I find myself talking about boundaries a lot. What they are, why they’re useful. How to set them and most importantly, how to maintain them. It’s not uncommon for people to grow up without boundaries. Often, our family of origin doesn’t understand boundaries and can’t teach what they don’t know. Sometimes, we are actively discouraged or even punished for trying to set boundaries. After all, people can’t treat us as doormats or take advantage of us, if we have healthy boundaries. It’s not uncommon for people to be praised for their lack of boundaries.
“I’m too nice. I can’t say no. I feel guilty if I say no. I like helping people. I’m a people pleaser.” If any of that sounds like you, then it would be useful to learn about boundaries. One thing to note, you still get to be nice and help others while maintaining boundaries.
Why set boundaries? Boundaries are, in some ways, the ultimate form of self-care. If I put the world before myself, I give away little pieces of my soul until I feel empty and exhausted. How can I help you if I can’t take care of myself? If I say yes to everyone, I take on more than I can manage and then I end up letting people down.
Boundaries also help reduce anxiety. It’s scary going through life unable to say no to anyone. What a feeling of helplessness! Learning to set boundaries, learning to say, ‘This isn't okay.’ And, ‘I’m not comfortable with this.’ Or even, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t do you this favor.’ These statements are empowering! It’s such a rush to find your voice and to feel safe because you can protect yourself with healthy boundaries.
What exactly are boundaries? Boundaries are about learning what is and isn’t acceptable to you. What you will allow into your life and what won’t you allow into your life. Boundaries are about recognizing and stating your needs. They’re about learning to use your voice and by extension about keeping yourself safe.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that this is a new skill. Here are some handy tips to get you started.
First-learn what you are comfortable with and what makes you uncomfortable. Currently, I am having trouble with my vision at night. Right now, I am uncomfortable driving at night. There’s a boundary for me to set. I won’t drive at night.
Second-learn to express your boundaries. If someone wants me to work late, meaning I would have to drive home after it’s dark; it’s fine for them to ask me to do that. It’s up to me to verbalize my boundary by saying something like, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t work late.’ Did you notice I didn’t even explain why I won’t work late? I don’t have to defend or justify my boundaries. No is a complete sentence! I might explain that I can’t drive at night, but I don’t HAVE to.
Third-practice, practice, practice! It’s not uncommon for people to feel super uncomfortable and even guilty when they first start setting boundaries. This makes total sense! If you have a lifetime of setting yourself aside for everyone else, this new behavior is going to feel weird. It’s also super normal for people new to setting boundaries to get a lot of push back from people around you. Think about it. If I’m used to you doing whatever I ask you to do and suddenly you stop. That’s really confusing! It might take people a bit of time to adjust to the new you. And honestly, some people may never be down with the new you. If they really enjoy taking advantage of people and they can’t take advantage of you anymore, they may not want to stick around. This can be painful, but losing toxic people opens the door to forming new, healthy relationships.
A caveat here. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean people will respect them. Especially if this is new for you. It also doesn’t mean people will change their behavior. When I was a crisis worker, I couldn’t turn my phone off. I would ask my friends and family to please not call/text after 9 p.m. That was me setting a boundary. People could respect that boundary or not. If they didn’t respect my boundary it was on me to choose how to respond. In this example, I might reset the boundary a few times, hoping it would stick. After that, I still have options. I can block them. I can put them on silent mode. I can just roll with it and let them wake me up whenever they feel like it. The important thing is that I cannot change their behavior, I set boundaries and then choose what to do if they are not respected. Setting boundaries is the first step in you having options regarding how to respond to people. It’s only the first step not the only step.
Learning to be assertive and set boundaries is life-changing.
It can be a difficult thing to manage on your own. Feel free to learn more about us and Bodhi Counseling so you can find the perfect therapist to help you learn these new skills!
In addition to creating Bodhi Counseling, Melanie Sivley is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Champaign, IL. She specializes in Anxiety, Depression and Trauma. She is a student of Zen Buddhism. She is EMDR trained and currently pursuing her EMDR certification.
Melanie Sivley, LCSW
206 N. Randolph, Suite 505B
Champaign, IL 61820