Boundaries help keep you safe in relationships by allowing you to clearly define what is okay and not okay with you. In more serious situations, especially if you are in physical danger, verbal boundaries are not enough. But, in everyday life, asserting boundaries can be a positive relationship skill that can prevent conflict and long-term resentments. Asserting boundaries ahead of time helps people understand what you want and how to show up for you.
Here are some simple steps to setting boundaries effectively:
1) Let the other person know how you feel when they do the thing that bothers you. This is your opportunity to share your feelings!
2) Let them know how you experience their behavior. What meaning do you attribute to their behavior? This helps the person understand WHY something bothers you. However, it’s important that you speak from your own experience without blame.
3) Tell them what you want. This changes depending on the situation, but should be concrete and realistic. People can’t change WHO they are, but they can try to modify their behavior in response to your requests.
4) Remind them (and yourself!) that you are not in control of their behavior. Even if you want someone to change their actions, there is no way that you can make them change.
5) Tell them what steps you will take to protect yourself in the future if they continue the specific behavior. This step is the most important! Boundaries don’t work unless there are consequences. In order for this to be effective, you have to take responsibility for your part – following through. The more you follow through, the more people learn how you want to be treated. It also feels empowering to stand up for yourself by doing what you need to do to take care of yourself.
To put it all together, let’s use an example. Say you are feeling upset at a friend who consistently shows up late when you meet up to get dinner. You may need to let your friend know what this brings up for you and how you want to approach plans in the future. A simple boundary could look something like this:
When you show up more than 15 minutes late without contacting me, I feel hurt and angry. The story I tell myself is that you don’t care about me and my time. In the future, it would be great if you could let me know when you are running late ahead of time so that I can adjust my schedule. If you can’t, that’s okay, but in order to take care of myself I will leave the restaurant after 15 minutes if you haven’t arrived and I haven’t heard from you.
If you need to set a boundary, it can be helpful to write it out ahead of time so that you know what you want to say. Even though saying what you want can be uncomfortable at first, it can help bring you closer to the people you love. It is important to note that sometimes setting a verbal boundary may not feel appropriate. If you can’t say it, practice taking actions to protect yourself in uncomfortable situations (see step 5).