Setting boundaries is something that tons of people struggle with throughout the year, but that struggle can come up much more often during the holidays. When you get a family together under the same roof, there can be a lot of differing opinions and views, or ways of navigating through certain situations.
Today we'll be exploring why setting boundaries can be a great thing, why it's usually quite difficult to do, and practical tips to work through setting those boundaries.
What Does it Mean to Set Boundaries?
Setting boundaries is the practice of openly communicating and asserting your personal values as way to preserve and protect against having them compromised or violated. Metaphorically it would be as if you drew a box around yourself in the sand at the beach and communicated to those around you that you'd like them to remain out of your personal space.
Ideally, setting boundaries is a great thing for many reasons. You feel empowered because you're making your personal values known, you feel respected and considered because other people respect those boundaries, and you don't feel overloaded because you didn't take on too much (among other benefits).
Overall, it feels like having more control in your day-to-day – not control in the tyrannical sense, but feeling free to move about your world in a way that instills confidence and peace. That can also rub off on other people – if they know exactly how you feel and what your boundaries are, they can interact with you with more confidence because they're much more clear on what is and isn't okay with you.
Setting Boundaries is Often Very Difficult
Unfortunately, it usually doesn't look like this when we actually try to set boundaries. It's usually messy and creates negative reactions and unpleasant emotions for everyone involved. These are some of the most common reasons for why it's so difficult:
The other person is insulted or upset by it
For a lot of families or other systems, setting boundaries doesn't happen – it's usually either blowing up at each other or holding in our feelings and being passive aggressive. In these families setting boundaries isn't viewed as healthy, it's viewed as an insult or slight against them. One of the most difficult parts of this dynamic is if one person is working on themselves and trying to create healthier dynamics, they might look at setting boundaries as a great idea that will make positive change. In theory this works very smoothly, but in practice their setting boundaries actually creates more conflict. This can be really demoralizing and actually keep us stuck in that unhealthy dynamic.
We're so used to there not being any boundaries
If we're not used to setting boundaries or others doing so, trying to start will usually be very unnatural and uncomfortable. Even if others around us are receptive to it, it's still not going to be easy – and it makes it so much harder if they're not receptive and act out against it. The more conflict it creates, the more difficult it will be to convince ourselves to keep trying to set boundaries instead of giving up.
We set the boundary in a harsh manner
One misstep I often see is when a person tries to set boundaries for the first time, they'll express them in a very harsh manner. In my view this happens quite a lot because the idea of setting boundaries is misinterpreted – instead of viewing it as a collaborative process with each other, it's viewed as giving the other person an order and expecting them to comply.
Instead of trying to share with the other person my feelings and hopes for the future, I will "call them out" and demand that they stop crossing that line.
Is this understandable? Of course – you're doing something that makes me uncomfortable or hurts me, so I have to get you to respect my boundaries.
However, the healthiest way to accomplish this is to do is collaboratively – it's also (in many cases) the most likely path for them to respect those boundaries. If they feel like we're being condescending or giving them an order, they're likely to just fight back. But if they feel like we're focusing on our feelings instead of blaming them, they might be more able to hear us out.
We're not clear about the boundary we're trying to set, or not assertive enough
This is the other side of the spectrum from being too harsh. When we're not assertive enough, we risk not communicating the importance of that boundary, or don't give a clear enough picture of what we want to be different in the future. It's somewhat similar to be given a task at work – if your manager explains it in depth to you, you're much more able to understand and move forward with that task. But if they only give you a brief, general overview, there's a much higher chance of misinterpretation for what the end result should look like, or why you're working on that project in the first place.
We feel guilty by setting boundaries
Another very common difficulty is feeling guilty – for us it doesn't feel healthy while we're setting boundaries, it actually feels like we're doing something wrong. This is again made much more difficult if the people we're trying to set boundaries with are guilt-tripping us, adding to the "proof" that we really are doing something wrong. Those who feel this way often come from families or relationships where this was the dynamic – setting boundaries means you don't love the other person enough, or you're selfish (both of which are rarely true).
There are more reasons why setting boundaries can be so difficult, but these are the most common that I've seen. For any one person, the most important part is figuring out why it's difficult for you. A helpful way to identify why it's tough for you is to imagine yourself setting those boundaries, and envisioning how that would feel in the moment or afterwards. Would you get a positive response from the other person but still feel guilty? Would you get a very negative response where things escalate, or would the other person shut down and withdraw?
How to Set Boundaries
So you want to try to set boundaries, but want some help with actually doing it. Here are a few ideas to (ideally) make the process smoother and more likely to stick. I'd also recommend searching online if you have a particular fear or dynamic that you want help with.
Expect it to be a tough process and that you'll have to set the boundaries more than once
Having realistic expectations doesn't automatically make setting boundaries easy, but it can make the process feel less surprising. For many people, they expect setting boundaries to be a smooth process, and create more peace and harmony. If you go into it expecting this, and getting a lot of pushback, that disparity can make you feel much more hopeless. But if you go into it expecting a difficult process with hard feelings to work through, you won't be caught off guard and will hopefully be more equipped to deal with those situations internally.
Figure out the exact boundary you want to set
Before you try to have those conversations, sit down by yourself and really figure out what boundary you want to set, and how you would want to communicate it. Try to pinpoint how you're impacted by the current dynamic, how you would want that to look differently in the future, and what both people can do to maintain that new, healthier dynamic.
Communicate that boundary out of the heat of the moment
If you're in the midst of a boundary violation and are feeling emotionally unregulated, don't try to set that new boundary right then and there. You can certainly try to end that interaction and take some time apart, but it's usually a good idea to not event attempt setting a boundary then. This is due to both people being much less able to communicate in an open, vulnerable way when we're unregulated. After you've had some time to cool down and reflect on what you would like to express, then it can be a good time to try.
Communicate in a clear and assertive way, but not harsh or condescending
When you're thinking about your boundary, also spend a good amount of time thinking about how you want to express it, not just what you'll say. The how is very often more important than the actual words – if I come to you and start the conversation in a calm way where I'm not blaming you, you're much more likely to be willing to listen, instead of coming to you with a harsh tone and blaming language.
This can be VERY difficult to do, especially when we feel like we're the victim in the situation, but trying to communicate in a clear & assertive, but not harsh or condescending way can give us a much better chance of actually being heard and having our boundary respected.
Decide how you'll deal with those who continually cross your boundaries
Ideally those that you set boundaries with will eventually work with you, but there are certainly situations where the other person continues to cross that boundary and not work collaboratively. The best thing that you can do in these situations is figure out how you want to deal with them – this answer will be different from person-to-person, but having your own plan is the most important part.
For some, they'll say that their best option is to cut those people out of their life – for others, they'll decide to keep that relationship despite the boundary crossing and difficult feelings that come up.
This choice is completely up to you, but having a plan in your own head that you truly believe is the best option can make it a little easier to follow through with.
Be patient with yourself and process through your feelings of setting boundaries
One of the most helpful things that you can do (if not the most helpful), is be patient with yourself and try to process through your feelings during the process. Usually the end goal is to set these boundaries so that our relationships can grow into a more healthy place – unfortunately for many of us, this being a difficult process will lead us to give up on that goal. I'm not saying that's inherently wrong or you're bad for giving up, but being more patient with yourself can keep you on track.
As I've said, setting boundaries is usually difficult, but every situation is different. For some, the thought of setting them is much more difficult than actually doing so because they're readily accepted and respected. For others, there will be significant pushback and/or the continual disrespect of your boundaries. How others respond is completely out of your control – even if you communicate them in the most productive and healthy way, they might not be accepted. That's a big reason why it's so intimidating to do this.
So for any of you who are already struggling with this or are going to try to set your boundaries, best of luck and I hope it goes as smoothly as possible. If you need additional support it can be a great idea to work with a therapist on this topic to figure out how you want to navigate through setting boundaries, or just cope with the difficult feelings that come up.
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