Setting boundaries is about a lot more than just saying no.
When you think of boundaries, you likely think of telling people no or keeping others away. Yet a boundary, whether physical, mental, or emotional, is about a lot more than just drawing a line in the sand.
Judith Belmont is a mental health author and coach who works with people both in-person and virtually, and she says that a boundary is “being in touch with what your rights are and having the confidence to know that it’s ok to feel and think a specific way.”
A boundary sets up the rules of the road for you and others to follow in order to coexist. Boundaries can be hard and fast, or they can be flexible and change with the environment and over time. Boundaries are sometimes confused with setting up walls designed to protect and cut yourself off from the outside world, but Jenn Kennedy, LMFT, a marriage and family counselor based in California, says that boundaries are really about creating safety, fairness, and self-respect, not hemming yourself in.
“Healthy boundaries should feel like a sense of agency in the person setting them,” Kennedy says. “There is confidence, there is clarity, there is directness, those are in services of safety, self-respect, and respect of others. Setting a boundary is about your own agency.”
“A lot of times, people think that they should feel a certain way or feel a way that other people want them to,” Belmont says. “They sacrifice what feels comfortable to them. That’s never a good idea. When you establish boundaries, you are identifying what is important to you and having confidence in your feelings and thoughts.”
How to Set Healthy Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries starts with identifying what you want and need in your life in order to feel healthy, safe, secure, and supported by those around you. Without knowing yourself, there’s no way to know what boundaries you need to set.
Many people intuitively recognize that their boundary has been crossed (and thus, recognize that there is a boundary present) when they feel nervous, anxious, or a sense of dread when someone does or says something outside their comfort zone. As Kennedy says, there’s a stress response to the crossing of a boundary, and it can manifest in many ways for different people.
“You know in your gut if something isn’t feeling right,” Kennedy says. “There are a number of physical things that happen in your body when you’re faced with a boundary being crossed. You might feel an increased heart rate or a tightness in your chest or throat. You might feel a rush of that fight or flight instinct. It’s important to pay attention to those when they happen so we can learn more about what changes we need to make to our boundaries to feel safe.”
Healthy boundaries should feel like a sense of agency in the person setting them.
Once you have identified your boundaries, it’s important to communicate them to those who need to be aware of them. These kinds of conversations are generally difficult to have because they require a certain amount of assertiveness — not aggressiveness.
“Setting a boundary is about having your own agency,” Kennedy says. “Healthy boundaries should be assertive, but not aggressive. They are clear and concise, and it’s an expression of the idea that there is a desire to have things a certain way. You are saying, this is what I need for my bubble.”
Belmont suggests that it often helps to express a boundary with an “I” statement.
“I” statements are assertive statements that express your thoughts and feelings in a way that doesn’t violate anyone else’s rights,” she says. “Saying ‘I feel uncomfortable when you say that to me,’ is a way of showing respect for your limits. You have a right to your feelings and limits as long as you are not being aggressive or violating others’ rights.”
Expressing your rights and limits this way helps others take them in. The tricky and often uncomfortable part often follows. Once you’ve expressed your boundary or asked for what you need, whether you’re speaking to a loved one, a boss, or the person in line in front of you, you must wait and allow them to have whatever response they are going to have.
“Women often couch their boundary requests with the phrase, ‘I’m sorry but.’ That kind of statement takes the energy and meaning out of the request by softening it. Yet, if there is clarity first, then the request sits there. That’s a really uncomfortable spot. When the request is really clear and made without an apology, it doesn’t have to feel like it’s personal. It’s best to be clear, simple, and direct,” Kennedy says.
Belmont echoes her sentiments.
“I often hear people ask if they ‘should’ feel a certain way,” she says. “You have a right to feel exactly how you feel. No one can ever take that right away. There are no ‘shoulds’ when it comes to feelings. You have every right to feel however you want to feel, and it’s important to honor that the other party also has a right to feel any way they are going to feel. They don’t have a right to act and behave in ways that are disrespectful to you or others.”
Healthy boundaries should be assertive, but not aggressive. They are clear and concise, and it’s an expression of the idea that there is a desire to have things a certain way.
Once you have made your boundaries clear for those around you and have had the opportunity to react and ask questions about those constraints, you should be ready to take action based on their response. That could mean distancing yourself from someone who can’t respect your boundaries, or it could mean continuing to work with the person to ensure they don’t disrespect you or make you uncomfortable in your relationship.
What to Do When You’ve Built Up Too Many Boundaries
Boundaries serve to keep us feeling safe and secure, yet there are times when you can establish too many and end up isolating yourself from the world. Especially in the days of COVID-19, when we are all continually evaluating both our own risk and the risk behaviors of those around us, it can feel like complex boundary calculus.
“With quarantine in particular,” Kennedy says, “I have seen friends and clients who are so afraid of getting sick that they have put giant boundaries and walls up. They are feeling really lonely, they are agitated. Our natural state isn’t to be without others for long periods of time, and it can start to feel a sort of malaise or show up as depression symptoms. The high boundaries have produced a kind of isolation.”
Questions that Kennedy says her clients ask include questions about safety and trust, especially as it pertains to behavior during COVID-19. “A lot of it is like, ‘OK, I like you and trust you, but how safe are you, and how much risk have you exposed yourself to?'” Kennedy says.
She also says that the results of this kind of questioning can lead to multiple layers of boundaries, and when we decide we want to start removing those walls, we need to be slow and gentle with ourselves. If you begin to feel like you have become too isolated, for example, it might make sense to begin to reach out to people and reconnect. While you reconnect, check in with yourself regularly to ensure you are comfortable with new levels of interaction. Belmont says that being able to flex our boundaries and change with the times — especially right now — is vital to ensuring that we continue to remain safe and keep the most vulnerable populations safe, too.
“One of the most hallmarks of character is to be able to reevaluate and change your mind,” Belmont says. “It’s not necessarily admitting that you were wrong, and really, it doesn’t matter if you were right or wrong about those boundaries. You have a right to think and feel one way, and as you evolve, to think another way. The pandemic is a perfect example of this because what we are learning is constantly changing.”