Setting clear personal boundaries is the key to ensuring relationships are mutually respectful, supportive and caring. Boundaries are a measure of self-esteem. They set the limits for acceptable behaviour from those around you, determining whether they feel able to put you down, make fun, or take advantage of your good nature.
If you often are made uncomfortable by others’ treatment of you, it may be time to reset these boundaries to a more secure level. Weak boundaries leave you vulnerable and likely to be taken for granted or even damaged by others. On the other hand, a healthy self-respect will produce boundaries which show you deserve to be treated well. They also will protect you from exploitative relationships and help you avoid getting too close to people who don’t have your best interests at heart.
How to reset your boundaries
Set aside some time to write down the ways in which each important person in your life leaves you feeling unhappy or hurt. Once you have clearly identified the issues, consider what the other person’s motivation might be.
Next, decide on specific action you can take. In this case, you may decide to say “Please don’t derail my efforts to give up smoking or remind me how many times I’ve failed.” You could add a positive request, such as “I’d really appreciate your help to succeed this time.”
Remember the importance of saying “no” to unreasonable requests, and reasonable ones from time to time, if they conflict with your plans. Challenge all insults that are masked as humour. As you learn to extend your boundaries, try to adapt your behaviour so you are not stepping over other people’s. This may take an extra effort because our habits can go unnoticed, but aim to stop making digs at people, or using humour as a weapon to put others down.
The ‘Five Things’ Method
- List five things you’d like people to stop doing around you, for example, criticizing absent colleagues
- List five things you want people to stop doing to you, for example, being rude or inconsiderate, or ignoring you
- List five things that people may no longer say to you, for example, “you always give up” or “you’ll never get promoted”
Think about your current boundaries and ask:
- how much attention people expect from you at a moment’s notice
- whether you always make yourself available (e.g. do you answer the phone no matter what’s going on?)
- how much praise and acceptance you receive
- why you are popular with your friends
- how you feel after spending time with each friend or family member
- As time goes on, your boundaries may require updating. Perhaps the time you can give to others is much more limited after starting a new relationship or having a baby. Redefining your boundaries may mean swapping the belief “I want to please others” to “I value my time and want to keep some for myself.”
Bear in mind that those close to you may not be fully supportive in your attempts to change. They have been used to the old ways of doing things. As with any life change, extending boundaries has a price, and this may be losing acquaintances along the way. Of course, those relationships that are worth having will survive, and grow stronger.
Tactics to deal with objections
- Be consistent with your new boundaries
- Keep them simple
- Stay calm at all times
- Be responsible for your own emotional reactions rather than blaming other people
- If it appears you need to compromise, be flexible, but take it slowly and don’t agree to anything that doesn’t feel right
Once you have established strong, clear boundaries, people will give you more respect. This means you can be yourself to a greater extent, asking for what you really want and need without fear of judgment. Emotional manipulators will back off and in their place sustainable, loving relationships will thrive.
Reference and other resources
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Boundaries: When To Say Yes, When To Say No, To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004. Companion workbook available. This work, as many other boundary-setting resources, is Christian-oriented.