How to Set Healthy Boundaries

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The majority of people struggle with creating healthy boundaries. This is true for many of my clients in individual, couples, and family therapy. People lack healthy relational boundaries within their personal and professional worlds. Why is it so difficult for people to establish healthy boundaries? As a therapist and in my own life, I’ve seen the unique impact of the current pandemic on this topic.

Examine the impact of COVID-19

In this current era of COVID-19, more and more people have discovered the need for healthy boundaries. It may be true that for the first time in our life we have a legitimate excuse for not doing things. Now you’re able to say, “Sorry mom and dad, I can’t join you for the holidays” or “Sorry, I can’t see you for drinks. I’m quarantining.” You may also find yourself saying,“ I have to sign out of work, because my children need me at home.”

Taking precautions in the name of the greater good finally gave us permission to step back.

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Social distancing for some can provide the opportunity to take a break from our usual social obligations. I often witness how many of my clients say “no” to others, but still feel guilty. The question is why did it take a pandemic for us to form healthy boundaries and become more assertive?

For many, taking precautions in the name of the greater good finally gave us permission to step back. The innate drive of self-preservation in the face of a universal danger may play a role. It’s also possible that some people are simply running out of energy. This pandemic has pushed us to our limits and we’re running on empty. People feel like they have to protect themselves not only from the virus, but from the demands of others. When we’re placed under immense pressure, it’s not uncommon to shut down in self-protection.

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People feel like they have to protect themselves not only from the virus, but from the demands of others.

Explore the power of healthy boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries is about being able to tell others what we want and what we expect from them.

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Setting boundaries is vital to our emotional wellbeing. Healthy boundaries help people to thrive and feel empowered in their lives. Setting healthy boundaries is about being able to tell others what we want and what we expect from them. It includes setting limits, and letting others know how we want to be treated. It’s also about knowing and communicating what we will and will not tolerate. Setting boundaries establishes what is healthy for us, and what is not. Cultivating the ability to say “No, that doesn’t work for me,” is powerful.

Reflect on the origin of your own boundaries

Why is setting healthy boundaries so difficult for some? The ability to form healthy boundaries is often rooted in our family of origin. It’s easy to follow the same patterns we experienced in childhood. These patterns may be maladaptive now, yet feel “safer” and more familiar. As adults it’s helpful to periodically examine our behavior and ask questions such as:

    • Do I have firm, individual self-boundaries, and self-worth?
    • Do I meet my own needs, and practice assertiveness?
    • Am I quick to meet other people’s needs before my own?
    • Do I feel uncomfortable and guilty when saying “no” to others?
    • Do I tell white lies instead of telling the truth for the sake of “keeping the peace” or to avoid confrontation?
    • Do I fear people will judge me if I’m not comforting to others’ needs?
    • Do I take care of myself? Are my needs met?

It is important to stop and think about why we do what we do. Often, we copy the patterns from our family of origin. Are we quick to jump into problem solving mode which skims the surface? Perhaps we saw how our parents weren’t able to talk about underlying issues. We may have grown up with parents who didn’t ask how we felt but instead told us what to think and do. Sometimes there are cultural and societal expectations. For example, some cultures put pressure on adult children to take care of aging parents. Don’t get me wrong, children supporting aging parents is a selfless thing. However we may be crossing boundaries when a child feels responsible for their parent’s happiness and wellbeing.

Begin with self-discovery

If you suspect you have boundary issues consider writing in a daily journal. When does this happen and how does it impact you? Do you find you’re quick to loosen your boundaries in certain situations? It’s important to increase our awareness of our boundaries when they are violated. Try creating your own list of personal boundaries and the ways in which you can realistically uphold each boundary. Verbally clarify your boundaries with others, even if it feels uncomfortable at first.

To be clear, setting boundaries is not about controlling someone else’s behavior. It’s also not about getting others to agree with you. In fact, the great thing about boundaries is that others don’t have to agree with them for you to enforce them. People in our lives may continue to try to cross our boundaries despite our attempts to get them to see our side of things. Staying steadfast in our boundaries means that no matter the reaction, we’re honoring our needs.

Try creating your own list of personal boundaries and the ways in which you can realistically uphold each boundary.
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For example, let’s consider well-meaning in-laws who continue to drop by unannounced to see your newborn. You feel like you barely had time to unpack your hospital bag before they arrived. Their frequent visits at all hours of the day are leaving you feeling drained and intruded upon. Let them know that you appreciate their visits, but need some time alone during this adjustment period. You’ll invite them over when you are more rested and feel ready to welcome visitors again.

Objectively, this is a reasonable boundary. Yet, you may be accused of being unkind or selfish by others for keeping the new grandchild from the loving grandparents. This pushback may lead to feelings of guilt which may cause you to abandon your healthy boundary. When negative feelings and disapproval from others is overwhelming, this is when we often abandon our boundaries. For the moment, we’ve kept the peace and gained temporary relief from feeling bad, but at our own expense.

By setting boundaries you’re in fact honoring what you need.

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Remember, by setting boundaries you’re in fact honoring what you need. It’s important to hold the tension of saying no. They may complain to you or even try to stop by again hoping you’ll change your mind. In which case, perhaps you choose not open the door or answer the telephone. Following through on healthy boundaries means honoring your needs even when others may disagree.

The bottom line for creating healthy boundaries

If something doesn’t feel good, it’s generally not good for us. In one recent session with a client, she described how she was asked to drive a friend to the airport. Since she did not have a job, she felt obliged. Now, this client is terribly afraid of driving on busy roads, but was ashamed to admit this to her friend. She reluctantly agreed with high anxiety and off they went. She ended up hitting a toll booth. Both the driver and her passenger were quite scared. Since then she has learned the benefit of saying “no,” and practices establishing healthy boundaries with others.

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One way to begin to set healthy boundaries is to stop placing so much value on what other people think and feel.

It can be difficult, but one way to begin to set healthy boundaries is to stop placing so much value on what other people think and feel. It’s important that we stop living our lives based on what we should do according to others. Let’s focus on self-acceptance and treat our own needs without judgment or criticism. Be brave enough to tell people how you feel and what works or doesn’t work for you. Say yes to cultivating the personal authority that is already within you. When you do this, you will be able to also say yes to the requests that align with you and say no enthusiastically to those that don’t.

Your Turn: How can you begin to set healthier boundaries? I’d love to hear how you are creating new boundaries in the comments below.

Joanna Kaminski

Joanna Kaminski is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Clarity Therapy. Joanna uses aspects of Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) to help individuals and couples uncover their strengths, break free from patterns that keep them stuck, and discover new ways of communicating so that their partnership can thrive.

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