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Setting Boundaries: How You Do It, How to Make Them Work and Improve Your Life

Updated on September 27, 2021
With good boundaries, you get to be the heron.  Without. . .the frog.
With good boundaries, you get to be the heron. Without. . .the frog.

Setting Boundaries

Many of us go through life without ever thinking about boundaries. We know that some kinds of behavior bother us; we know that some kinds of behavior make us feel unsafe, or even violated. We know that sometimes we allow certain people to do things that we don’t allow others to do; for example, a close friend can kiss our cheek, where an acquaintance is only permitted a hug. Most of us don’t ever think about boundaries; we just have them. They are the intangible rules of our relationships with ourselves and others.

Some of us, myself included, have to learn what boundaries are and how to enforce them. Often this comes from a traumatic experience; sometimes it comes from a dysfunctional family life. Boundaries are key to creating and improving self-esteem, avoiding abuse or domestic violence, and are incredibly useful in raising our children. Boundaries can be used in every relationship we have to improve, define, and make relationships stronger. Over time, boundaries can help us define who we are. Some say that boundaries are a way we know who we are versus who everyone else is. Boundaries tell us what our limits are, when we are being treated the way we deserve to be treated, and how we motivate ourselves to improve our lives. Even without having a specific need, boundaries are marvelously useful things to have in our lives, and it’s a plus to be aware of them, and how to use them.

Setting boundaries is part of learning to love ourselves. Boundaries help us show our self-worth to others, and to remind ourselves of that worth when we are down or feeling unworthy. Boundaries are the rules we use to tell others how to treat us. Whether or not we are aware of it, our behavior tells those around us what we will and will not accept in terms of treatment. For example:

Maggie and Brian have been dating for over a year. Maggie feels like she is in love with Brian. He makes her feel happy and tells her she’s beautiful. One day, Brian comes to see her in a bad mood. He’s had a terrible day at work and is afraid of losing his job. Maggie makes a joke about his feelings, and Brian slaps her.

Maggie is shocked, but decides that the slap is a one-time problem owing to Brian’s fear and worry at work. She forgives him.

Maggie’s personal boundaries are now in play. A good explanation of how to know a boundary is this: if someone takes an action that makes you angry, scared, unsafe, or starts another negative feeling inside you, they’ve crossed a boundary. Boundaries can be seen to have three parts. The first two are an if-then, identifying the unacceptable behavior and the response. The third part is the consequence of continued violation of the boundary.

If you - a description of the behavior we find unacceptable

I will - a description of what action you will take to protect yourself because the other person violated the boundary.

If you do it again - a description of what steps you will take to protect the boundary that you have set.

Maggie may, within herself, have a boundary that looks like this:

If you ever hit me, I will stop our relationship immediately and never be in contact with you again. If you persist in the abuse, I will call the police and get a restraining order.

The first two parts of the formula, the if-then, can be shared with the other person in the relationship. The consequence is something that may be kept personal; it’s not always wise or needful to tell others our response to inappropriate behavior ahead of time. If Brian slaps Maggie again, she has two choices; continue to accept this behavior, which means her boundary is no longer in place or valid, or realize that Brian has no right to abuse her, and stick to her boundary. Even if she must give up the relationship, she is protecting herself from future misery.

There are three kinds of boundaries. It's easiest to think of them as walls. With a permeable boundary (which Maggie is showing), the wall is broken and invaders can get through. There is no discretion between friends and foes. With an impermeable boundary, the walls are up and solid - no one and nothing is getting through, thankyouverymuch. Neither type is ideal. What's most useful is a nice, solid wall, but with a gate - so that you can let through the people and situations of your own choosing. It's OK to raise the gate, as long as you know it's also OK to close it.

It is important to note that any consequence you set, in any relationship, must always be a consequence you can and will follow through on. Empty consequences teach others that we talk a good game, but we don’t mean it. Others may see this as a reason to keep behaving inappropriately, or even to escalate behavior. Even small children know that if Mommy says she’ll turn the car around, but doesn’t, they can keep on doing as they please. It stays the same with adults; if you’re not showing them you’re serious, they’re not going to take you seriously.

The consequences we set must impact the other person more than they do us. Ideally, they will have little impact on us at all. If you set a boundary with your child that they must do chores, and then do them for the child when they’ve waited too long, you’ve only taught the child to out-wait you. If the punishment is that they are grounded, then you’re grounded too – you have to stay home with the child to make sure they’re not doing anything or going anywhere. If, on the other hand, you take their cell phone for a week, you’re not impacted any longer than it takes you to remove the battery. Remember: simple, enforceable, and impacting the right person.

Remember, as you set and enforce boundaries, that most of us change slowly. The people around you, used to treating you a certain way, are unlikely to suddenly change their behavior. Persistence and maintenance are even more important to boundaries than setting them to begin with. It is our behavior that really tells people our limits, not our words. Don’t expect others to get it immediately, and do expect them to be angry and frustrated when old patterns of behavior stop working. Though the system will be off-kilter for a while, eventually things will settle into a new, and hopefully more effective, pattern for everyone. Imagine the solar system, with you as the Sun. Changing your size is going to change how the planets revolve around you. They’re going to be off their orbits, struggling to figure out how to revolve around you again. That’s OK! Let me say again! It is OK for others to have to make adjustments. We make adjustments for people we genuinely love and respect. It may take days or weeks, but people are adaptable and they’ll find an orbit that’s comfortable for you and for them.

One last note, literally – keep track of your changes in a journal. It will help you to look back and see how far you’ve come. Too often, once change has happened, we stop appreciating what we’ve done and only look to what’s next. Reminding yourself of how far you’ve come is good for your self-esteem and your sense of accomplishment. Celebrate your ability to treat yourself well.


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