How to Set Clear and Healthy Boundaries That Actually Work

People are going to cross your boundaries. Here's how to make more effective ones.

People are going to cross your boundaries. Here’s how to make more effective ones.

One of the biggest causes of frustration that I see people dealing with is that they go through their lives feeling walked all over, stepped on, disrespected and that other people are taking advantage of them, over and over again. If this is something you struggle with regularly, it’s very likely that you aren’t good at setting boundaries or that you don’t know how to set boundaries correctly.

I hear “They don’t respect my boundaries” a lot. But, we can’t stop people from doing the things they do. For some reason, in our society, we think we have a right to control how other people act and because of that, most people think that others need to respect their boundaries and they can’t figure out a way to make that happen. They get frustrated. They don’t feel like boundaries are worth setting. But that’s because they’re setting boundaries with the expectation that the other person controls whether it works or not. Of course that’s not going to be effective!

People are going to cross your boundaries. That’s life. You cannot stop people from pushing your buttons or from doing things you don’t want them to do. They don’t have to respect your boundaries. You have to respect your boundaries.

They don’t have to respect your boundaries. You have to respect your boundaries.”

I’m going to tell you how to make boundaries work for you so that you never feel powerless or walked all over ever again.

First, remember that no one can walk all over you or take advantage of you without your compliance.

How we respond when someone tries to do this to us, either reinforces to them that they can keep on doing that behavior without repercussions or shows them that their actions won’t be tolerated. We choose how to respond and how we’re going to allow ourselves to be treated.

Getting good at setting personal boundaries means a lot of things have to happen – you’ve got some personal development work to do to be able to do this well! You have to have a good amount of confidence in yourself. You also need to learn how and when to say no, always say what you mean (stop beating around the bush and expecting other’s to know what you need) and let go of the need to be liked by everyone all of the time. You also have to be able to recognize that a boundary is something you put in place to protect you – it’s not put in place for the other person to abide by (which can be tricky to understand – I’ll go more in detail about this difference).

Today we’re going to go over all of this – what boundaries actually are (not what most of us think!), how to set them, enforce them and what boundaries are NOT. Really getting familiar with boundary setting has helped me navigate my personal and professional relationships with so much more ease. With clear boundaries, I no longer worry what to do when I’m with people who want to push my buttons or when family members overstep their bounds. I choose what’s best for me thank you – and I confidently make decisions as to how to handle myself.

If you take the time to learn this tool and practice it, it will make an amazing difference in all of your relationships – but especially the relationship you have with yourself.

Let’s talk boundaries, shall we?

What is a boundary?
First off, a lot of people think a boundary is something we set for other people in order for them to behave the way we want them to. Nope. This is wrong. That’s manipulation.

We can’t control how other people act. We cannot change someone else’s behavior (though wouldn’t we all like to sometimes!). Clear and effective boundaries can only be set from this perspective.

What we can do is set boundaries for ourselves. We decide what we are ok with and not ok with. How others get to treat us. How we want to feel in our relationships.

A boundary is an action you decide that you will take if someone does something that violates either your physical or emotional personal space. Your physical space is your body, your home, your safety. Your emotional space is a little harder to define but I see it as “how I decide I am willing to be treated” or what my “emotional dealbreakers” are. There is shit I won’t put up with in my life.

Here’s an example of a physical one. Let’s say someone steps on my toes in public. The boundary I will set is that I will move away from someone if they step on me. Pretty obvious right? I don’t even have to communicate this boundary to the person. I can take care of my physical needs (which includes not being stepped on) without them even being involved. Notice the boundary does not require the other person to do anything but is instead is something I do in response to their action.

Here’s an example of an emotional one. Let’s say I have a friend who really hates my husband and keeps talking shit about him to me. I can’t make her like my husband and I can’t control what she says to other people about him but I can decide how I want to be treated. The boundary in this case I would set is that I would ask her to no longer talk negatively about him in my presence. If she continues to talk about him, I will leave. If she calls me and wants to talk shit about him, I will hang up the phone. (This is a fictional situation by the way! My best girlfriends are fab and all love my husband). Notice again, this is an action I take in response to a boundary violation. It is not an action I ask her to take. She is still free to hate my husband. She is still free to talk about him until she’s blue in the face, even in my presence, but I don’t have to participate in it.

What a boundary is not
A boundary is not a threat or done in retaliation. Threats come from a place of anger, pain, fear – we threaten people because we want to cause harm (usually because we are hurt!). A boundary is set with respect & love. There shouldn’t be any intended harm when you set a boundary.

Here are a few example of threats (not boundaries!):
“If you don’t get a job that makes more money, I’m going to divorce you.”
“If you go out with your friends tonight, I will leave you.”
“If you don’t lose weight, I’m going to cheat on you.”

You could also call the three above “ultimatums”. Sometimes we get it in our head that people are supposed to act a certain way in life, as if there is some freakin rulebook that they should know about. We have rules for people that we just assume they will abide by and when they don’t, we get upset and want to throw up our fists and demand that they do what we want. But this isn’t the same thing. Someone not losing weight, going out with friends or not making more money is in no way a violation of your physical or emotional space. Demanding an action be taken by someone else is NOT a good boundary. The easiest way I can explain this is to remember that a boundary can only be enforced by you taking the action. The other person doesn’t have to do anything to satisfy you or make you happy in order to make the boundary successful.

All three of these examples are intended to cause fear, hurt and pain out of retaliation. Boundaries are never about retaliating. They’re more about protecting yourself (your physical / emotional space).

Threats = pain / fear / hurt.
Boundaries = love / protection / empowered.

If anything, when we set a boundary, it should help us feel more love towards the person and ourselves. Remaining in situations where we feel our personal boundaries are being encroached on brings up all kinds of negative feelings that can affect our life and our relationships. Setting clear and appropriate boundaries (not threats) where you have an action you know you can take is empowering and will let you take control over what you do have control over – yourself!

Will everyone be happy when you take a stand for yourself? Not always. People who like to cross our boundaries are rarely happy when someone has healthy self-esteem enough to set them! But what’s awesome, is that if you are in a healthy enough emotional place to set boundaries and hold yourself accountable to them, you will be less bothered by people who don’t like it.

How to set them
You set healthy boundaries by first deciding how you want to feel in the relationship. This friend who is talking crap about my husband – if she is someone really close to me, I probably want to feel love towards her, right? I don’t want to feel resentment and resentment is what I will feel if I keep listening to her negative feelings about someone I care about.

If I set my boundary from a place of love (for both of us) – it will be clear and appropriate.

If I set my boundary from a place of anger or resentment – it’s probably going to be more of a threat and that doesn’t help anyone (certainly not if I want to keep this person in my life).

I want to feel love towards her. I can’t stop her feelings and I can’t stop her from talking about him in general, but I certainly can control if I’m willing to listen to it or be around it.

I know some of you are reading this and going “But she shouldn’t be saying those things! She’s not a friend if she is!”

But, here’s the thing – that’s actually your opinion. That’s not a fact. I’m sure there are some cases, where telling a friend how awful her partner is, would be considered being a good friend (like what if the friend was in an abusive situation?), right? So, the best way to deal with those thoughts that come about about how someone should or shouldn’t be acting is to just remember that that is completely out of our control. So we need to focus on what we can control and that is our behavior. If she’s really as crappy as y’all think she is, I can choose to walk away from the friendship entirely but that’s not always what we want and sometimes way more extreme than it needs to be!

Ask yourself – Am I setting this out of love? Or out of fear/pain? and What do I want to feel towards this person? If love – boundary. If fear/pain – cautious, it might be a threat.

How to enforce them
We enforce boundaries by doing what we’ve said or decided that we’d do if the other person infringes on them.

Boundaries only work if we actually take the actions we’ve decided we are going to take when there is a boundary crossing. They are completely useless otherwise.

If you’ve set a boundary that you are going to leave the room when someone does something unacceptable to you, then you must leave.

If you’ve set a boundary that you are going to not answer work related phone calls after 7pm, then you must not answer your phone when coworkers call.

If you have a boundary and don’t follow through with the action you’ve set, then it’s not going to do anything but upset you and communicate to the other person that things are just fine with you!

If you’re not ready to take the actions you’ve decided to take in your boundary setting, then that is not an appropriate boundary and you should revise it. Remember, they don’t work if we don’t take the action we said we would take.

One more thing: You may tell someone what your boundaries are but it isn’t always necessary – because you are the one who will take the action, not them. There are some boundaries that aren’t worth saying to anyone, such as in the toe stepping example above – it goes without saying that most people don’t want their bodies to be stepped on. I don’t have to communicate my boundary here. In some cases though, you will want to communicate your boundary and doing so will make your relationships better. In the example with the friend talking shit about my husband, I would communicate my boundary. I certainly could act on it without communicating it, but it would make our relationship confusing to her when I got up and left the room or hung up the phone. Who wants more confusion and drama? No thanks. Communicating the boundary doesn’t make the boundary firmer (firmness happens on my side – my actions) or more enforceable but it does make communication clear and makes less room for resentment and pain on all sides.

Will my friend be annoyed? Maybe. Will she find herself still blabbing about my husband? Probably? Will she eventually learn to shut the fuck up around me? Yup. Pretty quickly I might add.

Quick recap: How do you know if you’ve set a boundary correctly?

  • It’s something you will do if your physical or emotional boundary is crossed (the other person doesn’t need to do anything to “respect” your boundary). You respect your own boundary.
  • It’s not a threat (it’s intention is not to cause harm or pain). It’s done out of love for you or the other person.
  • It is not an attempt to manipulate someone else’s behavior or choices. It’s about protecting you.
  • You act on it. Don’t set one and not do what you said you’d do. They don’t work that way.
  • You won’t feel frustrated anymore.

So that’s it!

Practice setting boundaries. You can have the relationship YOU choose to have with people. You decide ahead of time what you are ok with. You decide ahead of time what you are not ok with AND what action you will take if the other person crosses that boundary.This allows you to be fully present in more of your relationships, instead of spending time and energy resenting people.

Are good boundaries going to fix every aspect of all your challenging relationships? Of course not. But being able to set these and act on them is a sign of emotional maturity and responsibility and that can go a long way in every relationship.

I’d love to hear from you now. Do you have difficulty following through with boundaries you have set? Do you have difficulty determining when and how to set boundaries? They can be tricky, so I’m happy to help you find clarity if there is a situation you are having difficulty with.

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