One of the biggest reasons we struggle with setting boundaries has to do with our (false) beliefs about what boundaries really are and how best to set them.
For example, we assume that boundary setting is a trait some people simply have, and others don’t (when really it’s a skill anyone can sharpen). We assume boundaries interfere with close relationships (when really they strengthen our bonds). We assume that setting boundaries is mean (when really it honors both ourselves and others).
Consequently, we don’t set boundaries. Or, we let others dictate whether we follow through on a boundary or not (usually not).
However, without boundaries, “our lives are not our own,” said Randy J. Paterson, Ph.D, a psychologist and director of Changeways Clinic in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Similarly, in their seminal book on boundaries, authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend note that “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. If I know where my yard begins and ends, I am free to do with it what I like. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options…”
But if you’re clinging to common myths, you’ll be blind to those options and blind to your potential freedom. We asked Paterson, author of several books, including The Assertiveness Workbook and How to Be Miserable in Your Twenties, to share the most common myths that stop us from setting boundaries:
Myth: We must be serious when setting boundaries. Sometimes, as Paterson pointed out, it is important to be serious and firm, such as “If these remarks continue, I will report them to HR.” However, often, it’s best to set and maintain boundaries using a casual, relaxed, and even humorous tone, he said. For instance, you might tell your best friend: “Nope, I like you too much to live with you, so that’s not gonna happen.”
Myth: Setting boundaries means I’ll be unpopular. Setting boundaries actually garners respect, not contempt. Paterson shared this example: “Lucas, the fact that I am the lone woman on this team means that I will never be fetching the coffee. Let’s start the meeting.” He noted that “Contempt is more often reserved for those who either have no boundaries (and therefore do not need to be respected) or who have them but leave them undefended (thereby rewarding those who trespass against us).”
Myth: Setting boundaries is about controlling others’ behavior. This myth leads people to feel very helpless, worrying that others won’t accept their limits or won’t back down, Paterson said. However, this isn’t about controlling someone else; it’s about “controlling ourselves instead.” The powerful thing about boundaries is that it doesn’t matter whether someone agrees with our boundary or takes back their request, he said. “It is enough that we not give in to it,” he said, as in: “I can see you still want that, but it’s not happening.'”
Paterson also shared these additional suggestions for setting boundaries:
- Know what your boundaries actually are. Use past experiences to help you identify what you’ll decline and what you’ll accept, he said. “What are the situations where you have most kicked yourself for giving in?” It can even help to make a list of these situations and reflect on what you could’ve done differently. (This isn’t about blaming or criticizing yourself. This is to help you learn and grow.)
- Know your response before you start talking. “Do not trust that ‘it will come to me’ once you have begun speaking,” Paterson said. Because your request may not be clear or kind, and the other person will sense your uncertainty.
- Ask the person for additional time. Don’t let others rush you into saying yes. Asking for some time serves two purposes: It gives you time to figure out if you’d like to accommodate the request and stops you from blurting out “Sure!” because you feel awkward and your automatic response is to say yes. According to Paterson, you can say something along the lines of: “Let me sleep on it and tell you tomorrow.” Or “I’m not sure. I need to check my calendar.” (As I read somewhere once, blame it on your busy calendar.)
- Don’t over-justify. Sometimes, it makes sense to share the reason you’re saying no, such as “I have too much on my plate to take on a new project,” Paterson said. However, recounting a litany of reasons only “invites the other person to push past them one at a time.”
The key to effectively setting boundaries is to realize that you only need to control your behavior and it’s a skill you can practice and improve on. So, keep trying, reminding yourself that you’re learning along the way.