously.
These are some examples of appropriate boundaries. Choose and/or adapt the ones that resonate with you.
- I will not tolerate being hit, shoved or slapped.
- It is not okay for you to call me names.
- I will not allow you to tell me how I can spend my personal time or money.
- My spiritual beliefs are my domain and I will not accept your input on these.
- I will not permit you to make comments about my weight or appearance unless I ask for input.
- It is not okay for you to tell me how I feel.
- I am not able to help you at this time.
- At work, I will not drop everything for an emergency that is a result of somebody else not doing their part.
- With friends and family, I will not tolerate comments about a decision that has been made.
Make the distinction between the hard line of a boundary and an unwillingness to discuss a situation. Take finances within a marriage, for example. It is completely appropriate and necessary for the couple to discuss an overall financial strategy and to continue to hold discussions around money when the situation changes. A boundary that states that money is not allowed to be discussed is not appropriate. An acceptable boundary would be that a spouse cannot tell their partner how to spend money that has already been agreed upon as a personal account.
Consider your personal beliefs and core values. Your most important boundaries should protect what makes you, you.
Become Aware of Signs That Your Boundaries Are Being Crossed
We’re often not very good at recognizing these signs, especially within high-value relationships. Here are some signs to look for.
It can be easy to believe that a “good” spouse/friend/child/sibling/employee simply keeps the peace and allows others to do as they want. But your inaction is still action and there are consequences. A healthy relationship has boundaries on both sides – lines that delineate another’s sphere of influence from your own.
Practice Communicating Your Boundaries
When choosing your words, remember that your boundaries are about you; they are not an attack or criticism of another person. Keep your statement simple and refrain from inserting emotion. If you’re currently in a more energetic state, wait until you are calm before communicating your limits.
Be ready to repeat your statement. Especially if this is new for you, it may be dismissed the first (or second, or third…) time. At school with my students, I become more and more like broken record (does that metaphor even work any more???) the more emotional the kids become. It feels strange in the moment, but it’s very effective at bypassing power struggles.
Start Small and Build as You Become More Comfortable
If you’re not used to speaking up and stating your limits, it can be easiest to begin in a low-stakes situation, where you have less to lose. One area that often gives (too many) opportunities is in customer service.
Was your food cold? Let the waiter know and calmly state your expectation that the food is not acceptable. Did the front desk blow you off? Be assertive and let the office manager know what you need going forward.
If you tend to avoid confrontation, boundary-setting is scary because of the (often imagined and catastrophized consequences). It’s going to feel strange and scary at first. However, once you see that people generally respond positively to knowing where exactly the line is, you’ll become more comfortable.
Ensure That You Follow Through
A boundary that is ignored as soon as it becomes too much work to enforce is even worse than a boundary never erected. If it’s worth the energy to create the parameters, it’s worth the effort needed to maintain it.
You will be challenged. It’s human nature. We all want to see what we can get away with, and some do this more than others. Be strong and confident. Stand up for yourself.
Decide What to Do About Repeat Offenders
If someone refuses to adhere to your boundaries, you may have to walk away. When your workplace repeated steamrolls you, it may be time to seek new employment. If your friend continually asks for help and doesn’t step up for themselves, you may need to cut them loose.
Are you willing to do this?
It’s a hard question, especially when we value the relationship. Be aware that staying with the status quo may also have a high price to pay. Only you can decide if it’s worth it.