How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

Boundaries are one of the most important factors in healthy relationships. The Wikipedia definition of boundaries as they relate to relationships is:

“…guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits. They are built out of a mix of conclusions, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning”

I often refer to a line my best friend often uses: “we teach people how to treat us” and my personal favorite, “people get away with what we allow them to.”

Many times, anxiety in relationships are a result of weak boundaries. Rebecca Sears, a colleague at the Imago Center in DC and Imago clinical educator told me in my training that if we are feeling resentful towards someone it is often an opportunity for us to look inward and put up boundaries with the appropriate people.

If you’re feeling resentful, depleted, angry or frustrated at a person or persons, you may need to put up some boundaries. Often boundary setting requires us to say “no” or assert ourselves. Why is saying no and asserting ourselves so difficult for many people? The answer is complicated. We may have not learned how to set healthy boundaries in our family of origin or we may have been socialized to believe that saying “no” is mean or hurting someone else (this is often with women).

We may also be conflict averse and setting a boundary with someone may make us feel we are starting a conflict. We are afraid of how someone may react. If we try to set a boundary at work, we may fear being fired. If we try to set a boundary in a relationship, we may be afraid of being abandoned. As you can see, there are many reasons that make sense as to why people have difficulty setting boundaries.

Setting a boundary is a way to protect yourself, to have more balance in your relationships, weed out bad relationships or situations and to give you a sense of inner peace. If setting boundaries causes you a great deal of anxiety, you may want to think about working with a therapist to help you with this.

In addition to working with a therapist on setting healthy boundaries, here are a few tips to help:

Practice saying “no”

Is there something you don’t want to do? Practice saying “no” without having to explain yourself. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do and you don’t have to explain yourself or have an excuse as to why you can’t do something.

Practice asking for what you need

One of the hardest things we can do is to ask for what we need from others. The first step is to identify the need. What are you upset about? What is it that you aren’t getting? Once you identify that, ask for what you need using phrasing that doesn’t put someone on the defensive. Usually framing it in a positive light works best. For example, you might say: “I really loved it when you helped out around the house the other day, it was s helpful to me and I would love for you to do more of that.”

Realize you have a choice about who you keep in your life

You can decide at what level you want to have people at in your life. That means if you need to keep certain people at a healthy distance, that’s okay. If you need to remove someone completely from your life, that’s okay too. Life is short and the people we keep in our lives have a direct effect on our well being and happiness. Choose wisely.

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