Setting healthy boundaries can be difficult. A lot of people don’t know how to do it, and others simply don’t want to.
But setting healthy boundaries is important in order to be able to live your life on your terms, not anyone else’s. Boundaries help you say “no” when you need or feel like saying no, set appropriate limits and do what makes you happy. While setting boundaries may feel awkward at first, the more you practice setting boundaries, the easier it becomes.
What Are Healthy Boundaries?
I’ve heard it said that healthy boundaries are the distance at which you can love yourself and someone else simultaneously. These boundaries are a set of limitations that you set in place in your relationship with another person.
Setting healthy boundaries helps a person remain open and honest with themselves while putting limitations on communication with another person in order to protect their integrity.
These boundaries could be limitations on:
- time (how long or what time of day you interact with that person)
- location (where you interact with that person, based on your safety)
- method of communication (perhaps you won’t text someone because of needing to hear tone of voice)
- emotional cues (like ending a conversation when someone gets angry)
- topics of conversation (you don’t talk about politics or parenting styles)
- alcohol or food (for example, not interacting with someone while they are drinking or are intoxicated)
They could also be based on:
- personal values (for example, someone forcing their religion on you)
- protecting someone else (for example limiting someone’s interactions with your children)
What are Unhealthy Boundaries?
There is a difference between healthy boundaries and unhealthy boundaries. One way setting a boundary can be unhealthy is by setting a limit with someone else and then crossing that line yourself. This can be done out of fear, guilt or insecurity.
Unhealthy boundaries are also setting a restriction with someone that protects an unhealthy mental construct that you might have. For example, if someone does not want to face the reality of her son’s homosexuality, she might say that she wants a relationship with him only if he does not mention his sexual orientation in her presence.
These kind of unhealthy boundaries can be incredibly invalidating to the other person and detrimental to the relationship. They are based on hiding parts of ourselves or protecting a lie. Often, people who have traits of narcissism or have a low emotional intelligence try to set these unhealthy boundaries.
How do you start setting healthy boundaries?
You can start setting healthy boundaries by determining what you want to do in a situation. For example, if you have a difficult coworker, you can choose when to interact with them or what kinds of situations you want to engage them in. It doesn’t require that you even notify the other person of your boundaries.
However, if you have a relative who tries to take advantage of you for their own advantage, this may require stronger boundaries. You may need to convey these boundaries with the relative and be firm when they try to cross the line.
If setting certain boundaries feel really difficult, that is completely normal if you’ve never done it before. But if setting them will jeopardize your relationship with another person, then perhaps you will need to reevaluate the kind of boundaries you will set, or whether you want a relationship with this person at all. (More on this below.)
5 Steps to Setting Healthy Boundaries
Follow these 5 steps that I have used in order to determine if I need to set boundaries in my life.
1) Notice your feelings
If interaction with someone is making me feel uneasy or leave me feeling confused, I take some time to reflect on my interactions with that person. I might journal, or meditate, thinking about what my relationship with that person has been like.
I recently had a conversation with a relative that bothered me. I didn’t initially realize what bothered me about it until I thought about it and realized that that person always contacted me when she needed or wanted something and never really asked how I was or indicated that they cared about me at all. (To me, it appeared as if this person just cared about what they wanted and I was just a means to an end.)
2) Decide how to tell the other person what’s bothering you
The next step is never just to set the boundaries without telling the other person. When you’ve discovered that there is something about your relationship with this person, you should give them the opportunity to talk about it with you.
In the example above, I told them how I felt when they texted me out of the blue. Here are a few guidelines in speaking to them without causing a conflict.
First, use “I” language. Tell the person, “I feel ____ when you _____”.
I feel very hurt when you text me out of the blue wanting X without asking me how I’m doing.
Second, don’t drudge up things from the past. Many times, we’ll suddenly realize how something they did in the past connects to how you’re feeling now, and you’re going to be tempted to bring it up. Don’t. Keep things focused on the present moment and how you feel. Practicing non-judgment can help too.
Last, keep things concise. Don’t go off on a diatribe or open a can of worms. Give them a few sentences about how you feel and what you think of their interactions. Brief is better.
3) Listen to the other person
The other person will undoubtedly have something to say. They may honestly not have realized that they caused you any pain. If they respond with anger or by trying to turn things around on you, then chances are you were right on the money with your instincts telling you in Step 1 that something was wrong.
Their response will likely tell you everything you need to know. But be wary of gaslighting. (If you still feel confused or like something is wrong, there’s a chance this could be going on.)
In my case, the other person essentially said, “I’m sorry that I was trying to be a part of your life. I won’t text you anymore.”
She was trying to elicit feelings of guilt in me (also called guilt-tripping) by making it seem like it was my fault for calling her out when she was just “trying to be nice.” (Maybe she was?) Then, likely because she had already had multiple people cut her out of their lives as well, she aimed to protect herself with a self-fulfilling prophecy and cut me out before I presumably could do it to her.
This is a classic example of an unhealthy relationship.
4) Decide what healthy boundaries you need to set
Presuming that they didn’t cut you out after expressing your feelings, then it’s your chance to make the next move. After you hear their response, you’ll have a better idea of what your next move needs to be.
In my case, I would have easily said,
“I’d appreciate when you text me that you could ask me how I’m doing, and I’ll ask you the same. These are good healthy relationship practices.”
If they express gratitude and sincerely apologize for how they were making you feel, then chances are things will automatically get better, but be sure to keep those lines of communication open and be honest about what you want from them.
When they come back with gaslighting, guilt-tripping, or anger, then you may need to set some strong boundaries. Maybe you had an altercation at a family gathering, and you decide that the best course of action is to avoid family gatherings, or only go for an hour and you won’t drink. Maybe you were having a phone call when they invalidated you, and you decide that phone calls will be immediately over when it happens next.
5) Express those boundaries to the person (Optional)
Here’s the thing. You can choose to communicate these boundaries to the other person or not.
If you think they will be receptive and willing to change their relationship and interactions with you to make them more pleasant, then by all means, tell them.
If you think they will get upset and continue the anger or emotional abuse, then your best bet is to not convey these boundaries to them.
(Be sure to refer to the examples of unhealthy boundaries above to determine if you’re acting out of anger, spite, or crossing lines that you shouldn’t.)
READ MORE: How to Control Your Emotions
Final Thoughts on 5 Steps to Setting Healthy Boundaries
In unhealthy relationships that often require strong boundaries, you are never required to give that person access to something in your life if they are being emotionally abusive or ignoring the boundaries you set.
Some people will try to find a way in, regardless of the boundaries you try to set. They may use guilt-tripping, past suffering, or other tactics to get you upset. When you’re upset, you’re more likely to give them access to you through anger and off-the-cuff reaction.
Remaining calm is the best way to protect yourself in these situations. If you don’t know the answer to something, don’t respond and tell them that you’ll need time to think about a response. You don’t owe them anything within any time frame.
These 5 steps can drastically help guide you to setting the healthiest boundaries for you. Remember, setting boundaries aren’t easy, especially when we’ve been trained to allow others to take advantage of us.
I have had to set many types of boundaries over the last few years… everything from cutting people out entirely to limiting contact with people who aren’t respectful of my values. It wasn’t easy. But it gets better every time, because I know that setting healthy boundaries helps protect my well-being and life, as well as the lives of my children.
Have you ever had to set boundaries with people?
What helped you when communicating with difficult people?