How to Set Healthy Boundaries
In relationships, having healthy boundaries is important for the health of the relationship and the person. However, many people express difficulty setting boundaries, particularly if they grew up in environments where their boundaries were not respected and healthy boundaries were not modeled to them.
What are healthy boundaries?
Having healthy boundaries means having a separate identity and being independent, while at the same time being connected and acknowledging the impact and importance you have on each other’s lives. When your relationship has healthy boundaries you feel safe, connected, and the boundary is flexible rather than set in stone.
There are two types of unhealthy boundaries.
A collapsed/enmeshed boundary is one where it is difficult to distinguish one person from the other, because they have become completely merged with one another.
A rigid boundary is when you are completely separate and detached from other people, and avoid intimacy and emotional connection.
What happens when your boundaries are not healthy?
When you struggle with enmeshed boundaries, you may find it difficult to say “no” due to fears of rejection or abandonment. You may put your feelings second to others, and may ignore your inner voice, allowing others’ expectations to guide you rather than being guided by your own values. You may feel stressed due to taking on too much, and feeling responsible for other people’s feelings.
On the flip side, if your boundaries are too rigid, you may avoid intimacy, rarely share anything personal about yourself, and have difficulty asking others for help. In this situation, you may be stressed from feeling lonely and isolated.
Tips for setting healthy boundaries
Identify your limits
Having good boundaries means knowing what your limits are, and asserting these limits. However, it is difficult to set limits if you don’t yet know what they are. Tune into your emotions and gut instinct. If someone’s behavior is causing discomfort, this could be a sign that they are crossing a boundary.
In identifying your limits, also give yourself permission to have them. If you find yourself judging your limits and wondering if you “deserve them,” remember that healthy limits are important for your sense of self-respect and overall well-being. Remember that if others try to convince you that you are being unreasonable or selfish in setting a boundary, this is a violation of your boundaries in itself.
Practice saying “no” if your boundaries are collapsed, and “yes” if your boundaries are rigid
At the root of both collapsed and rigid boundaries is fear.
Perhaps you are afraid of saying “no,” because you’re afraid to upset someone and be rejected. Perhaps you are afraid to say “yes” and get close to someone, because you’re afraid that you will ultimately be rejected and it’s not worth it to get close in the first place.
Same with any other fear, the more you avoid it, the scarier it will become. On the other hand, the more you approach and practice your fear, the less overwhelming it will appear overtime.
Practice assertive and direct communication
Make sure that the other person clearly understands your limit, and make sure they understand the consequences for overstepping.
Do not apologize if you did not do something you need to apologize for. Do not beat around the bush. Do not speak aggressively or passively – maintain a calm and level demeanor as best as possible.
For example, if someone is constantly complaining about your choice of partner, career, hobbies, etc., you may be tempted to react by 1) apologizing and giving in or 2) get very angry and criticize them. Choice one would be a violation of your own autonomy and self-respect. Choice two would likely escalate the conversation and make matters worse.
Instead, you could take a deep breath and make an assertive boundary setting statement such as:“If you complain about my choice of partner/career/hobby when we speak, I will have to leave the conversation. If you are interested in discussing other topics, I would be happy to speak with you.”
Then, demonstrate you mean business by following through and ending the conversation each time they engage in the unwanted behavior. If you do not follow through, you will reinforce their boundary violating behavior.
Sometimes when people start practicing setting boundaries, they say “it didn’t work. The person got upset.” Unfortunately, we cannot control how other people will respond to our efforts to set boundaries. It makes sense that if they are used to you saying “yes,” they may be off put by the sudden change in the relationship. They may even criticize you for saying no.
Remember to respect their feelings, and know that it may take time for them to get used to a new limit. An example of a statement you could say in response is: “I understand you may feel upset and hurt. Please understand that my intention is to protect our relationship, not to hurt it or your feelings.”
Remember that the measure of success in setting boundaries is simply whether you were able to set and maintain them. This experience in itself will be empowering and increase your sense of self-respect, regardless of how the other person chooses to respond.
A Final Word
If you find it difficult to set and maintain healthy boundaries in your relationships and want to talk about it, feel free to reach out for a free initial consult.