If you’re a naturally giving person, you can find it tough to set boundaries without being consumed by feelings of guilt or selfishness, but it is very important to also take good care of yourself. In episode 307, I received a question from an individual who has recently recognized they have neglected setting personal boundaries and how this has taken its toll on them. In this post, I offer my advice on how to start prioritizing your own needs and begin setting healthy boundaries with people.
Hi Dr Duff,
Let me start by saying thank you for everything you do. Your show has kept me company and given me some really important advice in some difficult times.
I’m a 29 year old woman who has realized in recent years that she has never set boundaries in her life. Whether this is with friends or family, I’ve realized that a lack of boundaries has hurt me. Now that I’m aware of this, I’m trying to establish healthy boundaries, but I find it so painful and hard. As someone who always prioritizes other people’s needs over my own, do you have any tips on how to ease myself into setting healthy boundaries with people?
Hello and thank you for this really good question. I love this one because boundaries are something that we talk about so often in this field, but it’s often thrown out there in a casual way as if everyone knows how to set boundaries. It can be tough! Especially if your default is to place everyone’s needs ahead of your own, you have played a significant role in setting people’s expectations for you. They have gotten used to you always being there and sacrificing yourself. So, it will definitely take some time for them to adjust.
First off, let me clarify what boundaries are and why they are important. Boundaries are essentially guidelines for what you are and are not willing to do. They are rules about how you would like to interact with people and how you want to be treated. Boundaries are important for many reasons. In your case, it helps you to not burn out by taking care of everyone but yourself. In other cases, they might be important to not be taken advantage of or to develop your own independent sense of self. When enacting boundaries, many people feel uncomfortable because it feels mean or cruel. In reality, boundaries are helpful for both parties. They are obviously helpful for the person setting the boundary, but they are also helpful for the people that will need to abide by the boundaries. Boundaries essentially give people a guidebook for interacting with you. They don’t have to guess about what sorts of interactions, requests, or behaviors are okay because you have already told them. Guessing and trying to read minds is what gets you into trouble. In this case, you are giving them the tools to have appropriate and successful interactions with you.
Consider your intention and connect to your why
The first thing that you need to consider when setting boundaries is why? Why do you need to set a boundary with this person? Why are you considering making changes to the way the relationship is already playing out? This can be with a friend, a family member, a colleague, or a whole group of people. Why do you feel like changes are necessary? This is important. To consider your intention and connect to your why. As I said before, there are many reasons for setting boundaries. In your case, some of your whys might be to take better care of your mental health, to have more time for self-development, or to be fairer to other people in your life (like a romantic parter, kids etc). In other cases, you may simply realize that you are currently living in a way that is not consistent with your values, and establishing a boundary will allow you to get closer to those values.
After understanding and connecting with the reason for your boundary, the next step is to enact the boundary. I would encourage you to communicate about this. Don’t just suddenly change your behavior and expect other people to understand it. There are some boundaries that really don’t require explaining. Like if you’ve been overtly mistreated and you are not taking it anymore, that’s not really something that you need to communicate or explain. But for other types of boundaries, it will be most helpful if you are clear about what you are changing. This can be done in a conversation, through a text, or even over social media. A boundary that I have had to set in the past is not being available to give mental health and life advice to any friend that needs it. So, I have had to say things like “Hey, I love you and I care about your life, but I can’t always be there to give you advice and absorb the pain of what you are going through. There are a lot of people that rely on me for that kind of support and if I am constantly helping everyone with their issues, I start to lose myself. In the future, can you check in before diving straight into the problems you are having? I’ll be honest with you if I have space for that.”
That is obviously an in-depth explanation of a boundary, but it could also be simpler. I mentioned social media, I have certainly seen cases where people put out a blanket statement about their boundaries to friends on social media. For example, if you are unwilling to engage with anyone about a certain social or political topic, you might make that clear. Or if you aren’t willing to interact with people that have a certain belief that is fundamentally incompatible with you, you can mention that as well. Either way, in most cases, it is helpful to be clear about the boundary that you are going to be changing. Making a guess about your situation, you might have to say something like, “Hey – I know that in the past, I’ve been super present and able to help whenever you need it. I’ve been happy to because I love you, but I am at a place where I need to be focusing a lot more on keeping myself stable. So, I just wanted you to know that I might not be available at the drop of a hat quite as often, so please don’t take it personally if I say “no” more often.”
Stay firm and consistent
As I said before, it can be tough. You can expect a reaction to your boundary setting because you are trying to change an established system. There is often some push back when that happens. You might have someone call you selfish or be upset with you. You might have someone become sadder and more distant because they feel like you don’t care as much etc. This is where it is important for you to hold your boundary. That reaction is expected and just because you feel bad or scared does not mean that it was the wrong thing to do. This is where connecting with your why comes in. If you still feel confident that you need to make these changes, the reaction to your boundary isn’t totally relevant. It will take time for the system to adjust. That includes you and whoever is on the other side of the boundary. Things will become easier, and everyone will get used to the changes in the relationship over time. If not and boundary violations persist, that is something important to consider. Does this person fit in your life anymore? If you back off from your boundary because someone has a negative reaction or other pushback, you essentially reward that other person for violating your boundary. Stay firm. That doesn’t mean you need to be cruel. You can continue talking about it and clarifying. You can let people know that they acted in a way that you aren’t cool with and that you’d like them to be more mindful of your boundary in the future.
I would also encourage you to have external touch points. People that you can check in with about your boundary and any reactions to it to see if there is some way that you are completely off track. Otherwise, they can reassure you that you haven’t done anything wrong and encourage you to stick with your boundary. This might also be a good prompt to use that best friend trick and imagine someone that you care about setting a similar boundary. When you imagine them doing it, do you feel like they are doing something wrong? What is your reaction to them doing it? Try to apply that to yourself as well.
So, I hope these thoughts are helpful to you. Remember that boundaries are healthy and safe. They are something that might cause some temporary turmoil but ultimately make for a healthier and more sustainable situation in the long run.
You can listen to this on Episode 307 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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