Here are some suggestions for establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries to build lasting relationships based on mutual respect.
1. Name your limits.
You can’t set good boundaries if you’re unsure of where you stand. So identify your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits. Consider what you can tolerate and accept and what makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed. These feelings help us identify what our limits are.
2. Tune into your feelings.
There are two key feelings that are red flags or cues that we’re letting go of our boundaries: discomfort and resentment. Prior to setting boundaries, we may feel resentment, which usually comes from being taken advantage of or not being appreciated. It’s often a sign that we’re pushing ourselves either beyond our own limits because we feel guilty (and want to ‘feel’ that we are a good son / daughter / spouse / friend), or someone else is imposing their expectations, views or values on us. When someone acts in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable, that’s an indicator that they may be violating or crossing a boundary.
If we are consistent with our boundaries, we may experience a pushback from the ones that are affected by the ‘new’ growth in our lives. That is to be expected. We may even experience some guilt, mainly because others may use unhealthy tactics to get us to give up our new growth and go back to our old ways, which is comfortable for them and harmful to us. That is actually a good sign and it is best to continue to take steps in the direction you are headed. Eventually, the guilt will subside as we realize boundaries are simply, self-control. We are limiting what does not work in our lives so that we can experience more of what does. ***It is often difficult to develop healthy boundaries without a support system in place.
3. Be direct.
With some people, maintaining healthy boundaries doesn’t require a direct and clear-cut dialogue. Usually, this is the case if people are similar in their communication styles, views, personalities and general approach to life. With others, such as those who have a different personality or cultural background, you’ll need to be more direct about your boundaries. Consider the following example: “one person feels [that] challenging someone’s opinions is a healthy way of communicating,” but to another person this feels disrespectful and tense.
4. Give yourself permission.
Fear, guilt and self-doubt are big potential pitfalls. We might fear the other person’s response if we set and enforce our boundaries. We might feel guilty by speaking up or saying no to a family member. Many believe that they should be able to cope with a situation or say yes because that is the requirement if they are to be considered ‘a good person’, even though they may feel drained or taken advantage of. We might wonder if boundaries are selfish on our part and that we don’t deserve to have put them in place.
Boundaries are not only a sign of a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of self-respect. So give yourself permission to set boundaries and work to preserve them. By doing so, you will build relationships based on mutual respect that have the ability to go the distance.
5. Practice self-awareness.
Again, boundaries are all about tuning into how you are feeling and honoring what you value. If you notice yourself slipping and not sustaining your boundaries, ask yourself: What’s changed? Consider “What am I doing or what is the other person doing?” or “What has brought me back to feelings of resentment or stress?” Then, consider your options: “What is the best thing to do about the situation? What do I have control over?” And finally, take action with the confidence that the best relationships will be the ones that are well-cared for and that will require some effort. From this practice, we develop maturity, which means we are able to press through our feelings of fear or rejection, and do the work that will build the relationship to last.
6. Consider your past and present.
How you were raised along with your role in your family can become additional obstacles in setting and preserving boundaries. If you held the role of caretaker, you learned to focus on others, letting yourself be drained emotionally or physically. Ignoring your own needs might have become the norm for you. This will be especially difficult for you without proper support in place.
Also, think about the people with whom you surround yourself. Are the relationships reciprocal, providing healthy give and take?
Beyond relationships, your environment might be unhealthy, too. For instance, if your workday is eight hours a day, but your co-workers stay at least 10 to 11, there’s an implicit expectation to go above and beyond at work. It can be challenging being the only one or one of a few trying to maintain healthy boundaries. Again, this is where tuning into your feelings and needs and honoring them becomes critical.
7. Make self-care a priority.
I recommend to my coaching clients to make self-care a priority, which also involves giving yourself permission to put yourself first. When we do this, our need and motivation to set boundaries become stronger. Self-care also means recognizing the importance of your feelings and honoring them. These feelings serve as important indicators regarding our well-being and allows us to experience more peace and joy.
On an airplane if the oxygen masks drop down and we are caring for someone, we position ours in place before assisting another. This gives us the energy, peace of mind and positive outlook to be more present with others and be there for them when we ‘choose’ to and not out of a sense of obligation. When we’re in a better place, we can be a better wife, mother, husband, co-worker or friend, etc.
8. Seek support.
If you’re having a hard time with boundaries, find a support group, church, counseling, coaching or good friends. With friends or family, you can even make it a priority with each other to practice setting boundaries together and hold each other accountable.
Boundaries: When to Say Yes and How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, along with several of their other books on boundaries, are excellent resources to begin mastering the art of establishing healthy boundaries.
9. Be assertive.
The biggest challenge in establishing healthy boundaries is being consistent with implementing them. Even though we know people aren’t mind readers, we sometimes still expect them to know what hurts us or makes us feel taken advantage of. If someone crosses a boundary, it’s important to assertively communicate it to them in a respectful way, so you both can work together to effectively address it.
10. Start small.
Like any new skill, assertively communicating your boundaries takes practice. I often suggest to my clients to start with a small boundary that isn’t threatening, and then incrementally increase to more challenging boundaries as your confidence builds. I want to again, stress the importance of having a support system in place as you begin this journey.
If you have a question about establishing healthy boundaries, please feel free to share it on the form below and I will respond as promptly as possible.
Sheri Geyer is a Mentor, Writer, Realtor, Wife & Mom