3 Steps to Setting Boundaries in Your Relationships

By UB’s Alyssa Yeo, LPC, CYT

One of the most difficult parts of relationships is learning how to set healthy boundaries. Knowing how or when it is appropriate to apply parameters is extremely challenging, especially if you pride yourself on being the person others come to for help or advice.

If a friend or family member is going through a difficult time, it is absolutely normal to want to help them in any way you can. However it is important to recognize the difference between supporting them through a challenging time, and constantly being pulled into their life to solve their issues or problems. The latter is a sign of a person who has become dependent on you, and your relationship has likely escalated to an unhealthy place. If you are compromising your personal happiness and health to provide for others then you need to re-evaluate your relationships. When you feel like your output of energy and resources is greater than your input for an extended period of time, then boundaries are necessary.

So what are boundaries? My favorite definition comes from Cheryl Strayed in her book, Tiny Beautiful Things:

“Boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well as the responses you will have to those behaviors.”

Let’s deconstruct that for a moment:

Boundaries have nothing to do with love. Setting them does not mean that you care for the other person any less. In fact, it means that you are creating a healthy relationship for yourself, and for them. You are making a conscious decision to value your own needs just as much as their needs.

Boundaries are a peaceable thing. They are not ill intended or malicious on your part. They are not there to create tension in your relationship, nor are they there to make someone feel rejected or unloved by you. They are good-willed, from a place of love and concern.

Boundaries are basic principles you identify for yourself. They are different for everyone, and are often created because you are stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, and exhausted by the pressure you feel from others. They are simple guidelines that you are responsible for setting, for the benefit of your own health and wellness.

Now that we have explored what boundaries mean, below are three ways you can start applying them to your relationships.

Challenge Your Guilt

The idea of boundaries often equates to feelings of guilt or selfishness. My clients share concerns of how their boundaries will impact the other person, and they worry that their loved one will not make changes in their life if they don’t step in. Maybe that’s true – maybe they won’t make changes, but that isn’t because you didn’t step in, it’s because they aren’t ready to make those changes. You can exhaust yourself trying to get someone else to do something, but the fact is that they aren’t going to do it until they are ready to do it.

We often have a false sense of control in situations, and we can get carried away thinking we are solely responsible for another’s health and wellbeing. This line of thinking comes from a good place, but it’s not helpful to you. You can both be supportive and still have boundaries. Challenge yourself to step back and re-evaluate how much control you actually have over the situation.

It’s also important to note that it’s normal to feel guilty when you first set boundaries because you have a faulty internal measure of what you should and should not do. Your brain is accustomed to providing for others to the point that you’ve become attached to the idea that it is part of your responsibility to that person. So when you start to challenge that idea it will feel uncomfortable and strange. But the real change comes from being able to sit through that guilt in the initial stages. Acknowledge that it’s there – say hi to it – and then move on. When you stop acting on your guilt, it will no longer have power over you. Overtime, your guilt will slowly melt away and you will emerge with a more accurate and appropriate internal measure of healthy behavior and responses.

Identify Your Barriers and Fears

What are you afraid will happen if you set boundaries? What is stopping you from drawing a line in the sand in some of your relationships? I encourage you to make a list of all the reasons it is so hard for you to create and keep boundaries with others.

Then look at that list and identify your worst possible fear. Sure, this may be scary to sit with, but do it. Sit with that thought, think about what that would look like if it happened, sift through all the emotions that arise in exploring that worse-case scenario, and then ask yourself – could I handle this?

Human beings so often work from a place of fear. We allow our anxieties to inform our behavior and actions, which can lead us to an unhealthy place. So instead of running from what you fear most – stop, turn around, and confront it. Once you are able to confront that which you fear most, it will no longer control you. You can then start acting from a more rational place, one in which your decisions are the best possible choice based on information you have at that present moment in time.

Make Rules for Yourself

It’s important to develop guidelines to follow since it can be difficult to pull back from a relationship that you’re deeply involved in. You want to make sure your rules are specific and measurable, and something that you can realistically commit to. For example, limit the amount of time you talk to the person on the phone or designate a number of times per week you visit that person. Be mindful of your own thoughts and feelings when you are with them, and give yourself permission to walk away or get off the phone if you start feeling overwhelmed.

It will also be helpful to practice new ways of responding to that person when they ask for your help. You can be supportive without involving yourself in finding a solution to their problem. For example, you can respond with, “I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling so frustrated and upset at work right now, I suggest you reach out to a writing center or career counselor to help you get your resume in order,” instead of “I can’t believe that is happening, of course you can send me your resume and I will help you find a new job.”

It may be uncomfortable for you to step back at first, but know that it will get easier with time. Your anxieties and guilt will decrease the more you practice enforcing boundaries in your relationship, and you newfound freedom will actually help you be more present and supportive of that individual. You can’t take care of other people if you aren’t taking care of yourself, and you can’t take care of yourself if you aren’t willing to advocate for your needs. In setting boundaries you will not only be helping the other person learn the skills and tools necessary to work through their issues on their own, but you will also be giving yourself what you need to be a more compassionate and caring person for others.

We are now accepting new clients for telehealth or in-person therapy sessions! Please give us a call (888) 726-7170 or email intake@urbanbalance.com to schedule an appointment today!