How To Set A Challenging Boundary From Start To Finish
Boundaries are the expectations and limitations that create a firm outline around your sense of self. They separate your physical space, feelings, needs, and responsibilities from others’. In essence, boundaries provide a container from which you can live safely and freely.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Darlene Lancer describes several types of boundaries:
Material boundaries determine whether you give or lend things, such as your money, car, clothes, books, food, or toothbrush.
Physical boundaries pertain to your personal space, privacy, and body. Do you give a handshake or a hug — to whom and when? How do you feel about loud music, nudity, and locked doors?
Mental boundaries apply to your thoughts, values, and opinions. Are you easily suggestible? Do you know what you believe, and can you hold onto your opinions? Can you listen with an open mind to someone else’s opinion without becoming rigid? If you become highly emotional, argumentative, or defensive, you may have weak emotional boundaries.
Emotional boundaries distinguish separating your emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s. It’s like an imaginary line or force field that separates you and others. Healthy boundaries prevent you from giving advice, blaming or accepting blame. They protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s negative feelings or problems and taking others’ comments personally. High reactivity suggests weak emotional boundaries. Healthy emotional boundaries require clear internal boundaries — knowing your feelings and your responsibilities to yourself and others.
Sexual boundaries protect your comfort level with sexual touch and activity — what, where, when, and with whom.
Spiritual boundaries relate to your beliefs and experiences in connection with God or a higher power.
Contrary to popular belief, boundaries are an invitation to connect. By maintaining clear expectations and limitations in your relationships, you enable others to connect with you in a way that makes you comfortable. In this way, boundaries free us from the shackles of people-pleasing and liberate our authentic selves.
Individuals may struggle to set boundaries for a variety of reasons. Those raised in households containing addiction or abuse may have learned to repress their needs in order to stay safe. Those who have experienced repeated physical, emotional, or sexual trauma may have internalized the idea that they are powerless to affect their external environment, a phenomenon called learned helplessness.
If you agree with one or more of these statements, you may have trouble setting boundaries with others:
- I feel like I give more than I receive in my relationships.
- I over-commit to obligations.
- I under-commit to myself.
- I am burdened with resentments toward others.
- I feel like others regularly violate my limitations.
As a Codependency Recovery Coach, I’ve worked with hundreds of individuals who are finding inner freedom by setting healthy boundaries and speaking their truth. This article walks you through the process of setting a challenging boundary from start to finish, offering concrete exercises that will enable you to feel safe, strong, and empowered throughout the process.
Identifying Your Boundary
We use boundaries to protect ourselves. In order to protect ourselves, we need to have a clear understanding of who we are. By identifying your own feelings, thoughts, and needs, you develop the emotional literacy required to set boundaries that help you feel safe.
Name Your Feelings
Your emotions are boundary-setting signposts. Feelings of resentment or anger may signal that you need to erect a boundary. Feelings of comfort and happiness may signal that you can loosen a boundary. Only by becoming familiar with your own emotions can you follow the road map they delineate.
Individuals who are accustomed to putting others’ needs first may struggle to recognize their feelings. Especially if you grew up in a family system that discouraged you from stating your needs, the process of accessing your emotions may be a careful excavation.
Throughout your day, make a habit of paying attention to your feelings. If you’re not sure where to begin, note your bodily cues: the rise and fall of your heart rate, pressure in your chest, heat, cold. Name your feelings silently or aloud: “I feel happy.” “I feel anxious.” “I feel angry.”
Deceptively simple, this process enables you to develop a newfound familiarity with your emotions. Over time, the process will become second nature and equip you with the tools you need to set firm boundaries in the present moment.
Literally defined as “bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly,” resentment arises when others trespass our spoken or unspoken boundaries. In practice, resentment may look like:
- “I can’t believe Shelley asked me to babysit her kids for the fourth time this month. I don’t have time for this!”
- “No matter how many times I don’t reply, Steven keeps texting me. Can’t he take the hint?”
- “Dad keeps pressuring me to go to church with him. I really don’t want to go.”
- “My neighbor keeps borrowing my gardening tools without asking. It’s driving me crazy.”
Despite our hope that others will anticipate our needs intuitively, this is often not the case. Our friends, parents, and lovers are not mind-readers. It is our responsibility to communicate our boundaries and give others the opportunity to respond accordingly.
If you struggle to have conversations addressing your resentments, you may find that you have a tendency to cut individuals out of your life altogether. Instead of doing the difficult work of setting boundaries, you may find it easier to simply discard relationships when resentments arise. Learning how to set boundaries will help you break this habit and sustain relationships through moments of conflict.
Remove The Consequences
What would you do differently if you weren’t afraid of upsetting your partner? Your kids? Your parents? Your friends? Your community? Your coworkers? Sometimes, we’re so afraid of upsetting others that we don’t give ourselves permission to imagine acting in new ways.
Take some time to imagine what you would do differently if you were no longer a part of your relationships or social circles. By doing so, you give your unspoken desires the space to surface. These desires may illuminate new ways you want to spend your time or existing ways of interacting that no longer serve you.
Brainstorm Healthy Boundaries
Once you get in the habit of naming your feelings, recognizing your resentments, and removing the consequences, your need for certain boundaries will arise intuitively. For each of these boundaries, you can use the steps below to bring it to life.
Before You Set Your Boundary
Create A Web of Impact
If you grew up in an environment that shamed you for expressing your physical or emotional needs, you may carry a subconscious belief that setting boundaries is mean, cruel, or selfish. We often forget that boundary-setting can be a positive service for everyone involved — not just the boundary-setter.
Remember: by clearly explaining your needs and limitations, you allow the other person to glimpse who you really are, which opens your relationship to greater intimacy. Instead of stomaching resentments and pasting on smiles, you express your unfiltered truth.
Consider how the following parties could benefit from the boundary you intend to set. Benefits could be emotional, spiritual, financial, physical, relational, or communal:
- The receiving party
- Your relationship as a whole
- Secondary parties (children, friends, family, community)
Strengthen Your Communication Habits
Speaking your truth is like working a muscle. You don’t run the 400-meter dash right out of the gate. Give yourself permission to start small. Warm up your boundary-setting muscle by strengthening your communication over time.
Practice taking incremental steps toward empowered communication by:
- Saying “No, thanks” without giving a reason
- Embracing natural silences
- Offering your genuine preferences on simple matters (where to go to dinner, what to do this weekend, what time you’d like to meet, etc.)
Imagine The Scenario
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a coaching approach that uses perceptual, behavioral, and communication techniques to make it easier for people to change their thoughts and actions. Future pacing is a widely-practiced NLP technique in which you imagine a future scenario playing out in your favor, thus glimpsing — and experiencing — the positive outcomes of your efforts. This felt sense of accomplishment bolsters your commitment to forge ahead.
If boundary-setting is new to you, the thought of setting a difficult boundary with a lover or family member might feel terrifying. (It was for me, at first!) You may have responded to this fear by never even imagining the scenario in your mind.
If you’ve never imagined yourself taking a certain behavior, it’s much less likely that you’ll take this behavior in the future. By imagining this fantasy, we create our future reality. You can use future pacing to reinvigorate your commitment to set your boundary.
Imagine that you’ve already set this boundary. You’ve spoken your truth and advocated for yourself, and in the wake of your efforts, you feel empowered, self-loving, and aligned. Summon as much detail as you can muster: the setting, your posture, your outfit, the adrenaline coursing through your body. Imagine how fantastic it will feel to speak up for yourself — to trust that you can be your own best advocate.
Draft the language
Drafting the specific language you will use to set your boundary can provide you a sense of security, clarity, and direction as you prepare to have a difficult conversation.
Set aside 30 minutes to draft your boundary on paper. Write the words you will say in as much or as little detail feels useful to you. This will help you strike a tone and style that feels both authentic and firm.
As You Set Your Boundary
Conduct a grounding exercise.
Tuning into our bodies re-centers us as the locus of our own experience. It also helps us focus on the conversation at hand. Take a moment to center in your body as you prepare to speak your truth.
Grounding exercises can be simple, fast, and discreet. Take a full, deep breath and notice how the air enters and exits your lungs. Feel the pressure of your feet on the ground. Spread your awareness to your hands and feet.
You can’t simultaneously protect another person’s feelings and set a boundary. In this particular moment, your job is to advocate for yourself. This grounding exercise is a physical and symbolic reminder to center your own feelings in the conversation ahead.
Speak concisely and clearly.
My favorite framework for boundary-setting is the “I-statement” approach developed by clinical psychologist Thomas Gordon in 1970. I appreciate this model because it centers the boundary-setter’s feelings and experiences, reduces the likelihood of defensiveness in the listener, and offers concrete suggestions for change.
Here’s how it works:
- I feel _________________________________________.
- When you _____________________________________.
- Because _______________________________________.
- I need ________________________________________.
Using the examples provided prior, boundaries that follow this model might sound like:
- “Shelley, I feel taken advantage of when you ask me to babysit your kids more than twice a month because it makes it harder for me to prioritize other things I care about. I need you to find additional babysitters because I can’t shoulder this responsibility on my own.”
- “Steven, I feel overwhelmed when you text me because I don’t have the time or space for this connection right now. I need some space.”
- “Dad, I feel uncomfortable when you ask me to accompany you to church because it doesn’t align with my spiritual beliefs. Please don’t ask me again so I can make my own decisions without pressure or guilt.”
- “I feel upset when you borrow my tools without asking because I garden on a regular basis. I need you to ask before borrowing my tools in the future.”
You can adapt this language to suit your own conversational style or tone.
Provide a positive alternative.
Want to double the efficacy of your boundary? Combine your statement of behaviors you’d like to limit with an offering of behaviors you’d like to increase. This way, your boundary can create a road map for future positive interactions. For example:
- “I’m not ready to be that intimate with you yet, but I would love to keep holding hands.”
- “I don’t like drinking on first dates. Let’s go for a walk in the park instead.”
- “I need our conversations to feel more equal. What if we tried trading off every 15 minutes?”
By offering a positive alternative, you teach the receiving party how best to care for you. This allows an opportunity for deeper connection, and may even open a mutual conversation about how you can each meet the other’s needs.
Keep it short and simple.
As clinical psychologist and bestselling author Harriet Lerner describes in The Dance of Connection, boundaries threaten the status quo of relationships. As a result, the boundary recipient will likely respond with a “countermove” — a “Change back!” maneuver that attempts to re-instate the old pattern and the old you.
Countermoves are extremely common — even in the most loving relationships. To ward off a lengthy conversation replete with countermoves, keep your boundary short and simple. Remember: it is not your responsibility to justify, rationalize, or compromise your boundary. If you find yourself embroiled in a long and heated discussion about your boundary, the conversation may have exceeded its natural length.
Pay attention to the tone and nature of your discussion. The following may be signs that it’s time to exit the conversation and/or revisit later:
- Yelling or other heated expressions of anger
- Going around in circles
- Being asked to explain or justify your boundary
- Being asked to compromise or negotiate your boundary
- Feeling unsafe
After You Set Your Boundary
Especially if you’re a recovering people-pleaser, when you set a boundary you are actively breaking a habit that you’ve had for months, years, or even decades. The simple act of setting a boundary may feel like an enormous emotional upheaval. You’ve just done some serious emotional work.
Your heart, mind, and nervous system is learning how to process, hold, and express difficult emotions. Fear may accompany this process — especially fear of retaliation or fear of abandonment. If you grew up in an environment where you were punished, harmed, or neglected when you expressed our true feelings, learning the art of honest expression is a radical act.
After setting your boundary, consider showing yourself care and compassion in the following ways.
Repeat A Reassuring Mantra
Especially if your conversation became heated or intense, you may feel burdened by guilt, shame, or fear afterwards. This is totally natural. Having a reassuring mantra reminds you that you set this boundary for a legitimate and self-loving reason.
Design a mantra that you can use after setting a boundary. Some of my favorites include:
- “It is my responsibility to stand up for myself and my needs.”
- “I set boundaries to show myself the care and love I deserve.”
- “I am strong and brave for setting boundaries and being my own advocate.”
- “I am a badass.” (My personal favorite)
Appoint A Cheerleader
Boundary-setting is serious emotional work. It can take a toll on the body, mind, and spirit. Get support by appointing someone you trust to be your cheerleader: someone who will celebrate your successes and mirror back your righteousness and bravery.
You might plan to call your cheerleader for emotional support before or after you set your boundary. She can provide validation, affirmation, and celebrate your growth and progress. She can also help you stay centered in your own feelings instead of ruminating on the potential discomfort you may have caused the boundary recipient.
Ask a trusted contact to be your cheerleader. She might be a family member, partner, friend, therapist, coach, 12-step sponsor, or member of an online community.
Get Back To Self-Care Basics
Tough discussions can be destabilizing. Afterwards, give yourself permission to follow a comforting self-care routine as you return to center.
After setting a difficult boundary, I like to take care of myself by:
- Giving myself permission to take a nap if I feel drained or exhausted
- Giving myself permission to lay low and be introverted
- Meditating and allowing my difficult feelings to be, just as they are
- Taking space from the boundary recipient as needed — even if they want to talk
Use This As An Opportunity For Learning
When you’ve sufficiently processed your boundary-setting experience, it can be powerful to use your newfound insights as fodder for learning and growth.
Often, individuals who have trouble setting boundaries have trouble responding to others’ boundaries. You may feel rejected or hurt when others set boundaries with you — even if they do so to take care of themselves.
How do you respond when others set boundaries with you? Consider boundaries set by family, colleagues, lovers, and friends. For 3 of your memories, consider the following:
- How did being on the receiving end of this boundary make me feel?
- What assumptions did I make about how this person felt about me when they set this boundary?
- How was this person attempting to protect or take care of themselves by setting this boundary?
- How did I, or my relationship with this person, ultimately benefit from this boundary in the short- or long-term?
I knew I was on the right path when I started feeling peace in situations that would normally make me feel tension. — Yung Pueblo
Remember: it’s perfectly normal if you feel drained or exhausted after doing the emotional labor of difficult conversations. After setting a challenging boundary, hold yourself with compassion in those moments and give yourself permission to rest and recuperate.
With time, your muscle of authentic expression will strengthen. Eventually, conversations that once felt debilitating will feel free, flowing, and righteous.