Do you often find yourself being easily overwhelmed, while you regularly notice you're agreeing to things you actually disagree with? Do you want to voice your disapproval more often to people who do things that you find unacceptable, but can't find the right words? Then it could very well be that you're not so skilled in setting boundaries yet.
Many people struggle with this and it's not only disadvantageous for the person themselves, but also for the people around them. Often, the other person is not even aware that they are crossing someone's boundaries.
Why is it important to set boundaries for yourself?
If you're not skilled in setting your boundaries, it can have unpleasant consequences. Many people who struggle with this feel unseen or unheard, ignored, not respected, or experience a feeling of powerlessness.
They may start doubting their own judgment of the situation or event they actually disagreed with. After all, the other party found it acceptable, didn't they?
If you're frequently confronted with such situations, your insecurity can increase. If you're unable to set your own boundaries, it can feel as if you can't trust yourself. The word says it all: 'self-trust'.
The inability to set boundaries often lies in a combination of two factors:
Not knowing well for yourself what you find acceptable and what not.
Not being able to find the right words when confronted.
If the person in question is also very conflict-avoidant, finding the right words can be a huge obstacle. Because what if expressing your opinion leads to a conflict?
Not communicating your boundaries can also lead others to see you as unstable. This often happens when someone says nothing for a long time, but then, when things get too much, suddenly lashes out. If it's about something innocent and the person reacts in such a way simply because it happens so often, this usually comes as a shock to the other party. They didn't see such emotion or frustration coming over such a small matter and would perceive the reaction as exaggerated.
Why is it important to set boundaries for others?
If someone has difficulty expressing their boundaries, it can be confusing for others. As humans, we need a set of rules to understand how we should behave. In interactions and group settings, we can't sense another person's boundaries. Therefore, they need to be clearly communicated by that person. If this doesn't happen, we don't know what's acceptable and what's not.
This is because we all have different values and views on life. For some, swearing is very normal, while for others it is unacceptable. Some people express themselves with strong language and loud volumes, while for others this is a form of aggression. Except for extremes, there's little general consensus about what is acceptable and what is not. Therefore, this must be verbally indicated by the individual to the other person.
What to do when someone consciously crosses your boundaries?
There can of course be situations where someone deliberately crosses your boundaries. This can range from continuing to tease playfully despite clear requests to stop, to more serious forms. In such cases, it is important to respond adequately and decisively.
What could prevent someone from setting boundaries?
There are several psychological factors that can make setting boundaries difficult. For example, the fear of hurting others, the fear of rejection, the feeling that one is 'selfish' by setting boundaries, etc.
The exercise below will give you insight that if you learn to give feedback very consciously and consistently, these psychological factors will play a much smaller role.
Exercise in setting boundaries
To learn how to express your boundaries, it is first and foremost important to know where your boundaries lie and to what extent you find something barely acceptable, unacceptable, terrible, or completely intolerable.
Each of these four requires a different approach. You cannot use the same words to someone who has murdered another as to someone who is teasing you undesirably.
STEP 1: Define your boundaries
Start the exercise by writing down what you find barely acceptable, unacceptable, terrible, or completely intolerable for yourself.
Below is an example, but remember! It's up to you to decide what you place in which category.
Rude behavior, such as interrupting during conversations
Unwanted comments about someone's appearance
Lying or cheating
Abuse of trust
Bullying or ridicule
Verbal or physical violence
Discrimination or prejudice
Unwanted sexual behavior
STEP 2: Formulate your response
Every situation requires an approach where you make clear what you actually experience and what it means to you. Therefore, write down for yourself how you would like to respond within each category when you want to set your boundaries. Keep in mind that it's important to always start with "I" and not "You". This prevents giving someone the feeling of being accused. It's about your boundary and the effect it has on you.
Below are examples of what you might say, but it's up to you to decide which words you want to use.
Not acceptable: "I notice that when you..., I don't feel comfortable. Could you avoid that in the future?"
Unacceptable: "I find it very difficult when you..., This is something I can't accept. Let's try to prevent this in the future."
Terrible: "I must make clear that when you..., this is absolutely unacceptable to me. This must stop."
Completely unacceptable: "When you..., it's completely unacceptable. I will have to report/take action."
STEP 3: Reformulate your response
Check your response to ensure it's factual and without apologies. After all, you never need to apologize for having a boundary. Try to be as clear as possible to the other person with as few words as possible. Also, minimizing words can cloud the message.
For example, don't say that you feel a bit uncomfortable, just say that you feel uncomfortable. Keep it simple and as factual as possible.
What can help here is to envision someone who is very good at setting boundaries. What exactly would that person say?
STEP 4: Define Your Tone and Attitude
Each category requires a specific tone and attitude. For instance, a murderer is unlikely to be affected if you remain overly gentle. In such a situation, it might require you to speak loudly and with anger. However, this way of speaking is not effective when dealing with minor issues that you find unacceptable. Therefore, fill in your desired tone and attitude for each category and practice with it.
STEP 5: Shift your response
All topics in the 'completely unacceptable' category require a response that applies at that moment. But consider, how often will you experience such situations in your life? Probably and hopefully never.
Therefore, shift your response, tone, and attitude from the 'completely unacceptable' category to 'terrible'. Shift the response, tone, and attitude that are in 'terrible' to 'unacceptable', and the response, tone, and attitude that are in 'unacceptable' to 'not acceptable'.
This is the response you should give when something within the respective category occurs to make your boundaries very clear.
STEP 6: Setting Boundaries in Practice
Consider for each of the topics in the categories whether you have encountered these situations in real life. Visualize the person and situation where your boundaries were crossed, and imagine what the reaction would have been if you had immediately responded as you have now written.
Do you want to change anything now? If not, it's time to start practicing in real life. Stick to your own script and you'll find that it's now much easier to set boundaries and you no longer have to search for an appropriate response.
We all have our unique sets of boundaries, what's barely acceptable to one person might be totally unacceptable to another. The crucial thing is to understand where your personal lines are drawn, and how to effectively communicate that to others. This practical exercise aims to assist you on this journey toward effective boundary setting.
As you embark on this transformative process, you're not just gaining self-confidence, but you're also cultivating healthier and more respectful relationships. Remember, it's not just about finding the right words, it's also about trusting yourself and knowing that your boundaries are valid. So take the first step today - stand your ground, define your boundaries, and watch how it transforms your life.