I was first introduced to the idea of setting boundaries a couple of years ago. I originally went into therapy to talk about my anxiety and the problems I’d had in my relationship with my mom. I was set in a pattern that I couldn’t break out of no matter how hard I tried.
The way my therapist’s eyes would widen—roughly to the size of plates—when I would describe my mother’s daily demands of my time, should have told me that things were not okay. As much as I wanted to break free from her, I always felt guilty. I found myself spending tremendous amounts of time with her even though it caused me great unhappiness and actual heartache (I had chest palpitations daily)!
It was as if I was not allowed to have a life of my own—and if I kept giving in to her demands, I probably never would.
As I read through journal entries of the work we did in session, I realize now just how conditioned I really was.
I could have never set those initial boundaries without the help of a therapist; the emotional support was crucial.
Boundaries feel SO strange and difficult when we first start setting them. But once we become accustomed to them there is an inner strength and self-respect waiting on the other side. As someone who has made her way over, I can vouch for the positive feeling!
But first, boundaries.
While it’s never easy to say ‘no’ to someone, remember you’re only saying ‘no’ to their request. And remember it is a request. Only you should get to choose how you want to spend your time.
So let’s start at the beginning…
- Identify people who drain your energy.
This can be anyone like colleagues, friends, siblings or parents.
- List which boundaries you need to set.
Identifying dysfunctional relationships and people who take your time without permission is crucial. Second, figure out rules that you would like to set. Through my own experience I’ve learned the more specific you are the better.
For example: “I will only talk to _____ for five minutes on a workday at the maximum.”
- You have every right to set boundaries.
This is one of the most important steps to fully realize. When I began therapy a few years ago, I would talk about how anxious I would feel at my nightly dinners with my mother. I had to go to these dinners but couldn’t really justify why. They took away valuable time from work and grad school and usually ended with a fight of some sort. My therapist said, “well why do you have to go every night?” I didn’t have an answer.
Eventually—because these things take time—I realized that I had every right to set boundaries. I am an adult. I choose how my hours get spent. I should be able to live my life in whatever manner I choose. I could not spend my time pleasing others out of guilt or conditioning anymore.
- Make a short affirmation to describe your new boundary.
Some examples would be, “I get to decide how to spend my time,” or “my time is valuable and I choose not to spend it around negativity.” This step is an encouraging tool that can remind you daily that setting boundaries is the right decision. The affirmation is also helpful when others ignore our boundaries and try to get us to give into their wishes.
- Rehearse for the situation.
Write down what you might say, practice your responses without anger, or talk to yourself in the mirror. These are new behaviors and responses and they require adjustment and practice!
- Offer alternatives to the other party to minimize conflict.
The most difficult part of boundaries is when another person does not respect them. Giving options like, “I can’t meet you right now, how about tomorrow?” might help minimize conflict, while allowing you to keep control over your time.
- Try to communicate without anger.
So much easier said than done right? It is possible. With rehearsal and respectful communication, you can make small steps towards calm conversation. Keep in mind that you are saying ‘no’ to an unreasonable request.
- Breathe deeply.
Relax and remember this is about taking care of yourself and your time.
- Reevaluate all other boundaries.
Checking to see if you need to set boundaries with friends or family is important because knowingly or unknowingly, they can be draining. You can truly create the life you desire and setting boundaries is the first step in getting there.
Finally, some closing thoughts on self-care:
I mentioned earlier in this post that I often felt guilty when setting boundaries. The practice—which I remind myself of every day—of self-care creates the best possible version of ourselves to put out there in the world. Self-care is never a selfish act. Rather, through self-care we can build stronger relationships and create our own happiness.