If you don’t have much experience with setting good, solid boundaries, it can seem like an overly complicated process. If you’d describe yourself as a people-pleaser, setting good, solid boundaries might feel impossible. It’s just so uncomfortable and awkward, and again, you’re not exactly sure how it works.
But people-pleasing isn’t a personality trait. It’s a learned behavior. It’s a habit you’ve practiced and mastered throughout the years. Which means it’s a behavior and a habit that we can change. It will take time and more practice, but that’s OK. Because the incredible reward is that you’re advocating for yourself with every boundary you set and maintain. You’re building a meaningful, satisfying life.
Below, you’ll find some ideas for simplifying boundaries, which I hope really help.
- Pinpoint what you actually need and want in the first place. Take some time to sit down and reflect on your needs and desires. What do you want for your life? Do you need more time to focus on that? What do you want your days to look like? What’s depleting you? What energizes and inspires you? What do you resent saying yes to? What do you want to say yes to? What are your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs? What do you want more of in your life? What do you want less of in your life?
- Be clear. Be specific about your boundaries. Be direct. We all know that people can’t read our minds, and yet when it comes to anticipating our needs and desires, we expect them to. But that’s not fair (or logical). We have to spell it out (versus being passive or passive-aggressive, versus silencing ourselves). We have to tell someone precisely what we need and would like. I’d like an hour to myself tomorrow. Could you take the kids to the park? I’d love to have 10 minutes of quiet time when I get home from work. I can’t do lunch on Fridays, but I can meet you on Wednesdays. We can’t come for dinner because we have other plans, but we’d love to see you next time we’re in town. To get clear, it can help to start your statements with “I’d like,” “I need,” “I request,” “What I really need is.” Similarly, be clear with your nos. No, I can’t volunteer for that this month. And if you’re not sure (or you feel awkward saying no right then), say, I need to check my schedule, and I’ll get back to you next Tuesday. I have to check with my spouse to see what we’re doing next weekend.
- Be kind. We tend to think of boundaries as rude and callous and the complete opposite of empathetic. But we can set boundaries with compassion. You can tell someone that you understand where they’re coming from, and say you can’t fulfill their request. Maybe you also refer them to another resource, or offer another solution or two.
- Follow through. People may balk at your boundaries, especially if they’re used to you saying yes to everything. They might keep asking and pushing and prodding. They might get upset, and lash out. And this might cause you to feel very guilty and to second-guess yourself and to realize that you’re being ridiculous, and to think that yes, you are being selfish, and yes, what the heck were you thinking. And it might cause you to give in and bulldoze over your own boundary. Don’t. Give yourself a pep talk, and stay firm. This is about your well-being, and that’s significant.
- Honor others’ boundaries. When someone sets a boundary with you, be sure to respect it. If someone is being vague or you’re not sure what the boundary is, ask them directly: What do you need? Is _______ OK with you? What works best for you? Are you available at this time, or is there a better time? I’d really appreciate your honest feedback on this.
Setting boundaries often feels complicated, and sometimes it is. But the more we practice, the more empowered and comfortable we become. You can start small—with tiny, still important boundaries—and work your way up to navigating a complex relationship. Of course, if you need more help, you can always reach out to a therapist or coach, or buy a book on boundaries.
Either way, don’t let the unfamiliarity and first-time (or second-time or twentieth-time) awkwardness deter you from setting boundaries that honor your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs.
Think of yourself as the protector of your heart. It’s a tough job, but also a beautiful one. And it’s a job you can absolutely do. And it’s a job you have the privilege of doing.