Therapist Corner: How To Set Boundaries
Hello! I’m McCoy, and I am a Licensed Master of Social Work. I’ve been a therapist with Kids in the Middle for over two years. Setting boundaries has come up a lot in my work with clients. Boundaries are not taught in schools and are often implicitly discouraged by those around us. However, they are essential for happy, healthy relationships. So what exactly are boundaries? Boundaries are the clear expectations set with yourself and others to maintain balance in your life. People with clear boundaries are shown to be happier, friendlier, more self-aware, and better companions. With boundaries, people know what to expect from us, and we know what to expect from others. Without boundaries, we develop resentment and burnout. Here we’ll do a quick rundown of how to set boundaries to familiarize yourself with the topic and get you started on a happier path.
The first step to setting boundaries is to identify the areas that are important to us (family, work, ourselves) and to be clear about our personal needs (alone time, freedom from criticism, family bonding, etc.). Boundaries in those areas are most often set around conserving our time, energy, and emotions. It can help to think of something that has been really draining as of late. Is it work? Family? Your co-parent? Your frustration is a good clue that this area may need some more boundaries.
The second step is to clarify exactly what we need in those areas to feel balanced. Is it leaving on time at the end of the workday? Not spending effort on unproductive conversations with your co-parent? Or saying no to a family get-together? We are often not taught to do these things for fear of being irresponsible, rude, or weak. However, by following our own boundaries, we become the opposite. By leaving work when we say we will, we become more dependable and energized workers. By not spending time with relatives when we need a break, we become clear communicators and better guests when we say yes. By not engaging in hurtful conversation, we become happier, more productive parents and partners. Take some time to journal or think about areas that stress you out and what you could ask for or give yourself that would help. Once you’ve done this, it’s time to move on to the third step.
The third step, and sometimes the trickiest, is to state our needs and set those boundaries. No matter how clear we think we’re being with our hints, frustration, or stonewalling, no person can guess what we need. We must tell the person directly what we need from them. This goes for kids, co-workers, co-parents, family, and friends. You may have to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t help with that. I leave at 5 pm each day. I’ll look at it as soon as I can in the morning”. Or “I will not respond to messages that don’t pertain to our children.” These statements can initially feel uncomfortable. But there is no other way people in your life can know what to expect from you. You may find that there is pushback from others, subtle or not, to try to get you to return to what was the norm. This is very common and happens as the people around you shift to new expectations. Their pushback doesn’t mean you are inherently in the wrong. Nonetheless, it can be hard to maintain our boundaries through the pushback phase.
Which brings us to the forth step. Consistency. You must continue to follow your boundaries as consistently as possible. This gives you confidence and practice and lets the people around you know you are not backing down. Kids may ask over and over if you’ve changed your mind about screen time, but as long as you’ve clearly stated your policy (screen time is for an hour after we’ve finished our homework), do not give in. This will only make you feel worse and continue the asking behavior. Parents or bosses might try to convince you to make an exception or regale you about how selfish you’re being. Backing down may stop the discomfort in the moment but will bring no one satisfaction in the long term. Boundaries can and should be flexible. They adjust as we do. However, any exceptions should be intentional and should not make you feel resentful.
So you’ve set a boundary! Congrats! That is no simple feat. As I’ve mentioned above, even as you’ve set the boundary, you might feel discomfort or find the people around you aren’t on board. There are a couple of things that can help with this. First is to remember these feelings are a part of the process. They cannot and probably should not be avoided. Guilt, shame, and awkwardness are all normal things for you to feel. Anger, confusion, and guilt-tripping are common reactions from other people. Understanding that these feelings are an uncomfortable but integral part of setting boundaries can help. Second, remember you don’t owe anyone an explanation. Once you’ve stated a boundary clearly, you don’t owe the person a reason that makes sense to them. They may say your boundary doesn’t work for them, or they don’t understand why you’re doing this, but it’s your boundary. It’s what makes you feel comfortable. Other people don’t deserve an explanation of why something works for you. It can help children follow the rules if they understand the reasoning behind your decisions but again, explanations should not leave you feeling bitter. Only explain what helps all parties involved. Finally, having a mantra that settles you when boundary setting gets tough can be helpful. It’s different for everyone. For some people, it’s as simple as “I’m not doing a bad thing. I’m doing what’s good for me and my family.” For others, it’s more complicated, “I know my family would react this way. This is a part of the process. I am doing a good job”. Whatever it is for you, work on finding a phrase that settles your mind. It can add clarity when people push back and help you continue to apply your boundaries consistently.
In summary, you are doing an excellent job! Your work now is work that your family, friends, and future self will thank you for, even if it’s hard to see.
If you’d like to learn more about boundaries, I would highly recommend “Set Boundaries, Find Peace” by Nedra Tawwab. She breaks down boundaries in a clear, easy-to-follow manner, and I greatly appreciate her insight. Either way, I wish you the best of luck in your journey to a happier, healthier future!