How to set boundaries: 8 tips for success

It can be hard to know how to set boundaries, let alone maintain a boundary with a friend, family member or colleague. Try these tips.

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My family has fallen out

Refusing to accept certain behaviours is an act of self-love, but it’s also perfectly possible to communicate your needs with kindness and compassion. Heidi Scrimgeour explains how to set boundaries with people who are close to you.

Lately, my Instagram feed is awash with assertive reminders that it’s ok to set boundaries with people, or even to unapologetically walk away from anyone who disrespects your boundaries. But in practice, it can be hard to know how to set boundaries, let alone maintain a boundary with a friend, family member or colleague.

After all, do you need to verbalise a boundary or do unspoken ones count? How do you let someone know that they’ve breached a boundary – without sounding like a dictator? And what about when someone breezily claims they’re setting a boundary but it looks more like justifying unkind behaviour?

‘The word “boundary” almost implies putting a protective barrier between yourself and others,’ agrees women’s empowerment coach, Katie Philips, a Women’s Empowerment Master Coach, Love & Dating Mentor and author of ‘The Self Love Affair – A Woman’s Guide To A Daring & Mighty Life’. ‘It has a defensive energy and I think a lot of people mis-use boundaries as a way to push others away. In fact, setting a boundary is less about shutting others out and more about knowing what you need and loving yourself enough to ask for support in receiving that.’

Recently, I found myself having to become an expert on the topic and spelling out boundaries in two different sets of close relationships. Other people’s actions had disrupted my wellbeing in profound ways and I realised I had to communicate that I was not willing to accept certain behaviours.

I was surprised by how uncomfortable I felt about speaking up for myself, but also relieved at how smoothly the conversations went. My needs were acknowledged, both people were apologetic about the damage done, and we moved forward with bonds restored. But it’s not always so straightforward. Here are 8 things it helps to know about setting and maintaining boundaries.

1. BOUNDARIES REQUIRE KNOWING WHAT YOU NEED

The first step towards setting a boundary is usually reconnecting with yourself. ‘The invitation to put a boundary in place implies you know what you need and want; the boundary ring fences the time and space for you to receive that,’ says Katie Phillips. ‘But so many women are in the habit of taking care of others to the extent that they are disconnected from their own wants and needs. Often, just the thought of connecting with their own desires sparks guilt. ‘Who am I to have what I want’ or ‘It’s selfish to put myself first’ are common thoughts I hear from women I work with.’

Katie recommends a daily practice to begin building the muscle of knowing yourself. Every morning, check in with how you feel and what you need. ‘The answer could be very practical – like hiring an accountant to help with your taxes to reduce your worry and overwhelm – or it could be a self care practice – like an early night or a massage to combat exhaustion,’ Katie explains. ‘If an early night is required, the boundary might be letting your family know that you would like their help with clearing up dinner so that you can take a bath and go to bed earlier.’

2. BOUNDARIES ARE LOVING, NOT PUNITIVE

Another way to look at the word ‘boundary’ is to consider it as a ‘fiercely loving’ way to ring fence what you need according to Katie. ‘For example, a boundary could be blocking time in your diary every morning from 8-8.15am to stretch or from 12-1pm for a walk at lunchtime so that meetings cannot be added to that time slot. I have clients who put ‘meeting with myself’ in the diary to ensure ‘me time’ cannot be taken over by other people’s needs.’

3. BOUNDARIES CAN START SMALL

Business coach Catrin MacDonnell catrinmacdonnell.co.uk recommends starting small if you’re new to setting boundaries, since making big changes isn’t easy. ‘Think about aspects of work and home life where you feel ‘put upon’ or as though others might take advantage of you,’ she says. ‘If there are times when people speak to you disrespectfully or situations where you’re always the one who picks up jobs no-one else wants to do, work through each scenario and ask yourself what boundary you could put in place to stop it happening.’

Perhaps you’re always the one who organises birthday gifts. Ask yourself why this is and whether you could suggest that people take it in turns. ‘Try suggesting alternatives in a positive and constructive way,’ adds Catrin. ‘You may think this is the least of your problems but by asserting yourself here, you’re starting the ball rolling for bigger things. Little by little you will be putting boundaries in place.’

4. SAYING NO IS INTEGRAL TO SETTING BOUNDARIES

What makes many people so uncomfortable about setting boundaries is the fact that they require us to say no. But being able to say you won’t do something is essential if you want to have a balanced life and stay away from being stressed and overwhelmed, according to Catrin.

She recommends identifying a scenario where you could say no more often. It might be something that happens frequently, such as people constantly interrupting you to ask questions. ‘Think of a phrase that you feel comfortable saying by way of reply, such as ‘I have a lot on – I’d like to arrange a catch up to work on these questions at another time,’ she says. ‘Then when you have the catch up, you can explain that you’d like them to save their questions for the agreed times. This is not always possible, of course, but when it works well, they’ll start to work out some of the answers themselves and reduce the amount of questions they have for you.’

5. BOUNDARIES REQUIRE DETERMINATION

Having healthy boundaries in place can transform your work and home life. You’ll feel clearer, more in control and probably less stressed or overwhelmed. But you’ll need to be assertive and determined, and willing to communicate your boundaries clearly to others – something they may need time to get used to. ‘You’ll also need to be pretty determined as the role you’ve been playing as helper / people pleaser is how you’re likely to be known,’ adds Catrin. ‘People don’t like change, generally, but if you stick with it, they’ll soon get used to the new you.’

6. SETTING BOUNDARIES ISN’T EASY

‘When people find it difficult to set and communicate their boundaries, it can be because feelings of guilt or even selfishness arise,’ says Somia Zaman, a psychotherapist specialising in EMDR and CBT.

‘You may be concerned that you might hurt someone’s feelings when you set a line, or even that you may be rejected. But these difficult feelings are only coming up because you are doing something new. Once you start setting boundaries, it will get easier with time.’

Somia recommends reflecting on the rules or boundaries that would benefit you in your life. ‘Try writing down your rules and even rehearse telling them to people, or at least imagine yourself telling people your boundaries,’ she says.

7. BOUNDARIES AREN’T ABOUT SHUTTING PEOPLE OUT

It can help to think about boundaries as ‘personal lines’ that you draw around yourself. But they’re not about excluding people or shutting them out of your lift. ‘Healthy boundary setting is more about paying attention to what you need rather than issuing a blanket no to the needs of other people,’ explains Somia.

‘Boundaries are there to protect you and allow you to live a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Boundaries may be physical (don’t stand so close to me), emotional (the right to not always share your feelings), sexual (I would do anything for love but I won’t do that), intellectual (showing respect for different views) or financial (a couple having separate bank accounts). Common examples of boundaries include not answering work emails out of hours, asking housemates not to go in your room when you are not there, or telling a partner not to raise their voice at you.’

8. PEOPLE NEED TO BE REMINDED OF REMINDERS

The key to maintaining your boundaries is to keep reminding other people of them. If you have recently set some new boundaries, it will take time and some repetition for them to stick in others’ minds.

‘Continuing to stick to your own boundaries is important in other people respecting them, and if you consistently enforce your own rules then others are more likely to start to respect them,’ explains Somia. ‘Be very clear about specifically what your boundaries mean. Don’t say ‘I need more space’ – instead try ‘I don’t always like to hold hands when we are walking down the street’.

Of course, the nature of boundaries is such that they will more than likely be tested and even breached from time to time. When this happens, gently remind others of exactly what your boundaries are and how they have overstepped them, advises Somia. ‘Tell them how this has affected you and politely remind them that you’d like them to respect your boundaries in future.’

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