adapted from an article by Sharon Martin, LCSW
Our boundaries should reflect compassion for ourselves and others.
Boundaries create physical and emotional space between you and others. They show people how you want to be treated.
Boundaries are essential in all relationships - with parents, children, friends, boss and romantic partners. Without boundaries you may feel suffocated, unable to express your true feelings and needs. And boundaries protect you from being mistreated or taken advantage of because they communicate your needs and expectations.
Sometimes, boundaries are met with anger or resistance (hence our reluctance to set them). But it's not wrong or mean to set boundaries. Boundaries aren't meant to punish or control other people. We set boundaries for our own well-being, but they aren't just good for us, they're good for everyone involved.
Boundaries actually make relationships easier. If this seems confusing, think about what it's like when other people set boundaries with you. Intimate relationships and friendships are easier when both parties are clear about their needs and expectations.
When we don't set boundaries, we often become resentful and angry - which isn't good for us or our relationships. Boundaries communicate our needs and expectations - and it's kind, not selfish, to tell others how you want to be treated, what you need, and what you expect.
However, even when we understand the importance of boundaries, we don't always set them.
People avoid setting boundaries for many reasons, but fear is one of the biggest reasons.
Common fears about setting boundries include:
As a result, we feel like we have to make others happy (or at least not displease them). We became people-pleasers. And in doing so, we compromise our boundaries out of fear. We consistently put other people's needs before our own. And we sacrifice our right to safety, respect, individuation, and the freedom to be ourselves, which essentially tells others that their needs are more important than ours and they can mistreat us to get what they want.
Obviously, this isn't the message that we want to send to our family, friends, and partners. We want to value ourselves enough to ask for what we need, to be treated with respect and allowed to have our own feelings and ideas. And we need to set boundaries in order to do that.
Setting Boundaries with Kindness
Setting boundaries kindly doesn't ensure that others won't get angry. You can't control how other people respond to your requests. However, using these communication tips can reduce the likelihood that others will respond angrily.
1. Keep the focus on your feelings and needs
Setting a boundary is about communicating what you need and expect. In the process, it may be important to gently call out someone's hurtful behavior, but that shouldn't be the focus. Focusing on what someone has done wrong is likely to make them defensive. Instead, lead with how you feel and what you need.
2. Be Direct. Sometimes in an effort to be kind, we're wishy-washy and don't clearly ask for what we want or need.
3. Be Specific. Ask for exactly what you want or need. Specificity makes it easier for the other person to understand our perspective and what you're asking for.
4. Use a neutral tone of voice. Your tone of voice may be even more important than your choice of words, so pay attention to HOW you're saying it as much as WHAT you're saying. Try to avoid yelling, sarcasm, cursing, and other signs of anger or contempt; this turns people off from your message - they stop listening and start defending.
5. Consider the other person's needs. When you're setting boundaries with someone you care about, you may also want to consider their needs. Sometimes compromise is appropriate. Real compromise is important in relationships, but be mindful that you're not the only one compromising, and that you're not giving up what's most important to you. People-pleasers have a tendency to concede rather than compromise, which is why we need boundaries!
Situation: You're in a newish relationship with someone you like a lot. They want to get more physically intimate, but you're not ready.
Example of setting boundary with kindness: I'm really enjoying our time together...and this is hard for me to talk about, but I think it's important. You matter to me and I don't want to hurt your feelings or have there be a misunderstanding, so I want to be upfront about my feelings. I'm not ready to have sex yet. I want to take this slow and savor where we are in this relationship right now and not rush ahead.
This example is the beginning of a larger conversation that hopefully leads to mutual understanding and both people feeling heard and valued.