How to set a boundary


Before we talk about how to set a boundary it’s useful to know what a boundary is and why it’s important to have boundaries. Then we can decide how to create and maintain them.

“Boundaries are, in simple terms, the recognition of personal space”   Asa Don Brown

What is a boundary?

At the most basic level setting a boundary defines the personal space we need in order to feel safe, present and connected with the person or being who’s approaching or interacting with us.
When someone crosses or violates our boundary, we may feel angry or fearful. We may also lose our ability to think straight, as all our energy moves from our mind to our muscles in order to fight or flee (our fight/flight mechanism).
When we stay connected to our authentic self, we can set boundaries.

“Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously”   Prentis Hemphill

Why have boundaries?

Having boundaries is essential for mutually respectful relationships. It’s ok to let people know what’s ok and not ok. Self-care and looking after your own needs mean you are living a life true to you; you can be happy and authentically you.

When we can set clear, consistent boundaries, calmly and confidently, we not only preserve our own personal space and self-esteem, but we also enable the possibility and potential of a more satisfying mutual relationship with the other.

So, what stops us setting a boundary, why is it something that many of us find so difficult?

There may be many root causes and reasons for our reluctance to set a boundary, but here are some common themes: –

1.       People pleasing – we believe that if we set a boundary, we will upset the other person and we don’t want to do that.
2.       Fear – we believe that we will be disciplined, hurt, attacked or even ridiculed if we dare to set a boundary.
3.       Lack of awareness – we do not have any understanding or awareness of boundaries. Perhaps, as a child, we were not encouraged to set any boundaries, or our boundaries were consistently violated.
4.       Inconsistent boundaries – maybe we experienced inconsistent boundary setting as children and so we don’t know what a clear, consistent boundary is or even that it’s ok to set a boundary.
5.       Disconnection – perhaps for some reason we have become disconnected from our true feelings and do not respond to our natural ability to know when it’s appropriate to set a boundary (ie we do not feel or acknowledge the feeling of anger or fear).

What happens when we are not connected to our own ability to set healthy boundaries?

1.       No boundaries – we have no boundaries, we don’t set them, and we don’t know how to set them.
2.       Inconsistent boundaries – we set boundaries, but we are not consistent.
3.       Walled boundaries – we have learned that the only way to set a boundary is to put up a wall around ourselves.

Unfortunately, in all these cases we are not able to enjoy mutually respectful relationships.

What does a healthy boundary look like and how can we set one?

A healthy boundary defines the space we need and want, to feel safe and respected. This can vary from moment to moment and so it may change, depending on our situation, feelings and with whom or what we are interacting.

Step 1.      Acknowledge your true feelings, when someone enters your physical or emotional space. Check in with your feelings and be aware of the information. E.g. “I need to set a boundary”, “I can’t talk right now” or  “I don’t want to see them today”

Step 2.      Notice your inner voice
a)      If the inner voice is clear that “this is not ok, I’m focusing on this project and I can’t speak to them right now” then set a clear, calm boundary. (Go to step 5).
b)      If the inner voice says things like “Oh no, I’ll have to do what they say and stop what I’m doing” or “I’d better agree or they will be upset, angry or shame me” then this is a sign that you have an emotional or mental block to setting a boundary (i.e. even though you might want to set a boundary your mind is talking you out of it!).

“When we can set a boundary, it is possible to create mutually respectful relationships”   Rosie Withey

Step 3.      Unearth the emotional block
By becoming aware of your ‘true feelings’ when someone enters your space or asks something of you, you can get to the root cause, and block to being able to set a boundary. Often your body is telling you to say ‘NO’ but your mind is overriding your body, although this is an unconscious process.

Once aware of your ‘true feelings’, allow them to be there and see what insights come. This process may take some time, journaling, sharing with a trusted friend or confidante, therapy or coaching (this is one of the biggest areas in which my coaching services are required).

At this point, and in the early stages of learning to set healthy boundaries, the best step may be to move away from the confronting situation. This is setting a boundary – it’s not defeat!

Once you have identified the emotional block and done some inner processing or work with a friend, coach or therapist to move through the block, then you can define your boundary.

Step 4.      Decide on what your boundary is. Set a boundary which is specific, reasonable and enforceable. E.g. If someone walks into your office unannounced and starts talking to you, when you are in the middle of writing a report, you might set the boundary “I’m unable to talk to you right now, I’m in the middle of a report, I’m free after 3pm, you can come back then”.

Step 5.      Set the boundary calmly, clearly and congruently.

“When we can set a boundary, it is possible to create mutually respectful relationships”   Rosie Withey

Once you have decided what your boundary is, you must be aligned between your head and your body (heart) ie. You must be congruent. This, in my opinion, is the biggest area of miscommunication in relationships!

When we set a boundary verbally, but our body language doesn’t match because our secret belief is that it will not be honoured or we don’t really want to set the boundary, the other being will sense the incongruence and the boundary will not be effective.

If your attempt to define the boundary ends up in you believing it will not work, there is still a block and so go back to Step 3 to discover and release the emotional block.

Once you have decided upon a boundary which is specific, reasonable and enforceable and that you will set whole heartedly – then you are ready to SET THE BOUNDARY CALMLY AND CONGRUENTLY!

After years of ineffective boundary setting, I know that even though I’ve outlined a simple step-by-step approach to help you to set clear and consistent boundaries, it isn’t always that easy!

It takes practice of each step of the process and sometimes someone to hold you accountable, encourage you to stand up for yourself and to celebrate with you on your success. However, the time and persistence it takes is well worth the initial effort.

In the work that I do with horses, learning how to set clear boundaries and respecting the personal space of the other is the first thing that I support my clients to learn. Horses are simply great teachers because they do not conform to what is socially acceptable or correct, they simply respond to their true feelings.

In a nutshell, when you listen to your true feelings and set clear boundaries, calmly and congruently you can enjoy mutually respectful relationships.

If you have any questions or would like to talk about any of the points that I’ve raised here please feel free to contact me.

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