By Mary Jane Coppock
Boundaries are defined rules or limits that someone establishes to protect their security and wellbeing around others; we identify and express how other people can behave around us so that we feel safe. Boundaries can include setting expectations about how much alone time you need in a romantic relationship, preventing family members from speaking negatively about loved ones, or establishing physical safety measures when spending time together. They can be an important tool to help us feel secure in our surroundings and with other people, creating an environment for each person to be themselves and have their needs met.
Here are some tips for establishing boundaries:
1. Give yourself permission to focus on yourself and make your safety and comfort a priority. A lot of the time, we stretch our boundaries or postpone setting and enforcing boundaries because we feel guilt or fear a negative response. In reality, boundaries not only contribute to healthy relationships with others, they also bolster self-respect and self-love!
2. Practice self-awareness. Listen to your gut! Part of creating boundaries is prioritizing your comfort so you can feel safe and be present with others, but in order to do that you need to acknowledge your feelings and honor them. What makes you feel safe? What makes you feel uncomfortable? Remember that boundaries can shift and change as you grow; allow this to happen and hold space to recognize and sit in these feelings.
3. Name your limits. Sit with your emotions, and identify what you need physically, emotionally, and mentally so you can identify your limits and better communicate them to others. A helpful method for this is the boundary circle. Draw a circle on a page of paper. Inside it, write down everything you need in order to feel seen, supported, heard, and safe. Anything that actively conflicts or distracts from that, write outside the circle.
4. Be consistent with the boundaries you’ve set. We can’t expect others to know how we’re feeling at any given moment, so we have to clearly communicate with others if they cross our boundaries.
5. If you aren’t sure where to start: Use “I Statements”
“I Statements” can help keep the focus on expressing your thoughts, feelings, and opinions without worrying what others are thinking. Describe your reaction to an unwelcome situation and why you have that response, then clearly lay out what you need to feel secure:
“I feel ___ when ____ because _____. What I need is ________.”
Example: Instead of “Stop touching my stuff and stay out of my room!” Try “I feel violated when you enter my room and go through my things, because I value privacy. What I need is a space that I know is private to record my thoughts.”
6. Be direct, clear, and simple. When setting and enforcing boundaries, state what you need as clearly and calmly as possible. You don’t need to justify, defend, or apologize for your boundaries. You can always adjust the tone or manner with which you enforce your boundaries if you like, as well. You get to decide how assertive to be, depending on your relationship with the other person, the circumstances, or even where your emotional ability lies on that day. If you are nervous or sensitive about certain boundaries, you can plan what you’d like to say to protect those limits in advance.
7. If setting boundaries makes you uncomfortable or anxious, start small. You 100% deserve to say no without feeling guilty, but it can take practice! Start by setting a small boundary in a space that feels more manageable, and work your way up. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can offer an alternative when setting a boundary. For example, if someone asks you for a favor and you aren’t comfortable with it, you can offer some sort of tool that can help, or another person who might be useful. If you are nervous setting a more significant boundary, sit with it and think through what might happen as a result. Is this boundary and the safety it provides worth the discomfort of establishing and later enforcing it? For example, am I willing to take the steps required to distance myself from an emotionally harmful person to protect my sense of safety?
8. If you need backup, get support
Defining and asserting boundaries can get even trickier if you or a loved one lives with a mental health condition, mood disorder, or a history of trauma, especially if you share a living space together. It’s important to check in regularly to make sure that everyone is content with their needs being met, and boundaries respected.
If you’re experiencing challenges with setting or asserting boundaries, or if someone is causing you difficulty by crossing them, never hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. Emotional backup can also take the form of a support group, spiritual community, or friends and family!
If you’re interested in reading more in-depth, the Self Help Alliance has produced a 62-page curriculum “Building Better Boundaries” that delves into the different kinds of boundaries as well as how to identify and maintain them.