How to set effective boundaries

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Setting boundaries is important, I think we all know this. The act of deciding what boundaries you need to set, and what that looks like it a whole other thing. It’s hard to give advice, because context and situations and history will affect how you set boundaries, but it’s possible to give some tips and examples.

First of all, boundaries are set around you, not others. It’s less ‘you can’t talk to me like that’ and more ‘I won’t stay in a conversation where I’m being spoken to like that’. Suddenly you’re the one with power. The other person can choose to stomp over your boundaries, but they will have to face the consequences, which in this example is leaving the conversation.
It’s empowering and terrifying.

So this means your boundaries might need some thought. What are you able and willing to do? What does your context allow? Boundaries sometimes are there to make a situation slightly more acceptable, rather than a fix-all. Boundaries are yours, to enforce, or not. Figuring out what you can and can’t/won’t do is part of that ownership.

How to figure out what boundaries look like for you

Be specific. If there is a specific behaviour that you want to not be exposed to, name it in your boundary. Or don’t, but know what specifically you need to set a boundary around, because that can help in figuring out all the rest of it.

Be specific about what you’ll do in response to someone puyshing or crossing a boundary. Remove yourself from the situation? Say no?

The first time I was exposed to a boundary set well was with my therapist. We were doing some meta-therapy on the nature of the relationship between therapist and client. Like, my therapist knows so much about me, and I know little about them. At the start of my work with them I felt bad about taking up all the room in a session with my own stuff, and not asking how they were doing other than surface level.

And we spoke about it, about the therapy relationship and how it works. My therapist talked about how he doesn’t expect me to take an interest, and that he wouldn’t be sharing too much from his life unless it really made sense to. To let him deal with any feelings he had about my therapy, unless I needed to change a behaviour.

And that was it. Like, it was a calm, normal conversation, with a gentle, firm boundary, and then we moved on. No drama, no guilting, just ‘here is a boundary, this is how I’ll deal with if you overstep.’ then a change of subject back to what I wanted to talk about in that session. And that’s what boundaries should be. Just a head’s up, an FYI. Not a huge discussion about why or why not or anything else.

Once again, you can’t control how other people feel about your boundaries, but you can control how you set them. Try not to apologise, or over-explain when you do so. Just a simple statement, and let people have whatever feelings they want to have. Heck, maybe a boundary is ‘I won’t justify this to you’.

Easier said than done, I know, but all of this is to give you some power in a situation

When you don’t set a boundary

Maybe you do all this work and realise it’s not feasible to set the boundary you need to, in a way that gets you results. Maybe you know the other people or person won’t respect it, and it’ll cause you more harm to try to enforce it. That’s entirely possible. Sometimes you have to accept treatment or things you’d not in a perfect life because of safety or because there are relationships that make it more difficult to set and keep the boundary than not to.

The work around figuring out boundaries may still be useful. That self awareness on what you’ve chosen to accept and why vs just reacting to it all can help with getting some acceptance, even if it’s just short term. I used to put up with my parent’s bullshit for my siblings, until I couldn’t any more. I was doing it willingly, and with full acceptance because I know a change wasn’t going to happen even if I set boundaries. No contact was the only option.

When you don’t enforce a boundary

There’s a saying ‘boundaries without consequences are just suggestions’. And in a way that’s true. If you set a boundary, and someone breaks it, either knowingly or unknowingly, and you don’t enforce it, what has that person learned about your boundaries? That they’re not really something you enforce. That you’re willing to let somethings slide. At best it adds ambiguity to the boundary.

This is why I wrote about being specific about behaviours. It means you can try to find small boundaries that feel safer and easier to enforce.
There’s also a feeling of disappointment in yourself that comes from you not enforcing a boundary. You feel bad because your boundary has been disrespected, but you also feel disappointed in yourself for allowing your boundaries to pass un-enforced.

Be kind to yourself

This stuff takes practice and is difficult. We’re rarely taught how to set these boundaries and how to enforce them, so chances are you’ll need some time to get used to standing up for yourself and not letting things slide. It should get easier, with practice, and soon you’re realise that you deserve to set these boundaries and you deserve to have them respected.

You don’t have to do this alone.

This is something you can work on with a therapist or counsellor.. You can role-play with friends or loved ones to practice setting a boundary and following through if someone crosses them.

Want to get some coaching? You can book a free 30min call with me to figure out how we can work together on your self care, including boundaries

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