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Everybody Needs Boundaries: 6 Ways to Make Them Work for You

How boundaries can increase your self-esteem and improve your relationships.

Key points

  • Sometimes a person has to clarify their boundaries in order to make sure that others respect them. 
  • Enforcing one's boundaries should be done in a way that's kind, gentle, respectful, yet firm.
  • Ways to successfully communicate personal boundaries include clarifying what is actually desired and being realistic about the outcome.

Your mom calls and starts talking. You love your mom, and you can hear in her voice that she really needs to talk to you, but you are stretched thin at work, and you just don’t have time to sit on the phone and chat with her. But you feel too guilty — you never seem to have time for her anymore — so you just let her talk. And you get more and more irritable till you finally hang up and spend the rest of the day in a terrible mood.

123rf image 91319581 Aleksandr Davydov
Source: 123rf image 91319581 Aleksandr Davydov

You are looking forward to a nice evening at home with your girlfriend. You’ve texted her to let her know that you’re making dinner and can’t wait to see her. She says she went out with some of her colleagues for a quick glass of wine, but she’ll be home soon. Your heart drops. “Soon” doesn’t usually mean the same thing to her that it does to you. It could be an hour, two, or even three before she gets home.

One of the guys at your office has been coming on to you. You tried to let him know politely that you aren’t interested, but he keeps inventing reasons to talk to you. It’s not like he’s doing anything inappropriate. He’s not touching you or saying things he shouldn’t. It’s more that he keeps looking at you in a way that doesn’t feel good. But if you go to Human Resources to complain about it, you’re going to look and feel foolish.

You’re a guy. Your best friend is a woman, who recently has been letting you know that she wants things to shift into a more romantic, sexual relationship. You’re not into her that way, but you don’t want to hurt her feelings.

Your father-in-law is a nice guy, but he is always hugging you. You don’t want to hurt his feelings, but you are not a touchy kind of person. But it’s getting to the point that you don’t want to be in the same room with him. You’re about ready to just stop going to any family gatherings with your in-laws.

You have a friend who is always calling for your advice or a favor. You’re happy to give her advice, and usually the favors aren’t a big deal, but it never seems to work the other way. She doesn’t do anything for you, ever; and she never even seems interested in hearing anything about your life. You almost don’t want to answer the phone when she calls anymore.

What do all of these situations have in common? They are about setting and re-setting boundaries — those indicators of your personal space, your values, and your needs. Authors Gary Lundberg and Joy Lundberg offer this wonderful description of boundaries in their book I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better:

“Personal boundaries define you as an individual. They are statements of what you will or won’t do, what you like and don’t like, how far you will or won’t go, how close someone can get to you or how close you will get to another person ... they are your value system in action.”

The Lundbergs then write probably the most important thing I have ever read about boundaries:

“Having a strong, comfortable belief in your own value system means you have choices and must take responsibility for your thoughts, beliefs, and actions.”

In other words, while we all should expect others to respect our boundaries, just as we should respect theirs, that’s not how it always works. Sometimes we have to clarify our boundaries in order to make sure that others respect them.

Often, when we feel forced to set boundaries, we feel hurt and/or angry at the person who does not respect them, the person who is “making” us clarify what our boundaries actually are. We might also feel guilty, as was the case in several of the examples above. When your mother keeps pushing, or a friend wants to turn your friendship into a romantic relationship, or a relative or colleague wants to touch you in ways that you don’t like, it’s normal to feel angry that they are putting you in the uncomfortable position of having to set limits on them.

But while anger can make it easier to set boundaries in some ways, it does not, in the end, help you actually delineate your own value system, either to yourself or to the other person.

It is not always simple to take responsibility for your own thoughts, beliefs, and actions, especially when another person is not being respectful of you. But the Lundbergs believe that boundaries “need to be (1) kind (2) gentle (3) respectful, and (4) firm.”

In other words, you don’t let someone walk over you. You don’t allow them to intrude into your personal space or act in a way that doesn’t fit into your value system. You maintain respect for yourself by maintaining your boundaries.

But even as you firmly — and perhaps repeatedly — protect your boundaries with someone who tends to overstep them, you can also try to find ways to be kind, gentle, and respectful of them as a person.

It is of course difficult to behave kindly and respectfully toward someone who is ignoring your needs or invading your personal space. And of course, the person with whom you are setting limits may not experience you as kind or gentle. They may interpret your firmness as harshness and unkindness. But if you know that you have been clear and kind in your efforts to let them know that they are crossing your boundaries, then you can also feel less guilty when they are resentful or angry.

So how exactly do you do this?

Here are 6 simple steps to healthier boundaries:

1. Clarify what you want for yourself.

Think about what you actually want. Do you want your mother to stop calling you at work? Do you want your father-in-law to stop hugging you? Do you want your friend to accept that you are friends, only?

2. Be realistic.

Your mother may never stop calling you at work, and your friend might never stop calling for advice. So don't expect your boundaries to change their behavior in that way. But you can realistically expect your mother to know that you won't talk to her when she calls, and you can realistically expect your father-in-law not to hug you.

3. Communicate.

Once you've come up with clear and realistic boundaries, communicate them clearly to the other person. Keeping the Lundbergs' four "needs" in mind, communicate your wishes gently, kindly, respectfully, and firmly. The next time your mother calls you at work, rather than being grumpy and irritable with her, tell her that you cannot speak with her at work anymore. You could say something like, "I know it's hard, Mom, but from now on I either won't take your call or will just pick up to let you know that I can't talk. We can talk after work, or on the weekends, but not while I'm working." Then say goodbye, let her know that you're going to hang up, and then do it.

Or the next time your father-in-law starts to hug you, rather than tolerating the hug or angrily storming away, try quietly saying something like, “I’m sorry John, I know you're a big hugger, but I really don’t feel comfortable with it. I'm sure you can understand that."

4. Be consistent.

One of the problems many of us have with setting boundaries is that, because it can be difficult, we don’t always stay on point. But giving a mixed message can be almost as bad as not setting a boundary in the first place. For instance, with your friend who wants to be more than a friend, it's important that you consistently stay out of the romantic, touchy-feely realm. If you flirt with her one day and act like just buddies another, she’s going to be confused. And ultimately, she’s going to be angry about the mixed messages. Much better to consistently tell her, gently but firmly, that this isn’t what you want. Let her know that you don’t want to hurt her feelings, that you care deeply for her, but that your friendship is not going to turn into a romance.

Of course, most of us slip up with boundaries from time to time. When that happens, it’s really important to try to get right back on track, and to stay there. It’s perfectly okay to tell someone, “You know, it’s hard for me to set these boundaries when I know it’s hurting you, so I’m sorry that I slipped the other day. But I’m back on track now, and you should know this just isn’t going to work for me.”

5. Be respectful.

Boundaries are all about respect — for yourself and for the other person. When your girlfriend consistently gets home late or goes out with her friends without checking to see if you are expecting her home, it’s time for a serious conversation. But anger, put-downs, and criticisms will not accomplish much, except to make you both unhappy. It’s important to let her know that this doesn’t work for you, but that you are wondering what it means for her.

You might say, gently and without it coming out as a criticism, that maybe her behavior means she’s not ready for a serious, monogamous relationship, and this is how she’s communicating it. If she denies this possibility, you can let her know that it is hard for you to know how to handle the behavior. Maybe the problem is that she just isn’t good at planning, but whatever the reason, it feels like it’s crossing some boundaries that you’re not comfortable with.

You can explain that you don’t want to tie her down, but that you are going to assume from now on that when she says she’s going out after work, she won’t be home in time for dinner, and you will make other plans as well. This will only work if it isn’t a “tit for tat” kind of response and if you are genuinely able to make plans for yourself that aren’t punitive to her.

Boundaries really don’t work if they’re used to punish another person.

6. Take responsibility.

It’s always easy to place blame outside ourselves, but the best way to set boundaries and keep them is to take responsibility for them. Just remember: Boundaries represent your values and beliefs, which you probably take responsibility for without even thinking about it.

Taking responsibility for your own behavior does not let someone else off the hook, but it puts you in charge of your own life. Whether it’s the guy at your office who keeps coming onto you or your friend who keeps asking for favors and never offers you anything, you’re not the one who is at fault.

Maybe you are afraid to tell your friend that you’re not available to do a favor for her or telling your co-worker that you’re not interested. Are you worried they will be angry with you, or that they will think badly of you? Think about what you are worried about and decide if that’s worse than feeling that your personal space is being repeatedly invaded, and your self-esteem is being repeatedly damaged. And then you can clarify what you need to yourself and communicate it to the other person. And remember: Even while you’re being respectful and kind, it’s important that you keep in mind that they, not you, are responsible for their behavior.

The bottom line

Boundaries are not about pushing people away or about trying to control them. They are about clarifying what you value — including your own space, your own beliefs, and your own self-esteem. Clarifying and communicating those values can not only make you feel better about yourself but can also, sometimes in surprising ways, improve your relationships with other people.


Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life

by Henry Cloud, John Townsend

I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better by Gary Lundberg and Joy Lundberg

More from F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W.
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