How to set healthy boundaries with others
The holidays can be a wonderful time of year. However, the holidays can also cause stress and worry. A common source of stress and worry can be family and the boundary violations that come with spending more time with them.
What is a boundary violation?
We can think of boundaries as rules of engagement for how we expect others to interact with us and what we will tolerate. A boundary violation is when someone interacts with us in a way that goes against how we expect and want to be treated. For example, a boundary might be that you do not want your sister to come by your house unannounced. If she does that anyway, even after you have voiced this to her, that is a boundary violation.
How do we set boundaries?
First, we have to identify our own rules of engagement. How do you want to be treated? What questions do you feel comfortable answering or not answering? How much time do you want to spend with your family versus alone? What are things you don’t want to eat or drink?
We must also keep in mind that we can't control what other people do, but we can control whether we choose to continue to engage. For example, if we say, “Don't serve meat at dinner,” we are attempting to control the actions of others. Whereas a helpful boundary might be, “If you serve meat, I won't eat it,” or “If you plan to serve meat at dinner, I will bring my own food to eat.”
Next, we have to voice our boundaries. We can’t expect others to read our minds. If we want our boundaries to be respected, we must say them. This can be difficult to do. One tool to help us in voicing our boundaries is deciding on them ahead of time, practicing the wording we want to use, and rehearsing before we have to set them.
For example, let’s say you are uncomfortable with invasive questions your family typically asks. Start by identifying what questions you aren't comfortable answering. This might include questions about your romantic or dating life, marriage or whether you plan to have children, your weight or body, or anything else you'd rather not discuss. What's comfortable will be different for everyone, which is okay! There is no right or wrong way to feel about things.
Once you have identified what boundaries you want to set, think about how you would feel comfortable voicing your boundary. In this example, we’re thinking of the questions you don’t want to answer. Some sample phrasing could be: “Please don't ask me about my body. If you ask about my body, I won't answer,” or “I’m not comfortable answering questions about my dating life.” The most important aspect is that you are clear in your communication.
After trying on some phrases, practice rehearsing them either in your head or out loud. The more you practice, the easier it will be to verbalize them when the time comes.
Troubleshooting boundary setting
It can be challenging if you've never set boundaries with friends and family. It's not uncommon to feel guilty being assertive and communicating your needs, and it can also feel tricky consistently setting boundaries. Here's how to troubleshoot these two pitfalls.
A common consequence of setting boundaries is guilt, especially when we aren’t used to setting boundaries. Unfortunately, we can't avoid feeling guilt altogether when setting a boundary. This practice isn’t about avoiding guilt but protecting ourselves and our peace. The discomfort of guilt pales compared to the discomfort of consistently doing things you don't want to do. This usually ultimately results in feelings of resentment towards your loved ones.
Just because we set a boundary once doesn't mean that others will respect it in the future. Consistent messaging is critical here. If you don't want to be asked about your body, set a boundary every time that you won't answer any questions about your body. You also might consider following your own boundary and treating others how you'd like to be treated.
Setting boundaries takes patience and practice.
Setting boundaries can be complex and sometimes activating. If you’re finding that you could use additional support in setting boundaries or managing how you feel after setting a boundary, therapy is an excellent place to process these feelings and gain skills. Start by contacting your insurance company to find mental health therapists in your area if you need additional support.
Skye White, LICSW, is a mental health therapist at Catalyst Counseling, a group practice in downtown Woodinville, Washington. She loves to read, draw, and cuddle her cat in her spare time. She also loves to see live music and travel.