How Are Your Boundaries? 3 Steps To Setting The Boundaries You Need In Your Relationships

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We need boundaries in all our relationships. We need them between us and our families, friends, lovers, work colleagues and everyone we meet.

What are they? A boundary is the line where you end and others begin. Boundaries are the guidelines that let others know how to treat you and how you will respond if someone pushes those limits. They come in many forms. For example, boundaries can link to emotional, value and belief-based, physical, sexual, and/or financial situations. 

We develop boundaries early on in our lives by watching adults, the way they respond to and treat each other, and how they respond to our requests and treat us as children. For example, you might have told the adults in your life that they must not read your diary. If they didn't read it, then you will have learnt that you can tell someone what you require and that they will respect it.

The adults in your life might have told you that you must knock before you go into their bedroom, or that you are allowed to go out but that you must be home by a certain time. These are examples of their boundaries and what they expect from you. The reality is, when we are young we usually learn about adult boundaries by pushing those limits and getting in trouble (the other side of the boundary, the "what will happen if you cross my limit" part).

We then shape our boundaries as we age, incorporating our life experiences, beliefs, attitudes and social learning. For example, if you grew up believing that being lovable or worthy involves putting others needs first, then your boundaries will be different to someone who sees their needs as primary. 

Before I leap into the signs that suggest you need better boundaries and how to respond to that, I want to put a caveat in here. Firstly, if you read through this article and decide you have poor boundaries I want to say... please do not blame yourself, don't listen to the inner critic. People with weaker boundaries are often kind, generous, giving and put others' needs before themselves. The world needs people like this. It's just that without boundaries you might give away all your energy leaving nothing for you, leaving you exhausted, burnt out and without anything more to give. Secondly, if you have experienced an abusive relationship, this is not your boundary issue. This is the other person's issue. Please therefore get support from someone qualified, someone who can help you see this and find a way to move forward.

Signs that you need to improve your boundaries

The following list includes some of the signs that it is time to improve your relationship boundaries. The list is not exhaustive:

1. You really hate to let others down. This means that you often go along with other peoples plans and often say yes to things you wouldn't usually choose to do, and possibly don't want to do.

2. You feel responsible for how others feel. You worry whether they are having a good time and are feeling good. You go out of your way to ensure this is the case. This means you feel guilty and anxious often.

3. You feel tired for (what seems like) no reason. This is a common one. It could be happening as you are giving all your energy away.

4. You feel as though people take advantage of you. You may wonder if you are being manipulated even by those who are closest to you.

5. You feel a little annoyed a lot of the time. This occurs as you are never really doing the things you want to do, you are usually going along with others. It may also be because...

6. You secretly think people don't show you respect.

7. You find making decisions for yourself really difficult as you have spent so much of your time doing the things others want to do.

8. You wonder who you are and what you enjoy or care about. It can feel like you are having an identity crisis.

How to change your boundaries to make them meet your needs

Part 1

Having strong boundaries means knowing what you like, what you accept and what you can tolerate. It means knowing the absolute deal breakers for you in each area of your life. It means being able to tell (or communicate in some way) others your values and beliefs, and your desires and limits. It means standing your ground when someone upsets you or crosses your boundary. It means protecting what you deem important. 

For example, it might mean saying no to an activity suggested by another person, an activity you don't like or feel the desire to engage in. It might mean telling someone that they offended you with their words or their actions, and what you expect/hope from them next time. It also means being able to sit with the other person's response to your boundary.

So, how do you start to create these boundaries? How do you even know what are the important things to have boundaries around?

To start, get a pen and paper and ask yourself the following questions. Give yourself time as the answers may not come to you right away. By the way, there are no right or wrong answers and your responses may change over time. 

1. How often do you worry about what people think? About what people think about you? About your choices?

2. Do you feel guilty wanting to do things your way? Why is that?

3. When did you last say no to someone? What happened? How did it go?

4. When you think about saying no to someone how does it make you feel? Calm? Afraid? Other?

5. In what way are these things getting in the way of what you want out of your life? In what way would being able to tell people what you want, would like to do and not do, change your life? How would this help your life goals?

6. What are 5 rules to being your friend (or partner, family member, colleague, etc)? Which of these rules are non-negotiable and which are flexible?

7. What are 10 things (activities, situations, items) you like doing with your time? Which of those do you absolutely love and which are less important?

8. What are 10 things (activities, situations, items) you truly dislike? Which of those do you absolutely hate and refuse to do and which are negotiable?

The answers to the first 5 questions should give you clarity on how you feel about boundaries. They should also highlight whether your current ways of relating are getting in the way of your life goals. The last 3 questions should help you develop a list of rules you require other people to follow in relationships, activities you want to include in your life and the ones you do not want to partake in, even if someone else disagrees with you. 

Part 2 - Getting in touch with how you feel and what you care about

You may need a little additional help identifying the answers. Here are the additional steps I recommend in order to find out more about yourself and what's important to you:

  •  Journal - Set aside time each day to write about events that happened and how it made you feel. You don't need to write calmly. You don't even need to write things that make sense. Write about the sensations in your body, the frustrations and the pleasures. Write for up to 20 minutes. Finish with 3 sentences describing what you have learnt from this experience. Reread your writing then tear it up. Over time you will notice patterns starting to emerge. You will notice themes around the things that bring you joy and those that make you angry, frustrated or just not that interested. For more information on journalling click here.  
  • Mindfulness Meditation - Mindfulness meditation involves practicing paying attention to the present moment, noticing the feelings in your body, the patterns in your mind and choosing to come back to your breath. With practice this will help you learn more about your reactions. It will help you identify the emotional responses you have without getting attached, giving you a clearer sense of who you are and what you want. For a guided mindfulness meditation click here

Part 3 - putting the boundaries into practice

Many people worry that having and instilling boundaries will upset others and have negative consequences on their relationships. The reality is, at first this may be the case. If you rarely say no, then the first time you do so the other person may be shocked. They may rebel against your comments, hoping (often unconsciously) that you will back down and give in to their wish. Therefore you need to be clear and consistent around your boundaries, and get the message out their early on if someone is getting close to pushing them. You then need to stand your ground. So, how do you do that? 

  • Practice saying your boundaries out loud. Use a neutral tone. You can practice constructing what you will say using 3 parts - 1. What happened - The behaviour/action/event that you are referring to (avoid saying "you did this", refer to the specific behaviour instead of the person); 2. What your boundary is and how you feel about it; 3. What you would like in the future. For example, in friendships: "thanks for inviting me to do that with you. I actually don't like (insert activity here). However, I would really like to hang out with you, maybe we could arrange to do something else together?" In work: "thank you for asking me to work with you. I don't have time at the moment. Please keep me in mind for future job items and if I have time I will let you know". Over time, work on being more direct with people who over step a boundary. For example, "that kind of language makes me feel upset. I am not ok with being spoken to like that. In the future I would like.. (insert what you want here). Is that clear?".
  • Learn coping statements. Once you have set your boundary you may find yourself wanting to cave, to retract your comment. Instead repeat a coping statement (in your head). For example, "setting boundaries is good and helpful for me to preserve my energy and what I think is important, it is also helpful for other people as it shows them how to treat me". Another could be: "Other's are entitled to their response, I am entitled to be treated well and to set limits".
  • Learn to self-soothe. If you worry about setting boundaries, learn about the fight-or-flight response as this will help you understand what is happening when you worry. Learn how to switch off this response through breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and/or a grounding technique (click on each exercise for specific instructions). These will help minimise anxiety or other emotions that may arise when setting boundaries. 
  • Stand your ground. Once you have set your boundary, stay put. Giving in sends mixed messages. It also teaches the other person that all they have to do to get there way is push harder, to shout a little louder, argue with you a bit more. Remember, coping statements and self-soothing exercises are your friend for these times. 
  • Surround yourself with people who respect you. This may happen naturally after a period of setting boundaries, as those who respect your choices may start to gravitate towards you. Those who don't respect you do not deserve your friendship (or other kind of relationship). 
  • Get the support of a professional. If you need additional support reach out to a therapist or someone you respect. They can help you work through anything that's getting in the way of you creating reliable boundaries that give you joy, strength and respect. 

That's it

There was a lot in this post. However, the summary is: boundaries help you stand up for what you believe in. They keep you safe and preserve your energy and your time so that you can get what you want and need from life. Boundaries include saying what you want and what you don't want, and recognising that not everyone will agree with that. They help you become the person you want to be, and the person you were born to be. They help others learn who they are too.

So, get to it... start at the beginning of the list of tips and work your way down. You will get there, I know it. 

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I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get psychology out of the therapy room and into everyday life. I do this by offering free advice on my blog and on Instagram. I also offer private therapy online over video link.

Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.

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Disclaimer: Please note, the information in these posts is not intended to be therapy and does not constitute a therapist/client relationship. If you are in need of support, please contact your doctor or mental health provider. 

Sophie Mort