Boundaries: What They Are and How to Make Them Work For You
When most people hear the word “boundaries”, many things come to mind, some of which include: boundaries equal conflict, boundaries are negative, or boundaries are what we put in place for other people and expect them to follow based on our requests. First, let’s address these misconceptions one by one. Then we’ll take a look at the six types of boundaries and how you can implement them in your daily life, starting today!
Misconceptions (Yes, even therapists may start out with these misconceptions)
#1 – Boundaries equal conflict
This misconception generally surrounds the belief that when we set boundaries, we are going to create rifts in relationships and cause more harm than good. This is understandable, as many people are not used to others changing around them, especially if it’s sudden and seemingly “out of nowhere”. The reality is, setting boundaries may cause some ruffled feathers initially, but in the long run, setting boundaries should reduce conflict between you and others. When we have personal boundaries in place, and we stick to them, the likelihood for conflict decreases as there is no room for miscommunication about your and the other person’s expectations.
#2 – Boundaries are negative
Many people think that setting boundaries is selfish, bad, self-serving, or all-around negative. Many of us were raised in an environment – whether that be at home, a community or our society- in which our personal needs may have been viewed as selfish or completely disregarded, resulting in the belief that boundaries are not acceptable. Fortunately, boundaries are inherently healthy, despite the messages received growing up. Boundaries are a way to protect yourself (in several ways, as we’ll see below) and to protect your peace. Boundaries allow us to move through the world with more confidence, self-respect, and self-love.
#3 – Boundaries are what I tell others to do/change about themselves
Alas, we come to one of the greatest misconceptions of them all – we think that boundaries are orders or requests we give to others to follow dutifully…or else. Boundaries are more personal than we realize. We expect people to change their thought patterns, the way they behave or act, or who they are inherently as a person. Unfortunately, we cannot make someone never yell or use a certain tone of voice at us again, always arrive to dates and important meetings on time, or change their core beliefs and political values to align with our own. What we can do though is control how we react to these situations: what we say or do in the moment after someone raises their voice at us, how we show the chronically late person we do not tolerate this inconsiderate behavior, and what our personal limit is on listening to or participating in heated political conversations at the dinner table.
A quick note on boundary types: We can have little to no boundaries or too rigid of boundaries. If we have little to no boundaries, we may become walking doormats, but if we have too rigid of boundaries, we may not have as many fulfilling relationships as we would like. The best type of boundaries to have is right in the middle, or what we call “healthy boundaries”.
Wait a minute…How many boundaries are there?
You may be surprised to learn that there are so many different ways and types of boundaries we can set, that they have been divided into six main categories:
Okay, so now what? Making Boundaries Work for You
So now you know the general misconceptions we have about personal boundaries and that there are six main categories. So what do you do with this information?
Now is the tough part – actually setting boundaries with yourself or others. But how do you start? What can be helpful when making boundaries is having a script to refer to. You can go through the six categories above and start with one boundary you would like to set this week. Think about what has been irking you the most recently – is it your neighbor always coming over to ask for sugar or for you to babysit their kids? Is it that your friend borrows your car but returns it with an empty tank? Is it that your husband/wife/partner watches the T.V. too loud when you’re trying to sleep at night? Whatever it is, when something irks you consistently, it’s a good indicator that setting a boundary may be needed.
So back to the script. Lights. Camera. Action! Well…not quite.
While you’re not going to be preparing for a Hollywood performance of a lifetime, a written script can be helpful to prepare for the sometimes-but-not-always tough conversations in which we set boundaries with another person. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), there is an acronym called DEAR MAN that can be used as a helpful guideline when trying to express your needs in a respectful and mindful manner.
First, Describe the situation in a factual, non-emotional manner (“When you borrow my car, you often return it with little to no gas”).
Then, Express your emotions with “I feel” statements (“I feel taken advantage of when the car is returned without gas”)
Next, Assert your need(s) (“I need a full tank of gas in the car for when I need it next”)
Reinforce positive responses (Smiling, “Thank you for listening to my side of things…”)
Stay Mindful. These tough conversations have a tendency to get off track quickly. Remain mindful of why you are having this conversation in the first place. Do not get sidetracked by interruptions.
Appear Confident by noticing your posture, eye contact, and other body language. Be mindful that you do not shrink the longer the conversation goes on.
Lastly, Negotiate if needed. Sometimes when we set boundaries, they may not be entirely realistic, meaning that the other person cannot possibly meet your expectations. In this case, we try to find a middle ground in which both parties are happy. (“If you cannot fill the tank all the
way, I am okay with it being half-filled, as long as there is enough for me to get to where I need to go next time…”)
The above scenario is just one example of a boundary you can set. The biggest mistake made when setting boundaries is setting it once, and never again. When we set boundaries, we need to consistently set them. This can look a number of different ways. Continuing with the example above, this may play out in the following way: When your friend borrows your car in the future and returns it with an empty tank, you would want to re-state your boundary, and possibly add an ultimatum (these can be healthy, but not always) that if they fail to return the car again without gas, you will no longer lend it to them. Then, if they return the car to you again without gas, this is where your hard boundary comes in where you tell them “I’ve told you that I needed gas in my car when it’s returned to me. Because it hasn’t been returned to me with enough gas, I cannot let you borrow it anymore”
Boundary setting shouldn’t have to be something that we dread or put off. Boundaries can truly improve your relationships with others and yourself. I encourage you to give it a try. If you have a therapist, they can also be a great resource to help you when setting boundaries, especially if you are feeling stuck.
References & Further Reading
https://www.momentumpsychology.com/blog/how-to-set-boundaries-examples-and-scripts https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/boundary-styles https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/dbt-dear-man https://urbanwellnesscounseling.com/6-types-of-boundaries/
Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A guide to Reclaiming Yourself by Nedra Glover Tawwab