How To Set Boundaries That Actually Work

Do you remember how proud you were when you set your first “healthy boundary?” I do.

I remember finally planting my metaphorical foot down after months of frustration. I told someone I was dating that I wasn’t going to tolerate anymore flaking or not showing up when he said he would. I deserved my time to be respected. I set my boundary and … he listened!

Well done! I thought to myself. Should have done that months ago!

But…he didn’t listen for long. In the end it was a battle of me re-setting boundaries, trying to control his behavior, then him complying…and eventually breaking them again. Then I’d withdraw to “enforce” the boundary…rinse, repeat.

When I was first taught about boundaries, it was in the context of women who do too much for other people, and not enough for themselves. It came across to me that I had to be firm and defend myself against others asking me to do things I didn’t want to do, or allowing them to act in ways that were not healthy for me. Sounds like a good idea right?

While that sounds like a really good idea on the surface, the way I was doing it ended up leading to not-so-good things for everyone involved. Things like Anger. Frustration. Control.

That last one is the biggest thing – it turns out unbeknownst to me, I was using boundaries to control other people’s behavior. I was giving ultimatums like “you do/don’t do this…or else!” This is not a healthy way to set boundaries – yet it is the way most of us were taught to set them.

Most of us set boundaries based on how we can change how someone else behaves, and not on our power of choice and agency to do what is best for us.

The healthy way to create boundaries necessitates remembering a very important thing: that boundaries are all about YOUR behavior.

Whaaaaat?! That’s right. The focus of a healthy boundary is actually not about the other person doing or not doing what you want at all. They are all grown up, and whether you like it or not, they “get” to do whatever they want. I know. It sounds crazy. But stick with me for a long minute;)

A healthy boundary is all about what you are going to do. It is a consequence you set that is completely based on an action you will take.

For example, if your mother is constantly belittling you when she calls, you can create a boundary. You can say, “Mom, it is not OK for you to belittle me when we talk. I love you, but if you start to do that, I will let you know I am going to hang up, and we can talk again when belittling isn’t part of the conversation.”

Then, if she does it again, you say, “OK mom, I love you, and I’m going to hang up now. When you’re ready to talk without doing that, we can chat again.”

You don’t continue to try to change her or “make her stop.” You just take care of yourself.

You may have noticed a few other things in this example:

1) The boundary isn’t about something petty. Some people want to set boundaries around things like getting people to stop giving them unsolicited advice, or doing something annoying like talking too loudly. That is actually attempting to control someone and not letting them be themselves – which is not OK.

Boundaries are set for big-deal items: emotional or physical boundaries. People do not get to hit you. People do not get to emotionally abuse you (like the belittling in the example above). People do not get to break your trust.

You may wonder – Hold on, girl! What’s the difference between setting a boundary and making a request for my preferences, then? Can’t I ask someone to stop something that annoys me?

YES! Make all the requests you want!

If someone is not crossing a physical or emotional boundary but is simply annoying you, choose to either share your time and energy with them, or not. Make a request, or not. Requests don’t have “consequences.” The person either does it or not, and you do the work to learn how to be happy either way.

If you choose to still be around them, let go of trying to change who they are.

Don’t forget to not let whether they comply or not affect your happiness or your sense of empowerment. It really isn’t appropriate to create boundary around something you’re simply being annoyed by. That’s usually solvable by you changing your thoughts about what’s going on and not taking them personally.

That can be a big-girl-panties concept, but I know you’ve got this;)

2) Boundaries (unlike simple requests) have a consequence that is about an action you will take, and you need to follow through on this. Using the example above, if your mom/partner/friend belittles you and you don’t hang up like you said you would, that removes the strength and purpose form the boundary. It also tends to eat away at your self-respect and self-esteem. You end up not trusting yourself, which is usually worse that the original breach of the boundary anyway.

3) The boundary does not come from a place of anger. Your happiness should not rely on this person’s actions. Therefore, the boundary is simply to honor yourself, and you can choose to not take it personally and step away from the unhealthy situation. No drama. Just, “No, thank you.”

Let’s see more examples of what this all looks like:

If you have a friend who is constantly late and this wears on your time and energy, you can choose to stay friends with her and say, “I get you’re often late, it’s what you do. But it’s hard for me when I waste my time when I’d rather spend time with you. So, if you are more than 15 minutes late, I’m going to leave.” Shazam! You honor who she is, and you honor your needs.

In this example, you are choosing to stay friends with this person, and creating a boundary that respects both your needs. You can also choose not to remain friends with this person if they don’t follow through. In either case, you can walk away – without drama.

In my relationship example in the beginning, choosing to leave when it was clear my emotional boundaries and trust were not being honored would have been better than trying to control someone else’s behavior. I could have said, “If x, y, z behavior continues, that doesn’t work for me.” Then I would have left – which ended up happening anyway – but it would have happened with me being in a much more empowered place – and much sooner. That would have saved both of us a lot of time and energy and suffering. And way less drama.

I know some of these concepts can be a bit WTF for you right now, but let it simmer awhile. Check it out and observe the difference between people setting healthy boundaries vs. trying to control someone else’s behavior. As one of my favorite spiritual teachers would tell me, “Check your mind. Check it for yourself.”

What are your deal-breakers that you’d like to set boundaries for? Are you able to differentiate between the need for boundaries vs making a request? If not, shoot me an email. Trust me – I’ve been there!

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