Why is it so hard to set boundaries? You usually know exactly when somebody (or yourself) has crossed a line, but something still stops you from expressing those feelings out loud. It doesn’t seem to matter that setting boundaries can only benefit the relationship you have with yourself and others, both at work and in your private life. This article offers you practical tips that will help you to take charge of your own life by setting clear boundaries.
What Does Setting Boundaries Really Mean?
It’s easier for some people than others, but we all have to do it: setting boundaries. It’s something that’s constantly required of you, both at work and in your private life. Your manager, your colleagues, your family, your clients: they’re all tugging at your sleeve and you only have a certain amount of time and energy to give. It’s simply not possible to please everybody all the time and you can make yourself really unhappy by attempting to do this.
What does setting boundaries really mean? According to OpenUp psychologist, Jan Helder, setting boundaries is a form of self-care. “By setting boundaries, you’re honestly letting the other person know whether or not you’ve got the time and energy to invest in something. You’re really doing yourself a favor here.”
Why Is It So Hard to Set Boundaries?
Many people find it really difficult to set boundaries, but why is that? Jan thinks the most likely explanation is that we generally like to do right by other people. “You really care about what’s going on in your family and you feel this sense of responsibility. It’s a commonly held belief that by expressing your own desires and setting boundaries, you’ll fall short in some way, failing to deliver a particular result and letting people down in the process.”
The extent of your involvement with a particular person is likely to affect how difficult you find setting boundaries. The same goes for the impact of setting these boundaries. Jan explains: “For example, you might find it much easier saying ‘no’ to a colleague than you would a partner, because you have a sense that you won’t be as affected by whatever comes next.”
“But the exact opposite can also be true,” he adds. “When you have a lot of trust in your relationship, you know that you and your partner will be able to reconcile any differences you have, no matter what you say. This might actually make it easier to clearly state your boundaries. In a work relationship you don’t have this same sense of unconditional love and, as a result, you may be more inclined to hold back from expressing the things that are important to you.”
Why Is Setting Boundaries So Important?
Not setting boundaries carries consequences – both long-term and short-term. It’s important to take a moment to reflect here: what positive consequences is setting boundaries likely to have in your life? But also: what will happen if you don’t set any boundaries?
The positive effects of setting boundaries can kick in immediately, Jan explains. “To put it simply: saying ‘no’ to one thing frees up time and space for something else you might actually want to say ‘yes’ to. So, for example, saying ‘no’ to working overtime means you can say ‘yes’ to watching a movie on the couch with your partner. By stating your boundaries, you immediately regain more space, peace of mind and, most importantly, time.”
It also helps to imagine what the consequences would be if you were to never set any boundaries. “You may start to develop certain stress-related symptoms, such as tension in your body, a short fuse or difficulty breathing. In the long run, not setting boundaries is one of the primary factors that leads to burnout.”
“When you’re trying to decide whether or not you should be setting boundaries, start by focusing on the benefits, both long-term and short-term,” advises Jan. “This means that if experience any immediate “drawbacks”, such as anxiety related to speaking out, you’ll be able to put these into perspective. Start by looking at the bigger picture and focus on what you want to achieve long-term. Maybe you’ll finally get time to take up that hobby you’ve always wanted to try – how good would that feel?
How Can You Get Better at Setting Boundaries?
Setting boundaries is a way of living your values and learning to prioritize self-care. It’s a skill you can build up and, it might sound cliché, but practice makes perfect. The question is: where should you begin? OpenUp psychologist, Jan Helder, is here to give you five practical tips that form a step-by-step guide for setting boundaries.
Step 1: What motivates you? Identify your values.
You’ve got to start by asking yourself this question: “What’s really important to me?”. “What do I want to do more of, what adds meaning to my life and how do I want to feel?”. For example, do you value personal growth, creativity, friendship, connection or freedom?
Suppose having a lot of fun is really important to you, but you’ve noticed that (lately) you’re not really achieving this. Obviously, you might find this a little worrying, but it helps to think of things you can do to bring that fun back. This will give you a good indication of where you need to be setting better boundaries if you want to start living according to your values.
Once you’ve got a clear sense of your values, you’ll also find it easier to make choices and to set boundaries where necessary. At the end of the day, you know what’s important to you and this should offer solid motivation for living a life that really suits you. And, naturally, that will include setting boundaries.
Step 2: What are your limiting beliefs? Flip the script.
Once you’ve identified your values and motivations, it’s a good idea to examine your thoughts and beliefs. After all, there’s always that point when your brain kicks in and says, “yes, but…!”. “Who else is going to pick up this project?” “What will people think of me if I speak out?” “I just can’t say no to this.”
These are all assumptions and limiting beliefs – they’re not serving you. Often, you make the choice to do or not do something so quickly that there isn’t really time to examine the thoughts that have guided your decision. A simple tip that can help you here is saying: “I’ll get back to you in five minutes”. You’re giving yourself that space to decide what’s important to you, so you can make a choice that’s based on your values.
What’s also really helpful is trying to flip the script on your limiting beliefs. Does setting boundaries make you anxious and do you find yourself thinking “I can’t do this”? Try to re-frame this by thinking: “I can do this. I may feel anxious, but I can handle this level of anxiety.” By doing this, you’re also being much kinder to yourself.
Step 3: Choose a starting point and take small steps from there
Setting boundaries isn’t something you can just immediately apply to all areas of your life with a snap of your fingers. If only that were the case. It takes a lot of practice and you need to do it in stages, so be patient and give yourself the time and space to change.
As a starting point, decide what would help you the most right now. Workout what’s most important to you and see if you could set some boundaries in this particular area of your life. The next step is to actually take action. By doing this, you can start to create positive proof. You’ll usually discover that setting boundaries and expressing your needs really isn’t so bad.
What’s more, in many cases you’ll probably start to notice that you’re actually developing better relationships with your boss, family or partner simply by setting some boundaries. Often, we do things because we think we have to, or we’re convinced there’s a certain way things should be done, when all the while we know that we’re overstepping our own boundaries. By speaking your limits out loud, you’re giving people a better understanding of who you are. This authenticity really appeals to people because it helps them understand what you stand for and what they can expect from you.
Step 4: Be true to yourself
Having a good relationship with yourself means allowing yourself to live according to your values. When doing this, it’s also important to make sure you’re maintaining good relationships with the people around you.
Setting boundaries is about having harmonious conversations with other people where you both get to express your needs and come up with solutions together. That means you need to make it about yourself and expressing your own needs, rather than placing blame. Sentences that begin “I feel, I think, I want” are much better than “you do, you say, you make me feel”.
Always try to stay true to your feelings. A top tip here is to visualize what a successful outcome would look like. How will your life look when you aren’t overstepping your own boundaries? What will you be doing and what won’t you be doing anymore? More importantly: how will you feel when you’re living life the way you want to live it, totally comfortable in your own skin?
Step 5: Tell other people what you’re doing
A problem shared is a problem halved. It might be an old saying, but that doesn’t make it less true. When you’re making a conscious choice to improve your life and start living according to your values, you really don’t need to keep that to yourself. Even if you find it nerve-wracking, sharing with others is the best way to prove to yourself that you aren’t the only one going through a certain set of experiences.
As well as this, it’s also nice to have people around you, who you know and trust, because they can help to hold you accountable if you’re (still) tempted to overstep your own boundaries. It’s great to have a community backing you up when you need a friendly reminder or a touch of motivation.
Setting boundaries: final thought
Setting boundaries isn’t always easy when you first start doing it, but it’s so worth it in the long run: it means you get to be your authentic self. Always keep those long-term benefits in mind and allow yourself to feel proud whenever you do manage to set a boundary. At the end of the day, it means you’re taking good care of yourself. There’s nothing better than that.
Would you like to talk to a psychologists one-on-one, and learn more on how to set boundaries ? Feel free to book a consultation.