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Setting Effective Personal Boundaries

Updated on September 1, 2016

Why Do We Need To Set Boundaries

One of the most difficult things we can do in our relationships with others is to set firm and appropriate boundaries while still maintaining the integrity of relationships. Perhaps you have an overbearing family member (or member in law). Maybe you feel that you are being walked on in your romantic relationships. Maybe you’ve begun to feel out of control in your relationship with your child. Regardless of the situation, everyone can benefit from learning effective boundary setting.

We set boundaries for ourselves. We set them to keep ourselves safe, protected, and happy.There is a concrete formula for setting boundaries that can make the actual action much less difficult.

The Formula

The formula follows 5 steps. 1. When you… 2. I feel… 3. I would like… 4. If you…. 5. I will have to…

The fourth and fifth part of this formula is the act of setting the boundary. The first three steps are an important part of communicating with another person why we are setting the boundary and how we are feeling. This is an important step in defining ourselves, our needs and our feelings. These three steps are essential in maintaining healthy relationships.

Before you begin setting a boundary, you must fully understand that it is YOURS. When you set a boundary, you must be willing to accept that the other person may not be willing or able to change their behavior or follow through with maintaining OUR boundaries. You must accept that you are powerless over the other person. (All other people!) You set them anyway. Before you speak even one word to the other person, you must be prepared and willing to take the action that you define if the person steps over the line you’ve drawn. This includes no longer having a relationship with that person.

Tell The Emotional Truth

It is very important for people to learn to communicate about how another person's behavior is affecting us. They need to know that there is a reason that you are setting a boundary. Further than this, a person that you have any type of relationship with needs to know how you feel. One of the mistakes many people make in relationships is assuming the other person does or should know how they feel. Yet, they never tell them. Or they are afraid to tell them.

A quick note on fear: In working with clients, one the more consistent sentiments I heard from client was that they were afraid to tell others how they felt. The fear was what the reaction of the other person would be. They feared that the other person would leave them, yell, punish, or ignore. I challenged each of them to try the formula once with something relatively small and report back how it had been received. They generally returned to report that most of the things they had feared did not occur. They, without exception, went on to try setting other, harder boundaries with people in their lives. They were often awed by what happened. Not only did people not react in the way they expected, but they felt more empowered in the relationships and closer to those people. They were surprised how easy it became to set boundaries and stick to them.

The first steps in the formula are designed to tell them the emotional truth.

1. When you...

The "When you . . ." statement is a description of behavior. It is very important to factually describe the behavior. To say to another person: when you get angry; when you shame me; when you act THAT way - is not specific enough. It is important to describe the behavior in detail rather than our interpretation and assumptions about what the behavior means. Most people, including you, have no idea of what their behavior looks like. We react in the ways we do because of our own personal emotional triggers.

For example, "When you get angry with me" should be “When you raise your voice and throw your hands in the air…” It does not assign the emotion to the other person or tell the other person what they are feeling. Instead, it describes the behavior that seems to indicate anger to us.

"When you roll your eyes at me and get up and leave the room" - is a description of behavior that causes us to react with guilt or shame. We feel we have done something wrong and are unbearable at that moment.

When you first confront someone with their behavior, people tend to immediately react by professing innocence or ignorance. Statements such as; “I do not do that.” Or “What are you talking about?” By describing the behavior to them, they can be more aware of their own actions and words. They may not have consciously known they were doing or saying these things. This can help get past their own emotions and be receptive to accepting boundaries.

2. I Feel...

Communication skill number one is to learn to use “I” statements instead of blaming “you” statements. This part of the process is designed to begin the statement with an “I” statement that gives an emotionally honest response about how the actions or words make you feel.

WRONG: “You ALWAYS yell at me. You are trying to scare me so I will do what you want!

BETTER: When you raise your voice, throw your hands in the air and get up and pace the room, I feel intimidated and unsafe. I feel afraid that you are going to hit me.

WRONG: You NEVER listen to me. You don’t even care about me.

BETTER: When you roll your eyes at me and get up and leave the room, I feel unimportant and like I am being punished. I feel like you do not care to hear what I have to say. I feel discounted and frustrated.

When we precede our thoughts with “I” statements, we are owning our own feelings and not assigning them to the other person. We are also differentiating our feelings from ourselves and from the other person’s behavior. “I AM angry” or “You make me so frustrated” are wrong statements that assign emotions either to who we are or what the other person is. Statements like this make people go on the defensive immediately and feel the need to defend themselves. We can own our feelings without defining ourselves by those feelings. You FEEL sad, you are not sad. You FEEL frustrated, this is not who you are. By stating the feeling out loud we are affirming that we have a right to both have and assert these feelings. And we are taking responsibility for our feelings rather than assigning responsibility to the other person. You FEEL angry. No one MADE you angry. We own our own feelings, take responsibility for them and own our right to speak up for ourselves whether the other person is able to hear us and understand or not.

I have had violent relationships in my past. Because of this I have certain triggers of behavior that make me feel very afraid or intimidated. Many people stand up and pace when they get angry. For me, this is very scary. But to another person, who has never had any violence in their relationships, they may not understand how this behavior could make me feel afraid. I have to communicate this to them. As you learn to communicate how other’s behavior affects you, you will start to be able to identify these core feelings and communicate it to other people.

Example: When you raise your voice and stand up to pace around the room, I feel intimidated and scared. I feel afraid that you may hit me because this has happened to me in the past. Although you have never hit me, the behavior is a trigger for me and I feel fear.

3. I Would Like...

Telling the other person what you want is imperative. If you’ve told the other person that you feel a certain way as a result of somethimg they've said or done, the person will need to know what to do differently. Consider that your family is the type of family who gets in very heated, animated discussions about things such as politics or religion. This is normal for you. You then marry someone whose family is very quiet and only yells or raises their voices in extreme situations, if at all. To you, raising your voice and standing up to make your point is a “normal” way to communicate about something you feel passionate about. To the other person, this type of behavior may be scary or intimidating and they do not know how to react. If this person needs to set a boundary with you, you’ll need to know what to do instead of what you’ve been taught to do.

What do you want? This is another part where you may have to dig deep ahead of time for an emotionally honest answer. It is important, again, not to be too general and to be realistic. I want to know you love me is too general. I want you to never get angry is unrealistic. Be specific about what you want.

“I would like you to speak to me with a calm voice and remain seated when we talk. I would like you to identify when you start to feel angry and ask for a break before you yell or get up to pace the room. I would like you to reassure me that, even if you are angry, you will not hit me.”

If you’ve elaborated before, you can elaborate deeper. More explanation and communication is not a negative as long as it is concise and easy to understand.

"I would like you to respect that I have had violence in my past and be mindful of how your physical expressions may be a trigger for me. I would like you to take this into consideration even though it was not you who caused this to become a trigger."

You will notice in both the statements before where I discussed something that happened to me in the past, I mentioned that the person in front of me was not the person who caused this fear. This is an attempt to keep statements such as “I am not him!" or "I didn’t do that to you!” out of the discussion. It attempts to help the other person understand that the feeling is there, but you realize that they are not to blame for the feeling. It is simply stated to help the other person understand how you feel at that moment.

How comfortable do you feel setting boundaries with others?

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Setting The Boundary

If you gain nothing more out of this article, this should be the most important lesson. Set boundaries that you are WILLING and ABLE to follow through with. I call them “soft boundaries.” All too often in relationships, we use harsh boundaries that we are not willing to follow through with. I have been guilty of this more times than I can count. “If you yell at me ONE MORE TIME, I will LEAVE YOU and NEVER COME BACK.” Of course, when they yell at you again, you do not leave them. You tell them again that you’ll leave next time. If you set a “hard” boundary, you must be willing to DO what you’ve said you will do. This is why you set soft boundaries. If you will not leave the person for their action, do not say you will. If this is a possibility, use the phrase “I will have to consider my options, including ending this relationship.” In a sense, this makes your “line in the sand” a curved line. This leave some room for error.

Some instances, you SHOULD set a hard boundary. For example; If you hit me, I will leave to keep myself safe and contact the police. If you cheat on me, I will end my relationship with you and not be willing to return (or if you are willing to return) until after we’ve gone through counseling together.

Boundaries are not punishments. They should not be viewed as such. If you are setting a boundary with your child, this may feel more like a “punishment.” “If you do not clean your room, I will have to take your Xbox away.” This is a consequence that feels more like a punishment. But it is still a consequence. They have an expectation and boundary and a consequence if they do not fall within the boundary. When dealing with people who are not your children (or someone else you have authority over), be very careful that you do not seem to be threatening the person. You are not making them pay for something they did. You are setting a boundary for yourself. You have no control over that other person. When you set a boundary, you let go of the outcome. The outcome is not in your control. Your behavior is the only behavior in your control. Boundaries are about what you will do, not what the other person will do.

In a sense, your line in the sand should be a curved line. You need to leave some room for error.

4. If you...

Boundary setting is also a process. You must first define the behavior (again) that is unacceptable to you. To do this you use “If you…” This is fairly simple. You again repeat the behavior you have outlined before. You can change the wording or summarize, but again, be specific. "If you get angry" is too general and doesn't define the actions that need to be addressed.

If you continue to roll your eyes and leave the room when I try to communicate with you….

If you raise your voice and stand up and pace around the room…

5. I will have to...

You must then describe what you will do if the boundary is crossed. Again, this needs to be specific. This is where you do not set hard or unrealistic boundaries. This is where you set soft boundaries that are obtainable and you are willing to follow through with. To do this, You use the statement “I will have to…” Simply stating you will is ok, but adding “have to” will emphasis that this is necessary for you to take care of yourself.

"I will have to confront the behavior and share my feelings about it with you. If you continue to do this, I will have to consider my options, including leaving this relationship."

"I will have to leave the room in order to feel safe. If you continue this behavior, I will have to consider whether I am able to stay in this relationship."

"I will have to consider whether you respect my feelings and value me and will have to stop contact with you for one week. If you continue this behavior, I will have to break contact with you permanently."

Behavior is not easy to change. This is why it is important to set soft boundaries and give the other person a little room for error. For example, if you find it intolerable for the other person to curse when you are discussing something important, then you must give a little room for the person to get out of the habit of cursing. This is where the handy statement “I will have to confront the behavior and share my feelings with you” works. It is a boundary. And you can confront the person on crossing it when they do, but you can give them an escape route to realize they’ve done it and correct it. But do set the further boundary of “If you continue to.” This prevents you from over excusing the behavior and helps them understand that there is only so much room for error before you will enforce a harder boundary.

Write This Down

When you...
I feel...
I would like...
If you...
I will have to...
If you continue to...
Writing down your thoughts before sitting down to talk will help you organize your thoughts and consider what you really want and need. It will also help you consider what boundaries you are truly willing to enforce.

Bringing It All Together

It is helpful to sit down prior to setting a boundary and write out your responses. Take a piece of paper and write down the following list, leaving yourself room for answers:

When you:

I feel:

I would like:

If you:

I will have to:

If you continue to:

I will have to:

Here are some examples:

When you tell me nothing is wrong, but stop communicating with me, stomp around the room, and slam things around, I feel confused, frustrated, and helpless. I feel that you may be angry with me and feel confusion, guilt and shame. I would like you to communicate with me and help me understand if I have done something to upset you. If you do not communicate to me what is bothering you and continue to slam things around and stomp around the house, I will have to confront this behavior, share my feelings and ask you to share your feelings. If you continue to not communicate with me and engage in that behavior, I will have to insist that we go to counseling together.

When you raise your voice to me and call me names, I feel hurt, angry, disrespected, and afraid you will hit me. I NEED to feel safe both emotionally and physically. I would like you to communicate with me using a calm voice and respectful words. I would like you to stop calling me names and instead communicate how you feel. I would like you to ask for a moment if you feel yourself becoming angry so that you can avoid raising your voice. If you continue to yell at me and call me names, I will have leave the room in order to feel safe. If you continue this behavior, I will have to consider my options including leaving this relationship.

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