Posted by Loretta Mui on December 09, 2023
I’ve been reflecting a lot about boundaries in and outside the therapy room. One of the key themes I often hear about is how hard it can be to set and maintain boundaries in relationships. Truthfully, I think not enough is said about this struggle and how it trips people up. Learning how to set boundaries can be tricky; it takes practice and we’re bound to make mistakes.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are the limits we establish with others, serving as parameters for what is acceptable or unacceptable in our interactions and relationships. These guidelines can be spoken or unspoken; they help us establish safety and a sense of security in our relationships with others. The benefits of setting boundaries include improved self-esteem, self-worth, and the ability to foster healthier, more authentic relationships.
So what makes boundary setting so hard when the outcomes are multiple and rewarding?
Challenges to Setting Boundaries
Many of our challenges with setting boundaries stem from childhood experiences. Difficulties encountered in childhood, the extent to which boundaries were respected or not, and our own experience of boundary violations, can shape our self-concept and ability to set boundaries later in life.
If you have a hard time setting boundaries you might notice thoughts like:
Experiencing trauma in childhood can have a lasting impact on our ability to trust and communicate with others. Some of us may have learned to be excessively easy-going and non-confrontational in the face of conflict. Others have learned to be intensely closed off or rigid about boundaries. Both these strategies can be examples of learned self-protection, ways to diffuse conflict and to protect ourselves from harm. However, in the long term, these strategies can risk compromising our ability to listen to our intuition, to be flexible, and to make decisions that align with our needs and values in the present.
Setting boundaries is a crucial skill that can help to protect us emotionally and establish healthy relationships. Brene Brown highlights the importance of boundaries and acknowledges the courage required to “love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” Remember, setting boundaries is not about being a bad friend, child or partner, but about prioritizing our own well-being and needs. This skill can ultimate benefit us and our relationships in the long run.
How Can I Start Setting Boundaries?
To begin setting boundaries, you must become aware of your limits, what feels okay, and what doesn’t feel okay. This requires paying attention to your internal messages and shifting your awareness into your body. Notice how you feel when you want to say no to something, but you feel pressure to say yes. Do you feel tension in your muscles? Does your heart or breathing rate change? Do you experience shakiness, fogginess or sweating? These may be signs that the situation makes you uncomfortable and that you may be approaching an emotional limit. Paying attention to your body’s messaging can provide important information about what makes you feel uncomfortable and how you may need to respond.
It’s going to take some time. Like anything new, it will take practice and time to feel more confident with boundaries. Allow yourself time and space to develop your boundary setting skills, remembering that being in supportive environments that encourage personal choice, is integral to vocalizing our healthy boundaries.
Expect some resistance. The people in your life may not be used to a more assertive version of yourself. You might find yourself feeling indecisive or wishy-washy because putting yourself first and being assertive might feel strange or uncomfortable at first. Expect these bumps and try not to be too critical of yourself for having mixed or uncertain feelings about this process. If you experience significant pushback from a friend or family member, this could be an indication that this person is not someone who provides you with consistent emotional safety or security.
Keep reminders nearby. Carry a photo, drawing or message that helps you remember that it is worth pursuing healthy boundaries for yourself. Like any new task or skill, it is important to stay rooted in the values and principles underlying this new behaviour. Reminders can help you stay focused and motivated with this newly emerging skill.
Ask for help. Talk to a supportive friend, family member or therapist to reflect on what you need to navigate boundary setting. Use these conversations to explore what worked and didn’t work when you tried setting a boundary with someone. Tap into what feelings come up for you and deeply listen to your internal messaging to yourself. Are you supporting yourself in this boundary setting journey? Can you recognize when it’s hard but also possibly meaningful? What would you like to do differently next time?
When it comes to setting boundaries, tangible change requires courage and action rooted in love for yourself. Remember your boundaries are reflective of strength in yourself. Motivation follows action, and practicing boundary setting is the key to future feelings of competence and success.
Book An Appointment Now
Stay up to date with blogs, news and resources at the Toronto Counselling Centre for Teens