At times, wouldn’t it be easier if others could read our minds? If we could communicate our needs unconsciously? If people would just understand and intuit what we need, or how we are feeling, without us having to ask or say it directly?
While mind-reading requires powers we don’t possess, we can still have these supportive, understanding, and fulfilling relationships by setting compassionate boundaries.
Why Set Boundaries?
It can be hard to set boundaries. Fears of pushback, conflict, dismissal, or abandonment might lead us to avoid communicating about them. We may default to “grin-and-bare-it” approaches or passive communication, hoping that others will magically realize what we need or would like.
Accommodating others and accepting the status quo can seem like the path of least resistance and may help us avoid discomfort in the present. Realistically, however, it will likely set us up for continued distress. It can potentially compromise our relationships with others and with ourselves.
Why are boundaries so important? Identifying, setting, and maintaining healthy boundaries with others (and with ourselves) is key to sustaining healthy and lasting relationships.
Understanding and Identifying Our Boundaries
Have you experienced the following:
- Friends who won’t take “no” for an answer
- Relatives who ask you for a favor when you don’t have the time or energy to help
- Partners who ask for support in a way that makes you uncomfortable
- Workplace colleague who expects immediate and instantaneous responses
- People who ask probing or personal questions that you don’t want to answer
There are infinite examples, and you can likely think of even more scenarios in your life. A positive follow up to processing the parts of your life where you could use more boundaries is to ask yourself these questions:
- What is your response when you feel your boundaries have been infringed on?
- How do you feel when these asks appear in your relationships?
- What does your gut or intuition say?
- Do you feel tension physically, emotionally, or psychologically?
If you feel immediate tension, anxiety, resentfulness, guilt, worry, or fear but still find yourself saying “yes” or accommodating others, it might be time to examine your needs, boundaries, and how you feel overall in these relationships or settings.
As Nedra Glover Tawwab (LCSW) explains in her book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself, “…boundaries are more than just saying “no”… boundaries are a verbal communication or an action that you communicate to someone to feel safe, secure, and supported in a relationship.”
Boundaries function to keep us safe energetically, emotionally, and physically. As Tawwab puts it, they are instructions on how to engage in a relationship healthfully.
How to Set Boundaries: Identifying Your Needs
To evaluate your boundaries and begin implementing new, effective ones, identify your needs and feelings—the following boundary-setting styles are helpful in this exploration:
● Rigid boundaries: One may be closed-off or not open to external connection and more likely to decline or say “no” to a request or shut down if asked to open up—no matter the context or environment.
● Porous boundaries: We give a lot to others and have difficulty setting firm, healthy boundaries in situations when it’s more appropriate to be protective of ourselves or maintain separation from others.
● Flexible boundaries: We feel comfortable saying either “yes” or “no” in a given context after evaluating how we feel and assessing our needs in the current environment.
Generally, most people express all three types across different settings. We all have a mix of rigid, porous, or flexible boundaries with others.
Which style do you most relate to? Which one do you find yourself putting into action most frequently?
Types of boundaries include:
- Physical boundaries reflect how you feel safe engaging with others (physically and spatially).
- Emotional boundaries involve sharing feelings and personal information and engaging with emotions.
- Time boundaries are about considering how we spend our time when we engage with needs and preferences.
- Sexual boundaries are the ways we engage physically, emotionally, and psychologically with sex and our sexuality.
- Intellectual boundaries involve respect of thoughts and ideas and can become increasingly important when we have differences of opinion or perspective.
- Material boundaries are how we care for our physical possessions and organize our finances.
With this framework in mind, it’s good to think about if there are specific areas that you can relate to when it comes to boundaries in your life. Are some areas more or less rigid, porous, flexible?
Cultural Considerations to Keep in Mind
We all have different identities, cultures, backgrounds, circumstances, socioeconomic, sociopolitical, and environmental factors that change how we must set boundaries with others or make setting boundaries challenging.
It’s crucial to identify systems of oppression in our lives that are harmful, so we can better connect with, help, understand, and respect one another. Boundary setting needs are unique to each person.
We all exist in different social ecosystems that impact how we see, experience, and set personal boundaries. While exploring our boundaries, try to reflect on how your identity—culture, gender, race, and more—impacts your relationships.
Here are some vital questions to consider when setting boundaries:
- Who taught you about boundaries?
- Have these been generationally or culturally passed down to you?
- Are there significant moments or experiences that have impacted your boundaries?
- How are these boundaries functioning in your life, and do you like them?
- Are your current boundaries helpful?
- Do you want to change your current boundaries?
Gaining Self-respect and Self-confidence Through Setting Boundaries
To respect someone’s boundaries is to show care, compassion, and respect, which ultimately helps garner trust in relationships. With ourselves, it’s just as important to set and hold these boundaries. By acknowledging our limits and needs, and setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries, we demonstrate that our feelings matter.
We can better cultivate self-respect and self-compassion if we trust ourselves. Our overall self-worth and confidence get a boost from this as well.
But if we are constantly compromising and bending our boundaries to fit the needs of others, what are we communicating to ourselves? To foster healthy relationships with ourselves, we need to prioritize our needs—not just in thought but also in action and daily practice.
Have you ever lied to someone when you felt like you didn’t have a valid enough reason to say “no” to something? For example, saying you’re ill to decline an invitation to a party despite being well, or saying you had to work late when you really were just emotionally exhausted and didn’t have the energy to make the call you promised your friend.
When we fib in these situations, we give ourselves the message that our core needs are not valid enough to slow down, say “no,” and take care of ourselves. It’s a form of self-sabotage—damaging our abilities to trust ourselves.
We must honor our needs and demonstrate compassion in our relationships with ourselves. If we don’t value our needs, the world won’t either. When we model the treatment we want to accept and tolerate toward ourselves, we show others where our limits are.
Keep in mind that different relationships, social contexts, and circumstances require varying boundaries and limits, and they can change over time. We are allowed to define and redefine what boundaries we need as we grow and change.
What Boundaries Are Not
Boundaries are not harmful, vindictive, manipulative, or punishing. If we use boundaries out of spite or retaliation, they’re not boundaries but rather, they’re passive-aggressive forms of communication.
A healthy way to differentiate is to ask yourself, am I doing this to preserve me, or to hurt them or make them understand how they’ve made me feel? We can start by directly communicating our feelings openly and taking responsibility for our feelings.
Boundaries are not mechanisms for control. Boundaries are ways to keep ourselves healthy and engaged while feeling respected and safe.
If you find yourself setting a boundary with the purpose of controlling others’ actions or behavior, perhaps think about how to make the boundary more about your needs and less about changing someone else. Look at the motivation and the desired effect—if the result is more about someone else and less about your own feelings, perhaps it’s time to take a second look.
Tips for Implementing Boundaries
- Clear communication: Direct, open, and upfront communication is key to creating boundaries and expressing relational needs. If you have a tendency to avoid confrontation, try not to sugarcoat your boundaries. Doing so will help you avoid confusion.
- Consistency: Staying consistent helps others understand that these are conditions for engaging with you.
- Don’t over-explain: Your needs are valid, period. Trying too hard to justify yourself can undermine your feelings of worth and value.
- Practice self-compassion: If negative feelings or doubt arise, ask yourself why these emotions might be coming up and understand they are natural.
- Focus on the long-term goals: Set goals for your relationships and yourself, thinking about what you want to achieve. Reflect on what your ideal relationships look like.
The more consistency and compassion you can show yourself, the easier sticking to these boundaries will hopefully become as you self-validate. It allows you to save more of your energy on things that are important to you. You begin to build and cultivate respect for your own needs, feelings, and experiences.
Words of Reassurance
All lasting changes take time and effort. Be patient as it takes time to do this essential work. It’s understandable if you need support through these changes. Finding resources and systems of support such as friends, family, community organizations, faith-based organizations, or group/individual therapy are a few places to start.
You are deserving of fulfilling and reciprocal connections.
If you find yourself feeling resentful, frustrated, or perhaps guilty for having these feelings, please know you aren’t alone. These changes might not be smooth sailing, but with consistency and time, you will see your inherent value and worth in relationships.