How To Set Boundaries As An Adult
Have you ever found yourself wanting to build boundaries with family while simultaneously struggling to face the reality of what may take place once the boundary is set?
Setting boundaries is a practice aimed at helping people maintain healthy relationships and personal well-being. It helps to improve self-esteem, create personal empowerment, prioritize self-care, establish clear expectations, and maintain a healthy balance between their own needs and the demands of others.
Why Setting Boundaries Is Important:
Setting boundaries requires that we hold ourselves responsible for creating them and following them through.
The purpose of a boundary is to provide yourself with healthy spaces in life. Boundaries can extend from physical space to a conversation topic.
Having boundaries in your life can support you with:
- Improving the quality of life.
- Aligning you with your values.
- Removing toxic spaces and people from your life.
- Developing healthy relationships with others.
- Developing a healthy relationship with yourself.
How To Get Started With Setting A Boundary
The truth is that boundaries look great on an Instagram post! Yet, in the real world implementing and sustaining a boundary can feel like trying to untighten a stripped screw. You know the type that no longer has the groves and becomes more annoying the longer you mess with it.
Let’s consider that you want to set a boundary with a family member due to a history of conflict. You reflect on your life and the many interactions with this particular family member.
You notice that most interactions with the family member have resulted in unwanted feelings and symptoms. You typically leave interactions feeling down, sad, frustrated, on edge, and emotionally depleted.
You begin therapy and notice that the relationship with your family has pain and an uneven relationship. It’s the type where one feels that they are giving much more than they are receiving.
Therapy teaches you that setting a boundary is honoring yourself and holding a healthy level of self-respect. With this piece of knowledge, you learn the relationship dynamic you held with your family member brought more pain than satisfaction.
Working with a counselor teaches you that a boundary can be seen as a sacred house that represents oneself. As such, it’s important to ensure that the door and windows open to what brings you meaning, satisfaction, love, and respect.
During a session, the counselor tells you the following about setting boundaries.
A boundary is what you set for yourself and not for others.
For instance, creating space from others because you feel your space is being violated in some way. You can set the boundary of moving to a different space or leaving the situation. Once more, the boundary is what you set for yourself.
The counselor gives you the following example:
- You can share the boundary with a peer, “I need to create a system in my life focused on giving myself more breaks.”
- “You need to respect my boundaries and stop bothering me.”
When you start with “I”, there is a direct focus on accountability.
The counselor encourages you to focus on “I” versus telling another person what to do.
One day, you build strength and have the needed conversation with a particular family member. Before the interaction, you felt tense, hopeful, and worried all at the same time.
During the conversation, you tell your family member the boundary in a manner that reconstructs the relationship.
You tell them, “What I’m going to share with you, is for the purpose of honesty with you and myself. I think some of it you’ll understand and perhaps other parts you may not. For years I have felt hurt from our interactions. I’ve noticed that I overextended myself and continue to hold on to expectations that the relationship with be what it’s not. My goal is to learn to honor and love myself. Moving forward, I’m going to show up differently, and to be honest it’s something I’m excited about. I do not want you to feel that you have to agree to the new dynamic of our relationship. If you do that is great, if not then I truly hope that you find your space of happiness as well.”
After saying the words, your family member becomes defensive and rejects the new structure of the relationship. You listen to them and at the end of the sentence, you say thank you for the conversation and head off in your direction.
At home, you notice that you feel strong, excited, and eager to see how life will unfold. You have images of the new relationship, the boundary, and how the change will help you in life.
After several months, you notice that all of the awesome Instagram posts about setting boundaries are not quite parallel to what is taking place in your life.
You notice that there is tension in the family. Some family members are on your side and others are not. The particular family member hasn’t changed and continues to treat you in the same way as before.At this point, you feel lost and stuck. You go back to Instagram to read the post and notice that what’s on the post about setting boundaries is not what you are experiencing.
You decide to go back to therapy and share what is taking place with your counselor. The counselor listens and shares the following:
“In simple words, life is unfolding before you. Some things you like and others you do not. What is missing in this equation is acceptance. You created a boundary to honor yourself and this was born out of a beautiful space that no one should take from you. The boundary you implemented into a system that in some ways was not ready for it or perhaps does not want it. The boundary may even be in a setting where those connected to it lack the necessary skills to adjust to it. As such, you are experiencing friction. Some people are willing to listen to you and respect your boundaries because they perhaps have the skills to see beyond themselves and are willing to show you compassion. Others may struggle to accept the new you that comes from the boundary because that may mean that have to face the error in their ways. This can be so challenging that avoidance and rejection become the response. So, I share this with you to once again say that acceptance of what is taking place is the next step. Learning to adjust and find the new normal in the dynamic. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
How To Make Boundaries Work
To ensure that a boundary works and is sustainable, there must be a consequence.
Creating consequences for the boundaries is essential. This is often an area that people struggle with. I urge you to focus on creating consequences.
Use the example below as guidance:
If your boundary is to be in an intimate relationship that does not have verbal, physical, or any type of abuse. Yet, you find yourself in a relationship with a recent experience in which your partner verbally abused you.
When abuse takes place, the boundary is activated and it’s time to discuss the consequence. The consequence can be to pack your bags and separate.
If there is no consequence and a lack of sticking to consequences, then there is a likelihood that the negative behavior will continue.
The reason for this is connected to the foundation of boundaries. Again, think about it this way. Your boundaries represent your home. What you let in is allowed in because you opened the door.
Over time the lack of remaining consistent with boundaries can have a direct effect on your health. You may notice that you experience the below symptoms when boundaries are not set.
Common Symptoms From Not Setting Boundaries:
- Muscle tension.
- Feeling disconnected from yourself. Almost like you are not the person you once were or set out to be.
- Lashing out at others or yourself.
- Feeling alone.
- Low self-esteem.
- Low self-confidence.
- Low self-worth.
Let’s use an example for guidance:
If you have a sign on the front of your door that says “no muddy shoes”, and someone comes in with muddy shoes. They walk up and down your home. You watch and hold in the frustration. They leave. It’s likely that they will return and do the same. Yes, the sign on your door says no muddy shoes. Yet, you remained there and did not strengthen the boundary.
I know that you have the strength to build and remain connected to your boundaries.
Why Setting Is Important When Setting Boundaries:
Another key area connected to boundaries is taking time to reflect on how boundaries interact with settings.
A clear example of this is seen in physical boundaries.
You may, for instance, have a healthy boundary with members of your family focused on feeling comfortable with hugs during greetings.
This comfort can be connected to your culture. Yet, at work, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on the appropriateness of the boundary when it comes to physical boundaries. For instance, you may not want to receive a hug from a co-worker in the same manner as you would from a family member.
Take time to reflect on your boundaries and their appropriateness to specific settings. You can do this by engaging in the following questions found on the next pages.
Common Types of Boundaries:
Physical boundaries connect to personal space on a physical and non-physical level. Physical boundaries include but are not limited to hugs, kisses, and being physically touched. Non-physical connects to personal items.
Understanding healthy and unhealthy physical boundaries includes:
Having a healthy level of awareness connected to when you are okay with being physically touched and when people are going through your property is vital.
An unhealthy boundary for physical boundaries includes being in a relationship where your partner is going through your phone without your consent or touching you physically without your consent.
Make it a goal to implement one physical boundary with a consequence consistently. Take note of how this supports your life and overall health.
Professional boundaries connect to the working relationships held with co-workers or peers that you may interact with if you are in school or at a local conference.
Consider being at work and noticing that you and your supervisor have a lot in common. You try to shift the conversation with your supervisor from the task at work to ask him if he wants to get together during the weekend. Your supervisor shares gratitude and that they would prefer to maintain the current relationship held at work.
In the example above, the healthy boundary is noted in the supervisor not wanting to mix the work and personal relationships.
This area of boundaries is often one that is not discussed. It has to do with respecting your idea, conversation, and that of others.
In addition, it has to do with adhering to when and when not to engage in certain conversations.
Intellectual boundaries connect to your mindset, curiosity, ideas, and thoughts.
For instance, an unhealthy intellectual boundary in a relationship includes the following: Let’s say you are in a relationship and share with your partner that you would like to keep your sex life private. You then find yourself in a group conversation with peers and all of a sudden your partner shares your private sex life.
Healthy intellectual boundaries include:
- Respect your ideas.
- Being seen and valued for your thoughts and ideas.
- Provided space to share dialogue.
- “I do not feel comfortable discussing this topic.”
- “From my end, I am going to have to head out. I do not feel comfortable with this topic.”
- “This is the second time that we have discussed this topic and it is evident we are not on the same page. Please stop bringing it up as I value our relationship over this topic.”
Relationship boundaries connect to all types of relationships. Parent to child. Partner to partner. Or peer to peer.
Often in relationships, people feel that may be responsible for making their partner feel a certain way. For instance, if you get home and notice that your partner is sad.
You may feel two urges. One is a healthy urge to be present and provide support as needed. A second urge is the unhealthy one that pushes you to feel responsible for every aspect of your partner’s life. The second urge nudges you to feel restless and desperate until you make your partner feel better.
In the example above, we want to shift to a healthy relationship boundary.
Below is a list of healthy relationship boundaries:
- I am not responsible for every aspect of my partner’s life.
- I am capable of sharing my thoughts and feelings.
- I am able to speak up for myself.
- I release myself from the expectation of having to explain everything that I do.
- I can remain grounded in my feelings while respecting others.
- I can follow my heart without seeking approval.
- I can share my imperfections and feel whole.
- I can share my scars with pride.
This area of boundaries has to do with possessions such as money and materials like cars.
An unhealthy boundary for material includes being in a relationship and coming to an agreement with your partner that no one is to lend cars to peers who are not insured.
You come home and realize that your partner has loaned the car to a friend of his from work. This action violates the boundary of material.
Take time to develop strength in this boundary. This can start by focusing on the areas of money and possessions. Explore the treatment you want to be connected to them.
Examples of material boundaries include:
- How you spend money.
- Your decision on valuing money.
- Whom do you decide to share your money with?
- “I can’t lend you money.”
- “Here is the money you asked for. I do require that it is paid back on the 30th of the month.”
- “You can borrow my phone. Please return it by this evening.”
- “Yes, you can use the car. I do need it back with the tank filled to the current point.”
Boundaries for managing time.
Time management is often a challenge for individuals when it comes to respecting their own time. The purpose of sharing this boundary is twofold.
- To discuss time management as a boundary and to highlight that when we work on this area it directly strengthens the entire pool of developing healthy boundaries.
Imagine being in a relationship and asking your partner for more individual time. You share that you feel tired from work and want to spend 30 minutes in the evening doing self-care. At this point, your partner refuses and says no. You observe their behavior and hear the strong words, NO. You decide to drop the subject.
To create a shift, we can look at building strength and clarity on the boundary. This can be done in the following way:
“I feel ignored when you reject my desire to have alone and self-care time. I’m afraid you don’t care.”
The above is an example of an “I statement”. Using the “I statement “helps to strengthen the boundary and share a concern in a healthy and constructive manner.
The structure for “I statements” includes:
- “I feel” = describe the emotion experienced when “describe the situation”.
Common examples of time boundaries:
- Respect your own time.
- Consistency with your time-related commitments.
- “Before we start our conversation, please know that I have to exit in 20 minutes.”
- “I understand that you would like for me to complete the work project. Unfortunately, I am not able to add the project to my current workload.”
- “I can’t come over this weekend. I do hope that it goes well for you.”
Understanding sexual boundaries
The area of sexual boundaries refers to respect and holding a clear understanding when it comes to sexuality.
Consider sexuality in the areas of intellectual, emotional, and physical.
This area of boundary relates closely to the boundary of physical touch. The key difference here is that it’s solely connected to sexuality.
A healthy sexual boundary is being in a relationship where your partner respects your limits. Such as knowing to stop when a code word is used during sex or not using uncalled-for sexual comments.
Common healthy sexual boundaries include:
- “I don’t want to have sex tonight, please let me sleep and rest.”
- “Please do not sexualize me.”
- “Let’s try a different position because that one doesn’t feel good to me.”
- “I do not like that style of dirty talk.”
- “Treat me as your partner, not material.”
25 Therapy Prompts About Boundaries
Use the 25 therapy prompts to help you begin the process of learning about yourself and setting boundaries.
- Think about a time when you felt your boundaries were crossed. What thoughts and feelings did you experience?
- From the question above, consider how you might go about setting clearer boundaries.
- Identify five areas of your life where you struggle with setting boundaries.
- What are two steps that you can take to create healthier boundaries in your life?
- Reflect on experiences in which you successfully set a boundary. What did you use to help you set the boundary?
- What cultural influences have shaped your perception of boundaries?
- Reflect on experiences in which you successfully maintained a boundary. What did you use to help you maintain the boundary?
- Have you experienced a blurred boundary? How was it different from a clear boundary?
- List five core values that are important to you and what boundaries you can set to align with each of the core values.
- How can setting boundaries contribute to a more authentic and fulfilling life?
- What societal influences have shaped your perception of boundaries?
- How is your self-esteem impacted by setting boundaries?
- How are your relationships impacted by your boundaries?
- How can you contribute to a positive sense of self-worth?
- What role does communication play in setting boundaries?
- How has guilt impacted you when setting boundaries?
- What anxieties do you experience when setting and maintaining boundaries?
- What is one relationship where you feel challenged in setting boundaries?
- Is there someone in your life who does a good job setting boundaries? What can you learn from them?
- What specific actions can you take to communicate your needs and establish healthier boundaries?
- How has lacking boundaries impacted burnout?
- Do you tend to overextend yourself, and how can you establish limits to prevent burnout?
- How does technology impact your boundaries? Consider phone or tablet time as well as when you use your devices.
- What steps can you take to set digital boundaries to create a healthier balance in your life?
- Reflect on the concept of boundary-setting as an act of self-care