Boundary setting is an almost ubiquitous issue when it comes to the work of personal growth. It can be a topic that brings up confusion, resistance, and face-scrunching for many. However, the practice of setting and holding boundaries is vital to personal growth, in that it leads to increased self-respect, self-worth, trust with self and others, and greater alignment with personal values. Because I’ve noticed myself talking about this more and more in sessions with clients, and needed a way to explain it that was tangible and relatable, I started using a metaphor to decrease the mystery and confusion around how to set and hold boundaries with others.
First, this word ‘boundary’ sounds very therapist-y. You might wonder what I’m even talking about. A boundary, according to Brené Brown, put very simply, is defining what is ok and what’s not ok. When you decide something is not ok with you, communicating that with someone is the act of boundary setting. The communication doesn’t even have to be verbal in some cases (hand gestures, facial expressions, turning away, etc).
It’s usually not the WHY of setting boundaries that is the problem. Everyone knows why he or she needs to set boundaries with others: “So others stop walking all over me.” “I know I need to say ‘no’ more often but I don’t know how.” “I can be such a pushover.” “I say one thing, but people don’t listen and I end up doing what they want anyway.” The problem lies in the HOW.
How do we go about setting boundaries?
Think about a home security system (not just an alarm, but everything that goes into security) as a metaphor for boundaries. Imagine the boundaries that need to be created, and who might need certain boundaries more than others in your life. If you had a house without doors or windows, it would be very unsafe. People could come in and out whenever they pleased, the elements would destroy the inside, etc. People seem taken aback when I start with doors and windows, but they are part of the structure of a home, and provide security features—it is not just the alarm system. To take it even further, think of the children’s story of The Three Little Pigs; is your house made of straw, sticks, or bricks? Who is the big bad wolf that you need protection from?
The symbolism and metaphor is unique to each person. How can you find the symbolism in door locks? Setting a security alarm when you leave? When you go to sleep at night? Are there certain people who can walk through your front door without knocking? Are there certain people you would not open the door for even if they did knock? You get the picture.
Speaking of pictures, it is often helpful to draw a house on a piece of paper with all of the security features you want to have in place, and list the people who need the heightened security and the people to whom you’d give the key or alarm code. What do you notice about these people? What feelings come up within you as you think about why you need stronger boundaries with certain people?
Ok, so now that I know that, what do I actually say? This is the hard part. It is often helpful to think about with whom you’ll need to set firmer boundaries. Imagine a scenario either in the past or in the future where there may be a boundary test for you. Can you come up with some ways to say that the behavior of the other person is not ok with you? “Jane, I know that you’re very busy, but it’s not ok that you don’t return my calls or texts for three days. I value our friendship and I imagine that _______ (you don’t care about me, I’m not important to you, I don’t matter) when you don’t call me/text me back for that amount of time.” Other sentence starters could be: It bothers me when___, it makes me uncomfortable when you___, I’m not able to help with ______, or simply: no, it’s not ok with me. It’s important that you find/create/craft a script that feels good to you so that you’ll be able to use it when you need it. Resources on assertiveness have some phrases that could be helpful as well.
What if I feel guilty? To put it bluntly, you will (at first). But what is the alternative? To feel guilty means we feel we have done something bad (not to be confused with shame which means I am bad). You can buy into the faulty thinking, let the burglar walk into your house and steal your valuables, or you can lock the door. As a member in my group says, it can be real but not true (I feel badly about saying no, but I’m not a bad person for doing so). Over time, you’ll get more used to locking the door, knowing you are protecting yourself, your values, your integrity, respect, etc. Just like building a muscle, you have to exercise it to make it stronger.
What if people have tantrums about my boundary setting? They probably will. If you were allowed into places and now got locked out, you might feel upset too. You can validate the feelings you expect them to have by acknowledging the change. “I know I had previously agreed to bake all of the items for the school bake sale, but I am no longer able to do that. I imagine that’s disappointing to hear-- you may have been counting on me. I’d love to brainstorm some other ideas of what we could do.”
What if people get mad at me for setting boundaries? They might. Sensing a theme here? These are all the questions and concerns that leave us open to being emotionally ransacked. You can set boundaries while staying aligned with your values if you can take some time to reflect on what is ok and not ok with you, what you will say when someone crosses the line, and how you will prepare yourself for the reaction. This is possible, you can do it.
Is this really worth it? It can be intimidating, difficult, and anxiety provoking to try setting boundaries with others. However, what is your self-respect and self-trust worth to you? What is the value to you if you keep putting others’ needs and feelings ahead of your own? If you can become intentional about preparing to set boundaries with others, it will become easier.
The reality is, you’ve heard “no” from others before. Do you remember how often? Do you remember all the circumstances? Probably not. We can trick ourselves into catastrophizing the moment of saying no, feeling that we’re hurting or rejecting others. But in that moment, we are at risk for sacrificing our own needs for the needs of others. When you do that often enough, you feel the weight of unworthiness when standing up for yourself. When we hardly ever say no, we’re never setting the alarm, we’re never locking the door. What condition does that leave your emotional house in?