Bound·a·ry noun a line that marks the limits of an area

For some of us the word boundary as it applies to ourselves is a familiar term and for others it may be brand new. So I’ve decided to start out with defining it. Our boundaries refer to our limits–they can refer to our time limits, limits of what we’re comfortable with, limits of what we’re able to do, limits around what works and doesn’t work for us.  Our boundaries directly related to our wants, needs, and ability to notice and express our truth.  Setting boundaries can be tricky for a number of reasons. Sometimes we aren’t clear on our own limits until they’re crossed or perhaps we don’t even notice they’ve been crossed.  Other times we know our boundaries, but we’re afraid of how others will react when we set limits.  Sometimes it’s easy for us to set boundaries in one area of our lives and in other areas it’s extremely difficult. 

We all vary on our clarity and flexibility with boundaries, some of us being more accommodating and others being more rigid with boundaries. There’s no right or wrong here. What’s most important is whether you’re setting the boundaries that help you to feel more joy, more connection, and more ease.  These will be different for different people and it may be easier for some people than it is for others. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you if it’s difficult to set boundaries. We all have different attachment patterns, different life experiences, and subtle differences in how our nervous systems are wired that can make it easier or harder to set boundaries. There are also situations that make us more vulnerable to pushing past our boundaries, like when we haven’t gotten enough sleep, we’re sick, or we’re stressed.  So as you’re reading, be gentle and compassionate with yourself.

So why does setting boundaries matter?  When we push past our boundaries, we can end up feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, burnt out, confused, resentful, irritable.  Here’s an example: on Saturday mornings, I typically go to an early morning yoga class and a few weeks ago, my 3.5yr old son Connor wanted to bake muffins before I left. I looked at the time and knew that it would be rushed and probably best not to but he REALLY wanted to (and I knew it would result in tears if I said no *hint: not a good reason to push past your limits) but I said yes, and we dove in. The entire time, I was so rushed and stressed that I wasn’t able to patiently support him in participating and hurriedly did everything myself. Connor didn’t enjoy it and I felt awful that I was being so impatient with him. But we finished with a few minutes to spare, I put the muffins in the oven and rushed to get ready. I hopped in the car and could feel my heart racing, the constriction and stress in my body, the frustration that the morning had been so stressful and shame that I had been short with my son.  Deciding to give in to Connor’s wishes, in the end, had not resulted in more connection but in fact, the opposite. And needless to say, I decided not to go to yoga because I was feeling so bad about how the morning had gone.

It was crystal clear for me looking back that it would have been way better had I told Connor that we could do muffins after yoga, but that we didn’t have time before.  Then I could have patiently consoled him as he cried and we could have moved on to something else. Oftentimes, like this situation, it’s not clear until after we cross a boundary that it was crossed. And this is how we learn to listen to the subtle cues that indicate we are at our limits. The other learning here for me was that even though in the moment, I felt like I was serving the relationship by doing what Connor wanted, ultimately it created resentment and frustration on my part and hurt on Connor’s part.  Sometimes people aren’t happy with your boundaries in the moment but in the long term, boundaries actually strengthen the relationship. Brene Brown has a great little video on the relationship between boundaries and relationships, where she explains how setting boundaries is crucial to having authentic connection and in fact, one of the most compassionate things we can do–not only for ourselves but for others.

Here are some basic tips to make it much easier to set your boundaries, whether at work, at school, with your family, your partner, or your friends.

  1. Get clear on your boundaries ahead of time and express them before you’re actually in the situation. For example, if you’re headed to visit your family and you’ve been cutting out gluten but know that they eat a lot of bread and pasta. Take some time to get clear on where you want to stick with your diet and where you’re willing to be flexible. Go ahead and have that conversation with your family over the phone so that they know what to expect.  Ask for anything you need, e.g., ‘Please don’t pressure me to eat things I’m no longer eating. If I want to eat it, I will.’ It can also be easier to set boundaries over the phone or email, especially if you know that it’s easy for you to give in or forget your boundaries in the moment.
  2. Identify warning signs that you’re approaching or have pushed past a boundary. Typically, there are subtle indicators that let us know, like a feeling in the pit of your stomach or a felt sense of incongruence between what’s happening inside and what you’re portraying on the outside. Take time to check in with yourself regularly: What are you noticing in your body? What are you needing? For me, I know feeling stuck, overwhelmed or exhausted are often indicators that I need to take a look at whether there are boundaries that I haven’t been setting. Consider some times where you’ve pushed passed a boundary or successfully set one, how did you  know that the boundary was there?  What was happening in your body? With your thoughts?
  3. Give yourself permission to set boundaries. Often times because of past experiences, we have internalized the belief that it’s not okay to have needs or set boundaries. Or if we want to be in relationship or want people to like us, we have to do what they want. The beliefs are not only untrue, but in fact, the opposite is true of them. In order to have authentic relationships and have people like us (who we are at our core), we must set boundaries and speak up. Perhaps put a post it note somewhere can see it to remind you ‘It’s okay for me to ________’.  Brene Brown has a mantra I love and that I’ve posted on my computer where I see it daily ‘Choose discomfort over resentment’.
  4. When you express your boundaries, express them with love and kindness both for yourself and for the other person. Keep in your heart and mind that your boundary is the highest expression of love for both of you. It might be helpful to anticipate how the other person might feel and express empathy, remind them of how important the relationship is to you and how setting this boundary is helpful.  For example, with the diet example above, you might say ‘I’ve found that cutting gluten out helps me to have more energy and to be more patient/less irritable.  I’d really like to continue during this vacation so that I can have plenty of energy to spend time with everybody without getting stressed and irritable. I really appreciate you supporting me with this. Is there anything you need during this time?’
  5. Express your boundaries before things build up and you’re about to explode. This is part of parenting a toddler 101 but it also applies with adults. Often times when we don’t express a limit or need and let it build up, when it comes out, it’s extra charged and then it’s more likely that the other person won’t receive it well. Sometimes we don’t catch things in time and they do built up and that’s okay. In this case, it’s helpful to acknowledge and own it ‘I’m feeling really frustrated because I didn’t speak up initially and now things have built up. Here’s what I need moving forward.’  If we can set boundaries when we first notice them, it’s easier and there not as much charge.
  6. Prepare for pushback. Most of the time, when we set boundaries with compassion, people receive it well and are fine with it. But other times, even though we set our boundary in the kindest, clearest, most loving way, the other person might still be frustrated or disappointed. For some of us, this is where the rubber meets the road–this is what we’re most afraid of.  And worse, sometimes these experiences of pushback affirm a negative core belief that it’s not okay to have boundaries. Don’t believe this!  Instead, prepare for it, come up with a plan around how to self-soothe when your own fear comes up around the other person’s response. For example, suppose your family wants to play a game after dinner but you are exhausted and really want to go to bed.  In an ideal world your family would say ‘Okay, I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself.  See you in the morning.’ But that’s not always how it goes, right?  They may give you a hard time, tease you, guilt trip you or beg you to play.  Even if you stick with your boundary, you may find yourself lying in bed awake feeling confused about whether you did the right thing, feeling afraid of the repercussions, or guilty like you did something wrong.  It’ll be helpful to come up with some tools that help you self-soothe like practicing resourcing, journaling, texting a friend, distracting, reading, reminding yourself that your boundaries serve not only you but the relationship as well.
  7. Lastly, get support from others. Sometimes it’s really hard to stick to boundaries, especially if we don’t get a positive response when we set them, so it can be helpful to have support. For example, if you’re traveling to see family with your partner, talk with them ahead of time about boundaries that might be challenging for you and let them know what type of support you need.  Check in with them when you’re feeling confused. For example, if you want to go to bed early and  your family is giving you a hard time, check in with your partner or friend for a reality check. When we are in our old patterns, it’s often hard to see clearly so it’s helpful to get an outside perspective. ‘Like yes, it’s totally fine for you to go to bed, your family will get over it. You’re not doing anything wrong. You’re going to feel so much better tomorrow having listened to what your body needs and then you’ll have more energy for hanging out tomorrow. What do you need from me?’

Obviously, this list is not exhaustive but hopefully it gives you some good tips and new ideas for setting boundaries with ease. Also, this isn’t on the list, but definitely worth mentioning.  Taking care of yourself is super important to being able to notice and set your boundaries. When you are getting enough sleep, exercise, eating healthily, taking time for yourself, and in general, feeling resourced, it’s much easier to voice your truth.  So make sure to attend to your self-care even when you’re traveling or out of your regular routine. Remember that even though boundaries define limits, clarifying and expressing your limits, is critical to nourishing your connection with yourself and others.  Let me know how it goes when you try these out!

Challenge: Step back and take a look at areas of your life or upcoming holiday plans and find an area where setting boundaries feels more challenging or pressing. Use the tips above to practice setting boundaries in this situation. I’d love to hear how it goes. Share this article with anyone else you think could benefit from it!

Affirmation: ‘It’s okay to have needs’