Boundaries - What They Are And How To Set Them
Updated: Jul 11, 2022
The first time I heard of ‘boundaries’ was on a women's retreat in Morocco. It had never occurred to me that saying ‘no’ was a positive thing. I always felt saying ‘no’ was selfish. That other people’s feelings were more important. That someone else’s needs were greater than mine. That what they were going through was more serious. That I had to make sacrifices in my life to be the best mother, wife, daughter and friend I could be to my friends and family. I was worried I might lose a friend. Might make someone angry or they might love me less if I said ‘no’.
So I spent my life doing things because I felt I had to. Then resenting the person or situation for how I felt.
Probably sounds familiar I imagine?
The first time I decided to practice setting a boundary was actually in Morocco. I told a friend that I wouldn’t take responsibility for how she felt about something that she had misunderstood. I felt frightened. I was worried that she might fall out with me. Instead, the opposite happened. She apologised. It worked out well!
However, I would like to point out that boundary setting didn’t and doesn’t always get a respectful response. How well someone ‘accepts’ your boundaries will depend on their own growth and also, if it’s someone you know well, how quickly they adjust to the ‘new you’.
So let’s dive into my understanding and definition of boundaries.
Boundaries are where you communicate to another person about what is or isn’t acceptable on how you will be spoken to or treated.
Here are some ways that I do and have set boundaries. I’ve also put in what I have or might say in these situations. Note the fact that I don’t explain or justify in most situations as I don’t or shouldn’t need to. I’ll explain why I don’t do this further down. So here they are;
Letting friendships go because of way they treated me or spoke to me.
‘I really appreciate the friend you have been in the past. I feel that our friendship isn’t aligned with where I am at the moment so I think it is better if we part ways. Wishing you all the best, Carla’
I had a ‘break’ with one friend as she was being triggered by observations of my own life and as she was in a difficult place with her partner, she was taking my comments as a personal criticism to her (this is shadow behaviours which we’ll look at further in another article). I felt that I had to pay attention to what I shared about my own life for how it might trigger her in that moment, feelings of insecure attachment to her partner. Feelings that were not my responsibility and were stifling my ability to communicate at a deep level.
‘You are a really important friend to me and I would like to continue to be friends. I think at the moment we need a break. I will get back in touch when I’m ready.’
Not letting my husband walk into the room and offload his day on me. This was a big one. After finishing work, I would be in the kitchen making dinner, dealing with children talking at me and without even a ‘how was your day?’, he would begin talking about how his day was. Three problems there were with this.
1)I was trying to concentrate on what I was doing so I didn’t burn or drop dinner. 2) I also had our children talking to me too. 3) some days I had had a bad day too and didn’t want to take on someone else’s issues when I was trying to navigate my own.
As this was a daily occurrence we sat down and I explained what was happening for me and why what he was doing was not OK. It took a while to practice and get it right but I would say now, for the most part he will give me space and check in with me first before offloading.
‘When you finish work, could you check first to see if I am available emotionally and physically to talk about how your day went?.
Regarding social media I stopped following a lot of people. I removed some. I changed which groups I got notifications for. I stopped following news providers. Having so much information and other people’s emotions on my feed was influencing my mood. Especially with the current climate, I think now more than ever it is essential to have a social media feed that is supporting rather than negatively affecting your emotional state.
I would get invitations to join groups. This I don’t mind. Some I would join and others I would say ‘no’ to. There was one instance where I repeatedly got invites from the same person and I asked that I no longer receive them. This resulted in the person getting angry and aggressive at me. The old me would never have asked for her to stop inviting me, I would have just complained about it to whoever would listen. I would have been worried about what they were saying about me to others and on their Facebook profile. Instead, based on their extremely reactive and insulting replies I blocked her messages and unfriended her. Not even glancing back at her profile to see what she may/or may not have written.
‘Thank you for making me aware of your offering. This is not something I’m interested in at the moment.’
With the person who insisted ‘Thank you for making me aware of your offering. Could you please stop sending me requests to join your group?” This resulted in a tirade of abuse. No need to reply, I just blocked and unfriended them.
Having conversations political or similar which I found upsetting, or where their view is so completely different to mine that no one is listening to each other and it’s just two people talking at each other. This is also relevant for social media. I used to get dragged into discussions proving my point. Now I realise it’s not worth my energy and walk away
‘I don’t want to have a conversation about this topic’ (if they continue and the conversation is in person, I walk away and repeat what I said in a really calm way. If it’s on social media I make them aware I’m turning off notifications and then I turn them off - don’t look back!)
When talking to people, if they were activated in the conversation I will ask them not to shout at me or speak to me in a rude way. Their day and whether it’s going well or not or if they don’t agree with me about a particular topic has nothing to do with me. So I won’t accept their inappropriate behaviour towards me. I offer to talk to them once they have calmed down and can talk to me instead.
‘Please don’t speak to me like that. We can talk again once you’ve calmed down.’
I would get people sharing to me content regarding conspiracy theories without asking me first. Or advice or help that I hadn’t asked for. Regarding conspiracy theories, some of this information I found upsetting and stressful whether it was true or not. So when people did this I would ask them not to do it anymore.
‘Please don’t share this information with me.’
Giving myself a break in the morning to recharge. I home educate my children (even when there isn’t a pandemic) so having some time for myself during the day is important to recharge. So as they are young I ensure they are set up with an activity that doesn’t require my supervision and they are told under no circumstances (unless of course a danger to themselves) that they are not to interrupt me. I started off with just 5 minutes and initially I would be interrupted. I continued to remind them that it was my break. Now we’re at 15 minutes of undisturbed time, which, if you have young kids, is a lot! I found this particularly difficult. I follow the respectful/parenting route which is all about meeting the needs of the child. Which I still practice. However, what I was finding is, I was sacrificing myself completely and it was leaving me drained and resentful - also not a good state to be in if you’re with your children 24/7. So now, as long as I have pre-warned them what I am doing I don’t feel so guilty saying, ‘no’ or ‘wait’, after all, by setting boundaries with them, I am teaching them the importance of boundaries and how they can also set them with friends and family in a respectful way. Modelling behaviour is the most important way a child can learn.
‘I am going to have a break for 5 minutes and drink my coffee. I would like the both of you to stay in here and not disturb me unless it’s a situation in which one of you or both of you may be harmed. I want you to try really hard that if a problem arises that you find a solution together that you are both happy with as I know that you are both great problem-solvers’. Children of course require an explanation so they can learn.
If I was busy doing something, not allowing my child to interrupt me and stop me from doing it, letting them know that I will finish what I’m doing and then listen (important to teaching them boundaries as I never learnt this growing up).
‘I’m busy right now doing this, you can tell me about it when I’ve finished.’
If I change my mind about something and how it ‘sits’ with me, I will now change my mind and let them know. In the past I would say yes to something and after a little more consideration or if the details had changed or more information come to light and the situation felt wrong, I would still say yes, for concern of upsetting the other person. An example of this is buying an electric piano. We got the quote from the seller and we said yes to buying it and hadn’t yet paid. When going through the information for purchase, I noticed that we were getting an ex-display piano but there was no mention of this initially and we were paying full price. Which I felt was dishonest. I let the person know that we would no longer be wanting to buy the piano.
‘After further consideration, we are no longer interested in moving forward. Thank you for your time.’
I advocate on behalf of my children until they are old enough to speak up for themselves and have that respected. This can be how I would like them to be spoken to or treated. Of course this can be particularly triggering for grandparents as they will often reply with ‘this is how we did it with you’. Saying that we would like it done differently means of course that they see your ‘no’ as an attack on their parenting. Which it isn’t but it’s a good example of how and why people can react to your boundary setting.
‘I would like you to speak kindly to my children and not do X please.’
These are just some examples of where I have been placing boundaries. I’m very mindful not to explain or justify my boundary. Explaining or justifying it can come from a place of not feeling confident doing it or also guilt. Explaining the ‘why’ can give the other person a reason to argue against your boundary which can then send you into a cycle of should I be doing it? Am I being selfish? It will have you question yourself. Trust your intuition. You know if something feels right to you or not. The more in tune you are with your authentic self, the more in tune you will be with what feels right for you. When you set a boundary and feel the need to explain or justify it, stop yourself and try to tune in to what you’re feeling and what’s coming up for you. Recognise it, accept it, take it as an opportunity to learn and maintain the boundary.
Becoming aware of my own boundaries now means I think before possibly imposing on another’s. I hadn’t realised how much I forced my own opinions, ideas and way of doing things on others. So it’s helped me to be a person who comes across as less judgemental and more open.
So now I find I:
Ask first if a friend is in a place to listen to my worries/concerns.
If I see information that I think would be useful to someone, I ask first if they are interested in receiving it.
Being aware that not everyone is able to set boundaries yet, I give them the opportunity to say ‘no’ in a situation where they might feel they have to say yes (eg out of guilt or obligation).
I’m more respectful of the boundaries my children put in place with me (which is the goal of gentle and respectful parenting).
So, set those boundaries!
What you will find that most likely your main reason for not putting a boundary in place is because you’re concerned about how the other person may react. I would like to let you know, how someone reacts to a situation is not your responsibility. How they react to your boundary is not a reflection of you or your boundary. It is a reflection of how they feel about themselves.
Possible reactions to a boundary can be denial - ‘I wasn’t giving you advice, I just want to help’. Sarcasm, joking around - ‘Ooooo, I didn’t realise you knew it all.’ Attack - ‘you’re never going to get out of this situation if you don’t start listening to me.’ Deflecting - ‘you give me advice all the time.’
People who set boundaries and respect others placing boundaries will reply in a supportive way which may sound like - ‘sure, sorry I should have asked’ or ‘thanks for letting me know’.
When putting a boundary in place the fear can be that we are being misunderstood, that the other person may see us as selfish, or that we don’t care about their situation.
Many of us are walking around wounded by our past and most likely our childhood. If we have not yet begun our own healing journey having someone put a boundary in place can feel like rejection. It can feel like the other person is challenging our view point. It can feel like the other person is attacking us. When someone puts a boundary in place it can feel like we aren’t loved. It can feel like our needs aren’t being met. However, for relationships of any type to flourish we need to respect the boundaries others put in place and ensure that the boundaries we have, are also respected.
Working through these emotions is essential to leading a more relaxed and confident life. The more self-respect and self-love you have, the easier it is to set boundaries and brush off other people’s negative reactions. In turn this gives you more confidence and the right people will make their way towards you and those who don’t support your boundaries either change their behaviour or gradually slip away.
Carla Crivaro is a trauma-informed and certified Sex, Love & Relationship Coach, she works with men and women internationally to reach their goals in delicious sex, profound love and authentic relationships. Carla helps men and women understand themselves and each other, sexually and relationally, in and out of the bedroom. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.