As a Behavioral Health Coach with Ginger, I work with a broad range of people from all backgrounds and walks of life. One of my favorite topics to explore with the people I coach is the subject of “boundaries.” We all have them, even when we’re not very aware of them.
But let me ask you this: have you ever felt resentful, angry, offended, or disrespected in any of your relationships? When that happens, you’re likely responding to a boundary being crossed.
Despite the commonality of boundaries and the popularity of this concept among self-help books, most of us haven’t been taught how to effectively communicate them. In fact, many people have actually been taught not to communicate their boundaries. Yet, when boundaries aren’t communicated, relationships can fill up with dissatisfaction and grief.
I define boundaries as the structures needed for a person to feel safe, secure, respected, individual, and cared for in a relationship. Each person has a unique set of boundaries. To find identify yours, pay attention to the times you feel hurt, walked over, or taken advantage of. What makes you tick?
An example of a common boundary could be when a loved one frequently interrupts you, triggering feelings of being disrespected, undervalued, and frustrated. Over time, avoiding communicating your boundaries leads to resentment, distance, and cold feelings — usually without the other person even knowing that this has started to occur.
Setting boundaries is a way for people to be honest about their wants and needs in a relationship, increasing intimacy, closeness, authenticity, and satisfaction through mutual respect. Using the previous example about interruptions, setting a boundary could look like this:
“I don’t like it when you interrupt me. It makes me feel inferior and I want to feel like an equal in this relationship.”
Sometimes, all it takes is expressing the boundary. Other times, it will take a bit of follow up. After all, your partner, friend, or family member is getting used to a new pattern in the relationship. Setting a boundary with action might look like this:
“We’ve talked about how it makes me feel inferior when you interrupt me in conversation. I care about you and our relationship and I’m also serious about this. When you interrupt me, I will put our conversation on pause until you acknowledge how you talked over me. Then we can resume the conversation.”
When setting boundaries, I always recommend using “I” statements to create a collaborative conversation and prevent sounding critical. For example, a statement like, “You’re always late,” is almost guaranteed to put the other person on the defensive. Instead, you can reframe a statement like that as, “I feel like I’m unimportant to you when you’re late.” Because you’re speaking from experience and stating how you feel, the other person can’t argue the point you’re making. Additionally, this opens the door for them to share their feelings and for the two of you to have a collaborative, team-based conversation.
Once the concepts of boundaries really clicks with someone, they often want to start implementing this newfound skill into every area of their life. However, just like starting a new habit, it takes time and patience to introduce new boundaries into relationships with others. In the long run, this slow pace will make it easier for you and your loved ones to adjust to the boundary. Changing too many things at once can unsettle the relationship and make the other person feel like the relationship they used to know is gone.
When a new boundary is set, the other person in the relationship may push back. While new boundary setters often have been keeping these feelings to themselves for a long time, for the other person, this boundary has suddenly surfaced as something that needs to change. If we go back to the example of interrupting, the partner who was doing the interrupting has just learned that all of this time, they were engaging in a behavior that caused pain to their partner. As they learn to handle this new information, many potential emotions could arise. Even some of their boundaries may need to be discussed for the two of you to reach a healthy consensus that feels honorable to each of you.
Once a boundary and enforcing action have been identified, it’ll be important to be consistent with reminding the loved one about the boundary and following through with the action step (e.g. pausing the conversation as in the above example), all while remaining loving, kind, and considerate of your loved one. It’s important during this phase to remember that you’re on the same team and that you care about each other, even if you feel frustrated. Keep returning to your “I” statements, continue to communicate in a calm voice, use mindful breathing or other helpful calming skills, and always be respectful to your partner. Let them know that you care about them and that you are serious about needing their behavior to change.
When you have a strong sense of your boundaries and how to set them, you’re able to express what your needs are and how you’d like them to be met or acknowledged. This leads to less resentment, distance, and anger in relationships, and instead fills them with more satisfaction, intimacy, honesty, and clarity.