Setting boundaries can be challenging! As someone who has always been very hard-working, it is not in my nature to say no to a new project or task. And as someone who is very empathetic, I can easily stretch myself thin in how much I give of myself to others. As a therapist working with adolescents and families in DC, many of my clients can relate to this as well – parents who are bending over backwards to balance work with their children’s busy schedules, teenagers whose friendships are so important to them that it is difficult to set down their phones, and so on. Boundary-setting is much easier said than done.
Although we might not spend much time talking or thinking about boundaries, they are essential to healthy relationships and self-esteem. Without good relationship boundaries we can become codependent, feel taken advantage of, or develop resentments. Personal boundaries are important, too. These are the choices we make by limiting our time and energy spent on various activities, determining what risks we are or aren’t okay with, and deciding on what compromises we accept. Good boundaries are about knowing your comfort zone and knowing when you are or aren’t okay stepping out of it, and having the confidence to say “No” when you need to.
The following boundary-setting guidelines are developed from activities I’ve done with clients to explore their values and needs in order to determine where their boundaries should be and how to implement them:
- Know your needs and your no-go’s. I ask clients to make four quadrants on a page and in them make four lists: a list of what they offer in a friendship, what they won’t offer, what they want from a friend, and what they don’t want in a friend. Knowing what you need and what qualities or behaviors are a no-go for you sounds pretty straight-forward, but making the list is empowering and a good reminder of your values. Is it a boundary issue for you if a friend doesn’t call back within a certain amount of time? If a partner doesn’t follow through on a chore? If your child calls you a name during an argument? Know what matters to you so that you can communicate it clearly. Which leads me to…
- Communicate! Everything that you’ve listed above can be expressed within your relationships. Figure out what feels natural in terms of how you might verbalize some of these needs and boundaries. If you are nervous about setting a boundary with a colleague, friend, or partner, ask a friend to role-play the conversation with you ahead of time. After you’ve had the limit-setting conversation, reflect on how you feel – are you relieved? Proud? Confident? These feelings encourage future healthy patterns of communication. If it didn’t go well, reflect on how it might go differently. I have often talked to my clients about the difference in tone of voice when setting a limit in order to communicate it assertively, rather than with uncertainty or with aggression.
- Spend your time on what you value. Draw two circles on a page to make two pie charts. In the top circle, divide it up to reflect how much time you spend in your day on various activities – sleeping, work, cooking/eating, exercise, socializing, hobbies etc. In the next circle, divide it up to reflect how you would like to spend your time each day. More social time and less cooking? More sleep and less work? Realizing that there are certain constraints, are there changes you can make? Take a few minutes to think about what boundaries you can set to achieve the balance that you desire. For a lot of my high school clients, this includes setting personal boundaries on phone use, or choosing to set a boundary on how many hours they spend on homework so that they can make more time for sleep. For adults, sometimes this means waking up early to squeeze in some time for a work-out, or setting boundaries to divide household responsibilities more evenly.
- Know your Comfort Zone and your Growth Zone. This is another circle drawing exercise that I use with teens to explore boundaries and personal growth. In this case, one circle inside of another circle – the inner circle representing the Comfort Zone, and area between it and the larger circle to represent the Growth Zone. The Comfort Zone includes the people, activities, and ideas that we feel comfortable with. The Growth Zone includes things that make us uncomfortable, but we are interested in trying out and perhaps expanding our comfort zone to include it in the future. Outside of that are risks that we aren’t interested in. For shy kids this might be a time to think about what activities they might want to push themselves to try, in order to expand their boundaries and allow for more positive experiences. For risk-taking teens, this could be a way to look at what situations are a definite “No” for them such as getting in the car with someone who has been drinking. For parents, it is worth considering where they want to expand boundaries for their children to allow for greater independence.
All of these steps in knowing and setting boundaries can lead to greater personal and relationship fulfillment. Take time to reflect or journal about your own boundaries, and talk with your partner or children about theirs!