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Jonathan Borba

How to Set Boundaries

Boundaries. It’s the buzzword in mental health in the workplace since hybrid work became the norm. But did you know setting boundaries and communicating your needs within personal relationships could also help to build your self-worth?

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Mizuno k
Image: Mizuno K

What is a Boundary?

A boundary is a limit that you set between you and another person. Boundaries help you to understand where you end, and others begin. They help you to know what is yours (your beliefs, needs, emotions, thoughts, physical and emotional spaces) and what is someone else’s. Although some people do not learn how to set boundaries until they are well into adulthood, our ability to set boundaries are often derived from our childhood experiences.

Learning to Set Boundaries

The ability to set boundaries successfully is established within us through learned behaviour, usually as children. For instance, if your childhood was characterised by a lack of privacy and constant monitoring, you may believe that you don’t deserve or are not entitled to assert boundaries in adulthood. Sometimes these beliefs lead to other problematic behaviours like people-pleasing and difficulties asserting your own needs and wants. Unlearning these thought and behavioural patterns can be difficult, but important, to ensure your own emotional regulation.

Your worth is reflected in the people around you. If you don’t value your time or are too generous with your love (yes, there is such a thing!), you teach those around you that your time is not valuable or that you’ll always love them, regardless of what they do. Setting boundaries for yourself and others can improve your self-worth by demonstrating how you value yourself, and helping to attract people into your life who see that worth.

Boundaries can be crossed in many different types of interpersonal relationships. Friends, family members, acquaintances, even people at the grocery store can knowingly and unknowingly impact your mood by doing or saying the wrong thing.

Mikhail Nilov
Image: Mikhail Nilov

Tips on Setting Boundaries Effectively:

  1. Choose the time and place to have your conversation, one-on-one.
  2. Choose your method of communication, too. In-person is usually best (unless it is unsafe, of course) so that no body language cues get lost.
  3. Know what it is you want to say, before you say it.
  4. Have an ideal outcome in mind. An end scenario that is a win-win for everyone and will help the other person want to give you what you need.
  5. Be clear and direct (and also kind and respectful) and tell the person exactly what it is you want or don’t want from them.
  6. Own your feelings by inserting yourself into the language you use. ‘I feel… when you…’ is a lot less confronting to the other person than, ‘You made me feel…’.
  7. Prepare for push-back from those you’re setting boundaries as they will be wanting to get their needs met and may not be used to you asking for the same in return.
  8. Listen to their side of the story and give them time to share it.
  9. Reiterate your boundaries, often, to yourself and others.
  10. That being said, don’t feel as though you need to over-explain yourself to somebody else.
  11. Remember your why. If you feel your boundaries being pushed by other people, turn inward and remind yourself why you felt it important to set your boundary in the first place.
  12. Be prepared to negotiate: The key to setting boundaries is to focus on providing alternatives, not explanations. Recommend something instead of what is being asked of you, rather than only a rationale as to why you can’t/don’t want to do what is asked of you. No is a full sentence; you don’t need to over-explain yourself. For instance, ‘I can’t meet you at 7pm for a drink, but how about we meet at 5pm for a coffee?’ instead of, ‘I can’t meet you at 7pm for a drink because you get mean when you drink alcohol’.

When Someone Doesn’t Respect Your Boundaries

It’s important to know when to walk away from somebody or something that doesn’t serve you. If you have tried to continually assert your boundaries and they are disrespected, it may be a sign you may need to move on. Sometimes you need support to help you learn skills and strategies to communicate effectively with others so that your needs and wants are met and respected. It’s okay to ask for help from a friend, your manager at work, or a mental health professional.

About the Author: Tammi Miller is a certified practising counsellor, founder of BARE Therapy, and author of Paperback Therapy: Therapist-approved tools and advice for mastering your mental health. The Sydney-based professional is a Provisional Member of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, and received her training at the Australian College of Applied Psychology (ACAP) in 2020.