How to Establish Strong Boundaries: Draw the Line Immediately

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Set Boundaries, Find Peace" by Nedra Glover Tawwab. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you believe you have strong personal boundaries? When is the right time to communicate your boundaries?

Having strong boundaries means having people in your life know what kind of treatment you won’t tolerate. According to therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab, it’s best to set your boundaries right after an uncomfortable situation arises.

Keep reading to learn how to establish and reinforce your boundaries.

Setting Your Boundaries 

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.

(Shortform note: While it’s often best to communicate your feelings in the moment, don’t fret if you aren’t always able to do so. When someone in your life upsets you, it can be difficult to maintain enough composure to express your feelings clearly. What’s important is that you take the next available opportunity to clear things up and state your boundaries before resentment has time to build. In situations like these, experts recommend that you clear things up within a week, while the incident is still fresh in mind.)

For instance, suppose your partner says something that embarrasses 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 have strong boundaries. By contrast, if you adopt an apologetic tone, it sends a message to others that your boundaries may have wiggle room.

(Shortform note: Counterintuitively, experts believe that assertive communication can help you avoid unnecessary conflict. Assertively communicating makes it clear to others how you’d like to be treated, which gives them the information they need to avoid upsetting you. By contrast, apologetic communication may send mixed messages to the other person about how you feel.)

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. 

(Shortform note: While Tawwab writes that you shouldn’t explain your feelings when setting boundaries, other authors believe that sharing more about why you feel what you feel can positively impact difficult conversations. These authors argue that by sharing your story, and listening to the stories of others, you can build mutual empathy and understanding, which helps others treat you more respectfully.)

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.

(Shortform note: In addition to the emotional benefits of rest, taking adequate time to de-stress has been shown to improve decision-making and general cognitive functioning. By taking time to rest after difficult conversations, you ensure that you’ll be your sharpest self for any follow-up conversations or future boundary-setting decisions.)

Set Boundaries With Yourself

In addition to helping you relate better to others, setting boundaries can also be a useful tool for self-improvement. Tawwab notes that by setting boundaries with yourself in areas such as finance, social media usage, and time management, you can break free from bad habits and begin forming new ones.

(Shortform note: Some experts believe that setting financial boundaries for yourself can help affirm your self-worth. These experts argue that by placing limits on your spending, you make a conscious choice to value your own happiness over the pursuit of material possessions. And, as a result of the choice to spend more responsibly, you’re likely to feel better about yourself. This leads to a virtuous cycle, where the less you focus on materialistic concerns, the better you feel about yourself, and vice versa.)

Setting boundaries with yourself involves exercising the discipline to be able to say no to yourself. For example, imagine trying to finish a key work assignment while your family group chat is in the middle of a heated argument. By setting a boundary with yourself to avoid looking at your phone until your assignment is finished, you’ll be able to work free from distractions.

(Shortform note: In addition to exercising discipline, you should also treat yourself compassionately as you learn to set boundaries with yourself. Like anyone else, you’ll struggle and make mistakes as you adjust to new boundaries. It will naturally take some time for you to break from habits, and accepting this can help keep you from becoming discouraged and unmotivated.)

How to Establish Strong Boundaries: Draw the Line Immediately

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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