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5 Things to Know About Setting Boundaries

Here are some things to consider as you initiate and reinforce boundaries.

Key points

  • Boundaries are important for protecting mental health and overall well-being.
  • Boundaries aren’t easy to initiate and can result in pushback or hurt feelings.
  • Despite the other party’s feelings or opinions, it’s important to stand your ground and reinforce your boundary.

As with every holiday season, there is a lot of talk about “boundaries.” This buzzword is everywhere on social media and wellness influencers and healthcare providers are shouting “set healthy boundaries” from the rooftops. I admit that I am included in the group of professionals who are preaching the importance of boundaries, however, setting “boundaries” is not necessarily an easy task or feat.

While talking about boundaries is important and there are certainly benefits as it pertains to our mental health, it is also important that we acknowledge some of the challenges and barriers we may come across as we set new boundaries or reinforce old ones. Remember, we typically set boundaries with individuals who most likely won’t be too keen on the idea of boundaries—so it should be of no surprise if others are not receptive to your boundary or things don’t go as smoothly.

5 things to consider when asserting a boundary

1. Be direct. Boundaries require directness. You cannot beat around the bush or assume that the other person who you are establishing the boundary with will “just get it.” For a boundary to be effectively communicated, you need to be direct and specific. This means that you need to clearly state your expectations and the limits you are implementing. For example, “This Christmas I am unwilling to engage in any conversation about politics and if this cannot be respected, I will have to leave” is a clear and direct statement versus, “Let’s not talk about sensitive topics, OK?”

Being this direct can feel incredibly uncomfortable, but it is better than assuming the other person understands the boundary or leaving it open for interpretation. You may also need to communicate or repeat the boundary more than once—especially if this is a new boundary or you are establishing a boundary with someone new.

2. Prepare for potential pushback. Just because a boundary has been set, this does not mean that the other person will respect it or be receptive. There’s always the possibility that there could be pushback or hurt feelings. The other person might protest or try to use guilt to challenge the boundary. Again, typically, we set boundaries with people whom we have strained or complicated relationships with—in other words, we set boundaries with the people and relationships that could most benefit from a boundary. So, if there is pushback, this is normal and can actually signal that the boundary is very much needed and can benefit your mental health.

3. Don’t over-explain. Many people feel inclined to justify their boundary—to offer a “why” and provide a rationalization or even apologize for the boundary. But the very purpose of the boundary is self-preservation—setting a limit to protect one’s mental health and well-being. This is something that doesn't need to be justified. When you try to over-explain a boundary, it can often open things up for debate or greater conversation which can sometimes result in further conflict. Your boundary is your boundary, and you don’t need the other person to sign off on it or give their input.

Source: fizzles/Shutterstock

4. Reinforce the boundary. Setting or establishing a boundary is one thing, reinforcing it is another. When you set a boundary, prepare to reinforce it, and follow through with the stated consequence (if necessary). If your parent respects your boundary of not bringing up politics, great, enjoy the evening! If they refuse to respect the boundary and try to bait you into a political discussion, your job is to reinforce the boundary by leaving. Words are just words until they are backed by action.

Boundaries are only effective if they are reinforced. Remember, you are setting the boundary to protect your inner peace, so follow-through is important. It will be hard initially but become easier over time.

5. Remember your “why.” Many people avoid setting boundaries (or reinforcing them) due to pushback or lack of understanding from the other party. It’s common to worry about how the other person might interpret the boundary or feel. Some people will backtrack and “take back” the boundary or simply not follow through with the boundary. By going back to your “why” or intent, you’ll feel more confident and grounded in your decision in setting the boundary. Try to use positive self-talk statements such as, “I am setting a boundary because it is good for my mental health” or, “I deserve to prioritize my needs and what is best for my well-being."

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