Boundary-setting has been on my mind lately. It seems like a topic basic in theory, yet impossible to “get right” at times. In my clinical work, helping others to establish healthy boundaries when experiencing relationship issues is a dependable remedy. The same also rings true in my personal life. Unfortunately, many of us encounter a few disadvantages that can impact how we approach the matter. How were we socialized? What did boundaries look like in our families of origin? Many of us were not taught or encouraged to identify our own needs, let alone possess the skills to communicate them effectively. To dig into this even further, I turned to the work of Nedra Glover Tawwab, a therapist and author of “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself.” I hope some of these key takeaways also inspire you to take a look at your own limit setting practices, and the barriers that get in the way.
There is much more to the art of setting boundaries than simply saying “no” to the people in our lives. It’s a bit more complex. First we need to do some internal work to clarify our values and priorities, and where flexibility can emerge. Boundaries serve to communicate our expectations and needs to help us feel secure in our relationships. If any of the following sentiments feel familiar to you, it may be a sign to start setting your own personal boundaries:
- I’m so overwhelmed
- The division of labor at home is unbalanced
- I feel resentful towards my partner/family member/friend
- I avoid interactions with certain people out of fear they will ask for something
- I’m burnt out
- I fantasize about dropping everything and disappearing
- I’m trying to keep others in my life happy, so I have little energy left for myself
- I should be able to manage everything like others seem to do
Setting and maintaining boundaries can help address these challenges. The first steps are internal: identifying your needs and working through any fear and discomfort with communicating them to others. Fear can be the biggest roadblock to setting healthy limits. We dread they will be mad at us or we’ll disappoint them. We’ll seem selfish or we’ll lose the relationship. Tawwab reminds us, “Fear is not rooted in fact. Fear is rooted in negative thoughts and the storylines in our heads.” Setting limits with our loved ones can actually provide the clarity needed in order to save the relationship. Remember if the relationship is healthy, there is capacity to respect one another’s boundaries and work through the discomfort when talking about it.
Setting boundaries involves equal parts communication and action. Learning to be assertive with others not only helps with setting limits, but can also decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. It’s essential to uphold what we communicate through our behaviors, honoring our boundaries with action. We cannot expect our loved ones to read our minds, and oftentimes, we’ll need to remind them of the limits we set. Having passive boundaries will inevitably lead to resentment.
It also matters how we treat ourselves. The concept of self-boundaries helps us consider the impact we have on our own well-being. Tawwab reminds us it’s our job to maintain the standard of how others treat us. We can effectively set internal limits on how we spend our time, spend our money, engage in self-care, and allow ourselves to be treated. We can even place boundaries on our thoughts and reactions, assertively challenging negative self-talk and unhealthy responses.
So what’s the first step to all of this? Start assessing your key relationships and determine where change is needed. Hoping a relationship will simply improve on its own is a passive act. Let’s get brave and uncomfortable and consider a more assertive approach!