Relationships are an important pillar of our mental health and wellbeing. Conflict is an inevitable part of relationships we have with others and boundaries are a way to help us manage any conflict and sustain healthy relationships. Whether it’s your parent, romantic partner, boss, or friend you can think of boundaries being an imaginary line that separates that individual from you. This imaginary line represents what is acceptable to you - emotionally and physically. Being aware of your feelings, needs, and limits in any relationship directs you to your boundaries. To feel less anxious, more at peace, and experience better relationship satisfaction identifying your boundaries and how to communicate them to others effectively is necessary. The people in our life can support and empower us to take on new challenges, strive to be our best, and allow us to be vulnerable.
Before we jump into learning how to identify, communicate, and maintain boundaries it may be helpful to debunk any myths surrounding boundaries in general. The following myths are by far the most common I hear amongst my therapy clients when we work on this topic.
Myth 1: People will think I’m mean
It may be a surprise to you, but boundaries are actually an act of compassion and should allow for relationships to be more satisfying. The fear of being mean may stem from a past experience setting a boundary that went wrong. This often does happen when individuals bottle up their feelings until they reach a breaking point and then they resort to ineffective communication styles to finally express their resentments. If we don’t set boundaries, we are likely being dishonest with others a lot of the time and not being authentic. I’d argue that is not very nice.
Myth 2: If you care, you should already know
I often hear people comment about romantic partners, “They should already know my feelings and needs. If they don’t already, they don’t care enough”. As a therapist, I’m aware this may come from how we tend to romanticize love as a society and unrealistic expectations that our partner should meet our every need. In this case, this individual is confusing mind-reading for true love. Let’s say this one time only: simply because someone is close to you does not mean they can read your mind. If others are not explicitly aware of what is harmful to you they are likely to keep doing it. If it tends to be difficult for you to recognize what you need and express that, imagine how difficult it would be for another person to guess your needs and get it right. We need to clearly state what we need to others.
Myth 3: If I set a boundary, the relationship will end
I can not say with certainty this fear will not come true, but it usually is not the case, and if it does consider it a blessing because this person rejecting your boundary was probably benefitting from you not having one in the first place. Being in the habit of expressing your needs, feelings, and limits in relationships as they arise, there will hopefully be less conflict overall as everyone is clearly communicating. Healthy people will want to know how to best support you.
Let’s get into how to effectively communicate boundaries with others and when setting a boundary is indicated. You may need to communicate a boundary with someone when you feel any of the following: disrespected, overwhelmed, resentful, angry, confused, scared to name a few. Common situations that call for a boundary to be expressed are when: you feel taken advantage of, your feelings are hurt, the relationship feels imbalanced or one-sided, you’re people-pleasing at your own expense, you feel physically threatened.
Ideally we communicate this when both parties are in a calm, collected mood but that is not always possible. If someone is unwilling to hear your boundary you may need to exit the environment and revisit at a later time. For communicating boundaries effectively, I like to use the assertive communication style technique called “I statements”. I Statements allow us to honestly express our feelings and needs without attacking the other person. This allows for the other person to more likely be receptive and nondefense, but it is not a perfect science and we can never predict or control how others may respond. Here’s the formula, so you can fill in the blanks.
“I feel (insert emotion/feeling here) when you (insert specific problematic behavior here). I would prefer (insert new changed behavior here).”
“I feel overwhelmed and resentful when you ask for favors or help at the last minute.
I would prefer a few days' notice before I can commit to helping you in the future.”
Setting boundaries will illuminate who truly has your back in life. Relationships consisting of prolonged conflict or abuse quickly rob individuals of their energy, creativity and self confidence in order to live their best life. It’s important to be conscious that this process can also bring up any relational trauma and unhealed wounds from the past. It may be important for you to work alongside a licensed mental health therapist as you move through this process.
Tawwab, N.G. (2021). Set Boundaries, find peace: A guide to reclaiming yourself. Little, Brown Book Group.
Erica Basso is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist practicing statewide in California. She helps guide women in overcoming anxiety, perfectionism, and relationship challenges. To learn more about working with her, visit www.ericabassotherapy.com.