Why is it important to set boundaries with people? Where is the fine line between healthy and unhealthy boundaries? How do you establish where your personal boundaries lie and communicate them effectively?
By setting healthy boundaries, you minimize the chances that people will transgress or violate your standards by doing something you don’t tolerate. Although setting boundaries can be awkward and uncomfortable, it’s essential to ensure harmonious relationships.
Therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab explains how to set healthy boundaries in three steps.
Step 1: Identify Your Boundaries
The first step to setting healthy boundaries is to identify the boundaries you’d like to set. There are two categories of boundaries you’ll want to consider: personal boundaries and social boundaries.
According to Tawwab, your personal boundaries are your standards for how people should treat your physical body. Personal boundaries specify what level of physical and sexual contact, if any, you’re comfortable with in your relationships.
To identify your personal boundaries, reflect on a situation where physical touch made you uncomfortable. Ask yourself what specifically made you uncomfortable and how you’d like to be treated in the future. Once you’ve identified a situation where you’d like to set a personal boundary, define the boundary by writing down a statement that includes both the behavior that makes you uncomfortable and what changes you’d like to see.
For example, Tawwab writes that if you notice that you like hugging friends but not people you’ve only recently met, you may have identified a personal boundary. You could define this boundary as follows: “I’m not comfortable hugging people I’m not close to. Next time we see each other, I’d rather shake hands or wave hello.”
As compared to personal (physical) boundaries, your social boundaries set expectations for behavior in your relationships. As Tawwab notes, this includes standards for how others should speak to you and about you, how you share your time with others, and how others should treat your belongings.
To identify your social boundaries, consider a social situation in which someone else made you feel uncomfortable. Then, write a statement that describes the behavior that makes you uncomfortable and how you’d like to be treated in the future.
For instance, If you feel upset when relatives make jokes at your expense, it’s probably a good idea to set social boundaries in those relationships. An example boundary might sound something like: “Those kinds of jokes make me uncomfortable. I’d prefer it if you could keep it positive when talking about me.”
Step 2: Communicate Your Boundaries
Once you’ve identified your personal and social boundaries, it’s time to set those boundaries in your relationships. To do this, you’ll want to clearly and directly communicate your boundaries as you’ve defined them in the previous step.
Tawwab argues that the best time to communicate your boundaries is during or immediately after an uncomfortable situation. Communicating your boundaries immediately helps end uncomfortable situations as quickly as possible, and also prevents resentment from building. On the other hand, if you don’t speak up immediately, other people will have no way to know you’re uncomfortable with a certain behavior, which means they’ll likely continue their behavior. If weeks or months go by and you still haven’t spoken up, your negative feelings about the incident are more likely to fester into resentment.
For instance, suppose your partner says something that embarasses you in front of your parents. While you’re a little upset, you decide to put it aside to avoid making a scene. Then, the next time you’re all together, they do it again. Naturally, you’d feel even more upset and embarrassed the second time, and you’d also probably begin to feel frustrated with your partner. By speaking up in the moment the first time it happened, you would have avoided being embarrassed twice, and you’d also prevent frustration from building between you and your partner.
Tawwab stresses the importance of being assertive when communicating your boundaries. By being assertive, you let others know that you’re serious about your boundaries. By contrast, if you adopt an apologetic tone, it sends a message to others that your boundaries may have wiggle room.
Similarly, you should avoid explaining your reasoning. While it may feel natural to tell others why your boundaries are important, Tawwab notes that explaining yourself only creates opportunities for others to argue with you.
For example, suppose you offer to let your brother use your car for a few hours, and he doesn’t bring it back until the next day. If, as Tawwab prescribes, you choose to be direct and assertive, you might say something like “When you borrow my car, I need you to return it on time, otherwise I won’t be able to lend it to you.” Statements like these make it clear what you expect from your relationships.
By contrast, if you choose to explain yourself, you might say something like “I need my car to get to work, pick up the kids, and run errands.” While you might intend to provide clarity, your explanation only gives your brother room to argue by saying that you can walk or use public transit to do all those things.
Tawwab recommends that you take time to rest and let difficult emotions settle after communicating boundaries. It’s important to give yourself a break after setting boundaries because communicating boundaries can be difficult and uncomfortable, especially if you’re new to it. Taking time to eat a comforting meal, read a book, or chat with a friend are all things that can help you decompress after setting boundaries.
Step 3: Take Action to Reinforce Your Boundaries
The final step in the process of setting boundaries is reinforcing your boundaries through action. Specifically, Tawwab recommends that you restate your boundaries so that others know you’re serious, and set consequences for boundary violations.
Tawwab argues that restating your boundaries is just as important as initially communicating them. It’s important to repeat your boundaries because people need to hear a piece of information many times in order to internalize it and make necessary adjustments. In addition to helping others internalize your boundaries, repetition lets others know that you’re serious about your boundaries, and that they haven’t changed since the last time you spoke.
As with communicating your boundaries, the best time to restate boundaries is when violations occur. While it can be tempting, don’t let things slide even once, as this sends the impression that your boundaries aren’t serious and don’t always apply.
Finally, Tawwab notes that you should decide in advance what to do if someone continues to violate your stated boundaries. This may include consequences. Consequences can feel mean, but they often help others to understand that you’re serious about your boundaries. And, even if others choose not to adjust to your boundaries, consequences can also protect you from further harm and discomfort.
For example, suppose your boss routinely asks you to work weekends, despite the fact that your contract specifies you’ll have time off on Saturdays and Sundays. When stating your boundaries, you could include as a consequence that when asked to work on the weekend, you won’t respond and won’t come in. Even if your boss refuses to respect your boundaries and continues to pester you, this consequence protects your boundaries and your time.