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How to set and hold healthy boundaries

After many years doing my own work on boundaries, I've come to realise that what I thought of as boundaries were actually walls.

If someone mistreated me, took me for granted or overstepped my boundaries, I would either shut down or completely cut them off. Back then I didn't know how to set boundaries.

Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that people create to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.

According to psychologist Dr Gionta, an expert on boundaries, "having healthy boundaries means knowing and understanding what your limits are”.

Everyone's limit will be different. What is a boundary violation for one person may be completely acceptable to another.

One of my best girlfriends was late on a regular basis. Even though her behaviour really upset me, I never confronted her about it. Every time we made arrangements to meet I would play out the scenario in my mind of how I would confront her this time.

I would check the clock on my phone 10 minutes before she was due to arrive, hoping that this time she may arrive early.

When the meeting time passed, I became more and more angry. She would usually be 20-30 minutes late and by the time she arrived, I would be so upset, I could barely talk but I would not say anything. It was obvious that something was wrong, she did not ask and I said nothing and it always tainted our time together.

Back then, not only could I not set boundaries, I was hopeless at holding my boundaries.

Setting boundaries with the example above would look like the following.

When my friend arrived I would tell her that when she arrived late for our catch-ups I feel frustrated and this makes me believe that she does not respect my time. I would go on to say, although I love her and enjoy hanging out with her, next time we arrange to meet I will only wait for 10 minutes. If she hasn't arrive or called me to let me know where she is, I would leave.

Holding my boundaries in the example above would look like this. Once 10 minutes lapsed, I would get up and leave. No messaging her, no threats, no ruffled feathers, I would just leave.

When she arrived at our meeting place and called me, I would just let her know that I had something to do so I couldn't wait. I don't have to go into a long conversation with her. I've already set the boundary with her.

I did this to my friend and she continued to be late a few more times but eventually she began to arrive on time. Now she arrives early or calls me if she's going to be even a few minutes late.

This reminds me of Dr Phil's quote "We teach people how to treat us".

Boundaries develop from a mix of past experiences, conclusions, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, and meanings we give to things that happen to us, says Psychologist Jacques Lacan.

In my case, my trigger around lateness could be traced all the way back to being separated from my family at the age of one. From the ages of 5-9 I carried a picture of my family and I would ask my guardians when my family would be coming for me.

The answer was always, "soon, they will be coming soon". Years went by and my family did not come. It's easy to see how waiting was triggered by childhood abandonment trauma.

This illustrates how some boundaries are formed. Of course there are other behaviours that are universally unacceptable and would be considered a boundary violation by most people. This includes any form or physical and emotional abuse. In these cases, setting boundaries would include removing yourself from the perpetrator and or the relationship.

Boundaries are not only essential to healthy relationships but also to a healthy life.

Setting and sustaining boundaries is a skill. Unfortunately, it’s a skill that many of us don’t learn, according to psychologist and coach Dr Gionta. We may pick up pointers here and there from experience or through watching others. But for many of us, boundary-building is a relatively new concept and a challenging one.

Below are Dr Gionta's guide to building and maintaining healthier boundaries.

1. Name your limits.

You can’t set good boundaries if you’re unsure of where you stand. So identify your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits. Consider what you can tolerate and accept and what makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed. These feelings help you identify your limits.

2. Tune into your feelings.

The two key feelings that are red flags or cues that we’re letting go of our boundaries are discomfort and resentment.

3. Be direct.

4. Give yourself permission.

Fear, guilt and self-doubt are big potential pitfalls. We might fear the other person’s response if we set and enforce our boundaries. We might feel guilty by speaking up or saying no to a family member. Many believe that they should be able to cope with a situation or say yes because they’re a good daughter or son, even though they “feel drained or taken advantage of.” We might wonder if we even deserve to have boundaries in the first place.

Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of self-respect. So give yourself the permission to set boundaries and work to preserve them

5. Practice self-awareness.

Again, boundaries are all about honing in on your feelings and honouring them. If you notice yourself slipping and not sustaining your boundaries, ask yourself: What’s changed? Consider “What I am doing or [what is] the other person doing?” or “What is the situation eliciting that’s making me resentful or stressed?” Then, mull over your options: “What am I going to do about the situation? What do I have control over?”

6. Consider your past and present.

How you were raised along with your role in your family can become additional obstacles in setting and preserving boundaries. If you held the role of caretaker, you learned to focus on others, letting yourself be drained emotionally or physically.

Ignoring your own needs might have become the norm for you.

Also, think about the people you surround yourself with, are the relationships reciprocal? Is there a healthy give and take?

Beyond relationships, your environment might be unhealthy, too. For instance, if your workday is eight hours a day, but your co-workers stay at least 10 to 11, there’s an implicit expectation to go above and beyond. It can be challenging being the only one or one of a few trying to maintain healthy boundaries. Again, this is where tuning into your feelings and needs and honouring them becomes critical.

7. Make self-care a priority.

Make self-care a priority, which also involves giving yourself permission to put yourself first. When we do this, our need and motivation to set boundaries become stronger. Self-care also means recognising the importance of your feelings and honouring them. These feelings serve as important cues about our wellbeing and about what makes us happy and unhappy.

Putting yourself first also gives you the energy, peace of mind and positive outlook to be more present with others and be there for them.

And when we are in a better place, we can be a better wife, mother, co-worker or friend.

8. Seek support.

If you’re having a hard time with boundaries, seek some support, whether that’s a support group, church, counselling, coaching or good friends.

With friends or family, you can even make it a priority with each other to practice setting boundaries together and hold each other accountable.

9. Be assertive.

Of course, we know that it’s not enough to create boundaries; we actually have to follow through. Even though we know intellectually that people aren’t mind readers, we still expect others to know what hurts us. Since they don’t, it’s important to assertively communicate with the other person when they’ve crossed a boundary.

In a respectful way, let the other person know what in particular is bothersome to you and that you can work together to address it.

10. Start small.

Like any new skill, assertively communicating your boundaries takes practice. Starting with a small boundary that isn’t threatening to you, and then incrementally increasing to more challenging boundaries. Build upon your success, and try not to take on something that feels overwhelming.

Dr Gionta reminds us that setting boundaries takes courage, practice and support, and remember that it’s a skill that most people can master.

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