Boundaries: What They Are and How to Use Them

We all have boundaries, whether we consciously realize it or not. The property we own has boundaries, and we have rules about who can come inside those boundaries, and who cannot. We also have rules about what time someone can come inside the boundaries, and when they cannot. In a similar way, we can protect ourselves from emotional (and sometimes physical) harm by establishing relationship boundaries.

Boundaries are not a way to control or manipulate others. They aren’t threats. They should be formed from a place of unconditional love for the other person and self-care and self-protection. They should lead to improved relationships, by increasing understanding and respect.

For example, let’s say you have a friend named Sarah, who likes to call you on the phone and talk for hours. You enjoy talking to this friend, but most days you don’t have hours to spend listening to her, and you just don’t want to spend that long on the phone. A boundary you could set is how long you are willing to talk on the phone with her. You might say, for example, “Hi, Sarah. Before we get going, I need to let you know that I have 15 minutes that I can talk to you, and then I have to end the phone call. I love you, but that’s all the time I have today.”

Notice in this example that you’re not telling Sarah what to do. Of course you can always make requests of other people, but in setting a boundary, you’re telling Sarah what you will given a certain circumstance. That’s an important distinction, and it’s the difference between trying to control and manipulate someone, and setting a boundary.

An important aspect of an effective boundary is following through with what you say you will do. In the example I gave, if you don’t end the phone call with Sarah at 15 minutes, she won’t honor your boundary in future calls, because you don’t honor it yourself. It becomes a useless boundary. Honoring the boundary is being true to your word and being kind to yourself. Honoring your boundary also creates a better relationship with Sarah because you’ve been honest with her about your desires when she calls to talk to you, and you both know the expectation.

Boundaries are never set unless they are first violated. In our example, you wouldn’t need to tell Sarah to limit her phone call to 15 minutes if she never had stayed on the phone for longer than that. We only need to set a boundary when we feel we are being disrespected in some way.

It is helpful, in setting a boundary, to create them in an “If-Then” format. A simple way to state that in our example is, “If our phone call lasts more than 15 minutes, then I will end the call.” Of course, you can say it in a nicer way, but it is helpful to clarify in your own mind what the boundary is if you use an “If-Then” statement.

You can establish a boundary with anyone you have a relationship with. If done right, the relationship should get better as a result of the boundary. We know we can’t control other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions, but setting boundaries is an important place to start being kind to yourself. Just like putting up a fence around your property, you’re letting other people know where your limits are and what to expect if they cross them.

If you’d like to learn more about setting boundaries and other tools to improve relationships with others, please sign up for a free, judgment-free mini-session with me. I can’t wait to meet you. You’re going to love what I can teach you!

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