Constructive Wallowing

How to beat bad feelings by letting yourself have them

Because I Said So

Six tips for setting (and maintaining) good boundaries

Stop signs
I’m still figuring out how to do boundaries well. Like many people, I’m pretty good at setting a boundary. But once that boundary is crossed, I get flummoxed.

I usually resent it when someone steps on my boundaries, because they’re putting me in a position where I have to speak up for myself.

And that’s uncomfortable.

So I’m continually working on boundaries in my personal life, and what I’ve discovered is that there’s no reward for doing a good job.

When I manage to say No to someone (or put limits on how much I give) despite my guilty feelings about doing so, nobody gives me a medal.

I’m more likely to get a sour look than a prize for holding my boundaries.

That’s what makes boundary maintenance so difficult.

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What it comes down to, though, is a hard decision. I ask myself this:

Do I want to tolerate potential conflict by defending my boundaries, or do I want to feel resentful every time I let someone cross them?

Here’s what I’ve learned about boundaries, and much of it I’m still getting the hang of…

Tips for Better Boundaries

1. Get clear on exactly what the boundary is. Where are you going to draw the line? Is it okay for your roommate to eat your food as long as she replaces it? Or is it simply not okay for her to touch your stuff?

If you’re not clear on what your boundaries are, others won’t be either.

2. Decide on consequences ahead of time. What will happen if someone crosses a boundary? If there are no consequences, there might as well be no boundaries. Will you stop talking to them? Remove privileges? Go home? Withdraw financial support? Or simply call out their behavior?

Something needs to happen when others step on your toes. What will it be?

3. Expect violations. You can be absolutely certain that if you set a new boundary with people who already know you, that boundary will be tested. That means repeated violations despite your protests. What are you going to do about it?

The results of testing will be one of two outcomes: Either you’ll prove that you don’t really mean it, or you’ll demonstrate that you do.

4. Be consistent. Testing takes place over time. If it’s not okay to call you names today, it shouldn’t be okay tomorrow. Your boundaries must not change with your mood, or you can’t blame others for being confused about what’s acceptable.

Just as with parenting, rules need to be consistent to be taken seriously. Every time you allow a boundary to be violated without consequences, you’re back to Square One.

5. Get used to it. Boundary-setting is not a single-shot deal. Once you set a boundary, the long-term work of defending that boundary begins.

Accept your responsibility for speaking up and making sure that there are consequences every single time a boundary is crossed.

Some people will “get it” right away, others will take longer, and one or two may decide never to respect a particular boundary. That’s okay; they’ll have to get used to the consequences.

(But you might just be surprised how often old dogs can learn new tricks with consistent training.)

6. Don’t blame others for violating your boundaries. First, people don’t necessarily know where you stand, even if you think they should.

Second, each of us is responsible for looking after our own interests. If I’m an adult, it’s no one’s job but mine to make sure I’m not disrespected, abused, taken advantage of, manipulated, or anything else that affects my well-being.

(Children, of course, need adults to protect them from these transgressions.)

But what about close relationships, you ask? Shouldn’t family and friends respect each other’s boundaries?

Why should I have to defend myself against boundary crossings by the very people who are supposed to love me?

In close relationships, it’s customary to try to respect each other’s boundaries. But we do this as a courtesy, not as an obligation, and nobody’s perfect.

Let me know how it goes if you put these into practice.

... Or don't. It's up to you, of course. I can respect that.

Counselor and workshop leader Tina Gilbertson, LPC is the author of Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings By Letting Yourself Have Them.

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