Boundaries, Brick By Brick

Even if we find that we have been less than pleasant in some of our interactions, there are several things we can do to better ourselves. The first and most important step here is to accept and listen when others tell us about any misdeed we may have committed. Just like we are free to have boundaries based on our values and desires, so are others. There is no right or wrong boundary, and we must be accommodating of others without judgement. In cases of deep cultural differences, it is important to remember that the other person comes from a completely different background, with unique experiences that are different from our own. Generally, it always pays to be compassionate and willing to talk it out with others.

Keep the words flowing by buying me a coffee.

The journey to better boundaries is a journey of empowerment. We’ve spent some time understanding what boundaries actually are (and aren’t!), how to recognize when you have poorly functioning boundaries, and hopefully, you’ve decided that you are worth better boundaries. Though this may seem great, at some point, you have to actually head out into the world and show up in a real and concrete way, as a person fundamentally different from how you were before.

This takes courage, patience, and self-love. It also takes a good strategy! Planning will give you a sense of control, purpose, and direction. Knowing what you want and how you’re going to get it can focus your mind and give you strength to follow through on your convictions, despite any pushback from others.

Remember that the inner work informs the outer work. Part of healing your boundaries is doing the work of strengthening your self-esteem, refining your identity, and narrowing in on the values that give your life a sense of purpose and meaning. More practically speaking, though, boundary work is about taking the time to draw clear, detailed, and precise lines around yourself with a firm intention. The best plan will be one that you devise for yourself and stick to because you are convinced of its value and necessity in life. But in the meantime, see if the following steps inspire you to act with more empowerment and personal agency.

Step One: Get clear within yourself

This will come as no surprise. You cannot expect anyone to be aware of, let alone respect, a boundary that you never communicate. People can’t read minds. Do you use passive aggression to hint at your needs and limits without stating them clearly? Your first step is to speak out, loudly and clearly.

Have you ever noticed how a dog will obey and respect one person in the household and completely walk all over another? That person can yell “Stop, don’t you dare chew that!” as much as they’d like, and the dog simply dismisses them. Another person can simply look at the dog and the dog will instantly obey. Why? Because the dog is responding not just to the words, but to the energy and intention behind them. The dog may correctly sense that the first person doesn’t really mean what they say. The dog knows what many humans know—that the boundary is there in name only, but not in spirit; that there are no real consequences for crossing such a “boundary.”

Your first step is, as we’ve been exploring in the previous chapters, to align well within yourself. There is no boundary without a strong, healthy sense of self and a genuine belief in your own self-worth and values. Set your boundaries in your head first. Forget about what other people tell you, and connect with what you alone think and feel is right.

Step Two: Gain further clarity

It is not enough to simply know that you have “boundary issues.” What kinds of boundaries do you have issues with? With whom and in what context? What kind of issues are these and why are they happening?

The more clarity you have on yourself, the clearer and more defined your boundaries can be, and the better chance you have of people seeing and respecting them. May people with boundary issues spend so little time considering their own wants and limits that it may feel uncomfortable to delve too deeply into the details of their own needs, but it is necessary for every autonomous adult that wishes to take charge of their mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Zoom in on exactly where your boundaries need to be established or tightened up (or, perhaps, even loosened). You may start with romantic relationships and look at the dynamic between you and your partner. Where are there issues—in sexual, emotional, mental, or even financial boundaries? A mix of all of these? Even well-established relationships will need you to occasionally revisit old boundaries.

Decide what your deal breakers are and identify the areas you can compromise on. It’s OK to have general, abstract boundaries, but can you also think of practical actions and events they apply to? The more specific, the better. Use your emotions and intuition to point you in the direction of areas that you feel unsafe, overwhelmed, disrespected, or unseen. Because you’ve made up your mind on your own beforehand, these should be easier to communicate with others.

Having frank discussions with your partner will sometimes entail you telling them, essentially, to back off, but also be sure to make room to confront anything that you do to allow your boundaries to be dismissed. It’s not so important why they do something—it’s more important why you allow it!

Is the problem that your boundaries aren’t properly formed in your mind, or is the problem that you have trouble implementing them? Are you merely saying the words, but internally don’t really believe them yourself? Are you unconsciously hoping that the other person will push past boundaries to show that they love or need you and are willing to take care of you and remove all of your responsibilities? These are tricky questions. Watch carefully if either you or the other person is making excuses for why your boundaries can’t be respected. Take note. The better you can understand all the obstacles standing in your way, the sooner you can start to remove them.

Step Three: Seek support

Sometimes, with the difficult work of boundary setting, we can start to feel like the world is a hostile, complicated place. It feels like we have to build walls to keep out enemies—and it’s so hard to decide who to trust in the first place! Even though boundary work is a necessarily personal activity, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get support from others as you go.

Testing out new limits, or even a new identity, can make you feel a little exposed and vulnerable. Why not get support as you work it out? A trusted family member, friend, or mental health professional can be a sounding board and an anchor that you can keep checking in with. It can take time to learn to trust and honor your own judgment, but there’s nothing wrong with leaning on others temporarily while you figure it out.

Though establishing boundaries might feel like an “unworthy” reason to seek help, think of the amount of time—potentially years and decades—that you have spent struggling with your current problems while trying to tackle it on your own. With the help of another person, you can greatly accelerate the process of healing and living a healthier life.

More importantly, you may need some sound legal and financial advice if your boundaries are in this area. Know that there are laws to protect your rights and that there are experts in most areas who can give you neutral, trustworthy advice. The police can ensure your physical safety in the immediate moment, but a shelter, helpline, social worker, or nonprofit organization can give you the resources you need so that you don’t feel alone. It can be very healing to share your vulnerabilities and goals with others who you can trust to respect and honor those boundaries.

Step Four: Plan your move

Some boundaries are set subtly and nonverbally. As you become better at boundaries, you may set them naturally and early on in your interactions with others, meaning you seldom have to put your foot down. Other boundary issues will require you to have a more direct (and, sometimes, awkward or difficult) conversation with the person who violated them. It’s normal to feel anxious and guilty about doing this. So many of us have been socialized to never rock the boat or offend others—even if they’ve wronged us!

You can get through it if you prepare carefully. Beforehand, meditate or visualize so that you are in tune with how you feel. Be kind, patient, and accepting with yourself. Try not to approach others in a state of anger or fear—this will seldom get you what you want. Similarly, don’t make it personal (because it really isn’t). Rather, practice being calm. Tell yourself, “I can do this. I have a right to set my boundaries,” and trust that asserting your worth does not hurt or offend others and is never something to feel guilty about. If you can speak from your heart and truly carry an unshakable sense of your own value, it will be easier to speak out clearly and be heard.

Similarly, if you’re trying to loosen your overly rigid boundaries, the prospect of trusting others or allowing yourself to be vulnerable might be equally frightening. You might have been operating with your current boundaries long enough to be unable to imagine what it would be like not to have that wall of protection around you. In such cases, it is important to remember that stepping out of your comfort zone is the key to new and enriching experiences. Effective planning will help reduce any anxiety you have about this.

Step Five: Communicate properly

The best thing is to have boundary conversations well before there is any conflict or misunderstanding. However, if you have a history with someone and have set up a poor precedent already, you may need to broach the topic directly. Consider that people are always communicating with one another, only they do it unconsciously, nonverbally. When people violate boundaries, they are communicating something to you, and when you allow that violation, you are responding, too. Think of conscious verbal communication as merely a way of bringing unconscious dialogue out into the open, where you can claim it and speak openly.

Use “I” statements. These will remind you to talk from your own agency and responsibility. For example, nobody can “make” anyone feel anything. Rather, say, “When you did that, I felt this way” rather than, “You make me feel uncomfortable.” Own your behavior and resist laying blame. Remember that you are not really trying to get anything from the other person, but instead communicating to them what you will do and how you will be in your subsequent interactions.

Avoid falling into victim mode, seeking contrition or apologies, or blaming. Stick to your own needs, values, and desires. Be clear about what you’d like from the other person going forward, but phrase this for what it is: a desire, not an order. Use a tone of voice and posture that communicates self-confidence, and drop “hedging language” like, “If you wouldn’t mind…,” “If that makes sense,” or, “I’m so, so sorry, but maybe could you please…”.

Importantly, acknowledge that the other person is free to respond exactly as they will. Your talk can have consequences—it could even end the relationship. But hopefully, you’ve spent time already ironing out your own needs and values, and you know that you are unwilling to be in a relationship where someone is uninterested in respecting you in the way you need to be respected. Don’t backtrack or apologize.

Hold your head high and speak up—you don’t need to be sheepish about talking candidly and maturely about your needs. If you show that your needs are important to you, others are more likely to treat them as important, too. Similarly, if they feel like they can get away with violating them, they will invariably try to do so.

Nevertheless, be prepared for resistance. Even if it’s not the case, many people will assume that you are attacking or criticizing them, but don’t see conflict or tension as a sign that you shouldn’t be enforcing a boundary. You are deliberately changing the terms of your relationship, so give them time to process and respond as they need to, without rushing in to apologize or take responsibility or blame. They may be disappointed—that’s natural. It’s OK if they don’t understand. It’s OK if they don’t agree. Neither of these things is required for you to stand your ground.

Sometimes, the hardest work will come later, when you are confronted with someone who deliberately tests your boundary again. This may be about control for them, their own unmet needs, or simple disrespect, but don’t tolerate it. Follow through in the way you’ve already decided for yourself, and speak out clearly and calmly. “I’ve asked you repeatedly to please not smoke around me and my baby. Since you can’t respect that boundary, I’m going to have to step away from this relationship.”

Some other phrases you could experiment with are:

“If you continue to yell and call me names, I’m going to end this conversation.”

“I’m happy to help, but I can longer babysit on the weekends, I’m afraid.” (This is said without launching into excuses, explanations, or apologies. It is also said without needing to launch into finding a new solution to the babysitting problem for them.)

“I’m sorry you’re going through a tough time right now, but I’m not the right person to help.”

“I’m so glad you invited me, but I’m going to have to sit this one out!”

“Please don’t do that again, it makes me uncomfortable.”

“That’s very kind, thank you, but no.” (This is said to turn down offers of food, alcohol, or inappropriate gifts.)

“No.” (This is perfect on its own!)

When you’re choosing your phrasing, make sure to include an actual request, intention, or limit. State how you feel, how the other person’s actions are affecting you, and, if appropriate, explain your values and desires in the situation. You need to clearly state what you want or don’t want to happen. State clearly what the consequences are. Otherwise, you risk merely making a complaint or venting, leaving the other person aware that you’re unhappy with them, but unsure of what that really means.

People may try to guilt-trip you but remember that you will not be forced into anything and you are not forcing anyone else into anything—you are merely outlining the reasonable conditions of being in a relationship with you. If someone shows that they are unwilling to respect this, then, in effect, it is they who have ended the relationship and not you. You have merely followed through.

The stronger the resistance to a healthy boundary, the more evidence you have that it was needed in the first place—stand your ground. The fallout of setting up stronger boundaries (especially if you have a history as a bit of a doormat) can be large. But try to remember that any connections or people you lose were only those connections and people that disrespected your happiness and well-being. If you think of it this way, you haven’t lost anything truly valuable. The amount of love and support you had before dropping a disrespectful friend is the same as you have after dropping them!

Step Six: Follow through

You’ve made your request. You’ve held the other person accountable. Now what? After you’ve communicated a boundary, pause and assess how it went. Did you follow through according to your strategy? How well did it work and what can you improve on next time? The great thing about boundary setting is that it only becomes easier the more practice you get. While it may feel scary to assert yourself at first, you’ll soon experience the magic power of “no” as a wonderfully liberating tool. It reduces your anxiety, empowers you, and brings the things you care about into clear focus, while letting harmful or irrelevant things drift away from your attention.

Going forward, pay attention so that you can catch small boundary violations early on, before they become bigger ones. It’s much easier! Likewise, you may like to start with a relatively strict boundary and negotiate it down, rather than state a boundary that is already a compromise for you, especially if you have a history of acquiescing under pressure. If you can hold your nerve and trust your judgment, refusing to be pushed or bullied or talked out of your boundaries, a wonderful thing happens: you start to realize that you are in control of your experiences. You can decide who and what to permit into your world. Notice and relish this feeling when it arises. This is the satisfaction of knowing that you are living with integrity and respect for your own values. Well done!

For some of us, setting a boundary and actually following through with a consequence can be eye-opening and something we might never have done before. Once you realize and truly understand your power to do this, the next time it will be easier, and eventually, it will soon feel natural. In time, you’ll restore your inbuilt ability to protect, maintain, and love who you are.

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