Do we really need limits on how others treat us?
If we don’t have boundaries, we often deny our own feelings or do things we know we shouldn’t, or don’t want to do, just to gain someone’s approval or acceptance. Afterward, we’ll often feel taken advantage of, used, resentful, and basically not very good about ourselves. Then we might further beat ourselves up for not having a backbone. Or for not being “stronger.”
But we need some boundaries in place to protect ourselves from living in a cycle of regret or feeling resentful or used. Setting boundaries can do this, but it can definitely feel scary to consider because sometimes the stakes are high. That fear, along with those high stakes, might keep us stuck in the cycle.
Setting boundaries helps bring an end to our people-pleasing behavior. Maybe for the first time, we’re willing to accept the many ways, good and not so good, that people might respond to this. I believe that setting boundaries is the first step in healing codependency. Setting boundaries is a courageous act of faith in yourself. It takes courage to say “No, I won’t ______________ anymore.”
“No” is a boundary. “No” is a choice. Saying “no I won’t do that” or “I will no longer tolerate ___________” is a way to honor our true feelings.
Saying yes to something when we want to say no can make us feel resentful, used, and angry. When we’re co-dependent, we often say “yes” when we want to say “no”, or we say “no” when we really want to say “yes.” But why do we do this? I think it’s because we’re afraid. We’re afraid we’ll need to justify saying no or have to explain why we’re saying it. But really, an explanation is not required. It’s actually enough to just say “no.”
“No” is a complete sentence.
We want to be liked and needed and we’re afraid of losing that. Sometimes we say yes instead of no because we depend on others for a sense of approval or for a sense of identity. We don’t want to lose that. Sometimes we need or want validation. Sometimes we depend on external validation because we haven’t learned to validate ourselves yet. (That’s a discussion for another time.)
We can say “no” with love & compassion. It doesn’t have to be mean.
“No” is a very clear choice. It’s not negative. It’s an affirmation of our integrity and beliefs.
It’s important when we’re healing to start saying what we mean and meaning what we say. Your “yes” is stronger and more meaningful if you say “no” now and then.
We are in control of where to draw the line & how to articulate where we stand. Doing this empowers us.
Why it’s important to have personal boundaries
I’ve read that it’s far better to use an “assertive no” rather than a “submissive yes.” Think about that.
We lose a part of ourselves when we say yes but want to say no and when we say no but want to say yes. We are people-pleasing then, and we’re not saying what we mean and meaning what we say. We lose our integrity. It’s too high a price to pay. Be true to yourself and say what you mean. Setting boundaries is a method of showing our integrity. Healthy boundaries help us set limits that protect and empower us.
Boundaries pertain to “me” and my behavior, rather than to others. They are under my control. I base my personal boundaries on “what I need” to maintain my personal safety, emotional stability, and mental health.
Boundaries are not intended to be a way to control others. They’re not meant to change another person’s behavior. They’re a way to have personal limits for ourselves. They’re not emotional, they’re facts.
Boundaries protect us from another’s destructive behavior or from engaging in activities that we don’t want to be involved in. Setting healthy boundaries is a form of self-care and self-empowerment.
WE get to determine what’s acceptable to us and what’s not.
Boundaries are not a “do this or else” kind of statement. They are not a threat to someone else’s behavior. Enforcing a boundary is not meant to be a way to manipulate or control others. Rather, a boundary is where we “draw the line.” It means you’ve thought about which of their behaviors are acceptable to you and which ones are not.
How to set healthy boundaries
Setting a boundary requires four things:
- Acknowledging that you have a specific physical or emotional need that will help you feel happy, safe, healthy, loved, understood, etc.
- Acknowledging someone’s behavior that’s directly related to or challenges this need. (This is going to be the boundary.)
- Setting consequences. This is the action you will take when the boundary is broken. When that line is crossed you will need to know ahead of time what you’ll do and be prepared to do it.
- Possibly informing about the new boundary by stating the above three items. Informing is a choice that you do not have to take. More about that is below.
A word about consequences
The consequence (the action that you take) is taken by you to protect yourself or to take you out of a situation.
By following through with the consequence, you’ll be letting the situation play out without you. This is because setting a boundary means we will no longer engage with unacceptable behavior. We choose to lay down our end of the tug-of-war rope and we do something else. What the other person does next is their choice. And the consequences of that choice are theirs too.
We follow through with our stated consequences, understanding that we have no control over what happens next after we take ourselves out of the situation. AND we accept that no matter what happens, we’ll be OK and we won’t step back in to take control. This is the really scary part, because OF COURSE what happens next could affect you.
This fear can make us want to give up the idea of setting boundaries and just remain co-dependent.
The benefits of setting boundaries
To me, having personal boundaries is another form of exercising something called “loving detachment“: meaning that I’m staying in my own personal space regardless of what’s going on around me. I’m not trying to control others and I’m not taking responsibility for their choices. By setting boundaries, I’m consciously and lovingly letting others deal with the consequences of their choices, even if it’s uncomfortable for them. Even if it costs them money, relationships, or jobs. There’s definitely a degree of “tough love” involved in setting and enforcing boundaries.
Boundaries are not something that you negotiate with anyone. No one can determine your boundaries but you, simply because they’re part of your self-care! No one knows what’s best for you more than you do. You don’t need someone’s permission to set a boundary and you don’t need them to approve of it, allow it, or agree to it. BOUNDARIES ARE NOT ABOUT ANYONE BUT YOU. THEY ARE TO TAKE CARE OF YOU.
It’s about choices
Boundaries are not threats or ultimatums:
“You’d better not do —— ever again or else!”
Instead, a healthy boundary would be more like:
“If you choose to do that then I’ll do this_____. “
It’s about giving someone choices for their behavior rather than taking choices away from them. If your boundary leaves someone with the ability to choose, then it’s probably a healthy boundary. If your boundary takes away their choices except for one, then it’s probably more of an ultimatum or a threat, not a boundary. Keep in mind that the choices you’re leaving them include the THING that you don’t want them to do. The thing that means you’ll enforce the consequences. That’s OK. Just be aware that they may test you to see if you’re serious. Always follow through with the consequences.
To set healthy boundaries, you must understand where you end and others begin. It’s also necessary to have healthy self-worth and self-confidence or to at least be actively engaged in improving those.
Acknowledge what you need
Start by asking yourself:
What do I need, separately, from other people?
This one can be tough. Take the time to explore this over a period of time. Do you need to get to bed earlier than your partner? Do you need quiet time for whatever reason away from your kids every day? Do you need a particular medication or supplement? Do you need to eat or not eat certain things? Does something that a person does or says make you uncomfortable? Does their behavior make you feel emotionally or physically unsafe? Do they regularly disrespect you or say things that are hurtful? Think about people or situations that you would avoid if you could and ask yourself why. If you could change anything, what would it be? Ask yourself: what’s my motivation for setting this boundary? I’m guessing that your answer is something along the lines of “I want him to stop doing ______” or “I want her to stop treating me like ________.”
OK. That’s great. Now, because we can’t control other people’s thoughts or behavior, we have to reframe this a bit.
Examples of Healthy Boundaries
We can’t make him stop doing _______ and we can’t make her treat you differently. So what CAN we do? We can change what happens if and when they do those things. We can change the outcome for ourselves. We don’t have to stand there and accept unacceptable behavior. This is self-care.
NEED: I need to feel safe.
The RELATED BEHAVIOR: I don’t feel safe when he _______.
Reality: I can’t control whether he does ________ or not, but I can control ME. So, an appropriate boundary could be something like this:
BOUNDARY: If he does _______,
CONSEQUENCE: then I will do this:
1. Walk away
2. Go to a different room
3. Hang up
4. Call someone
6. Take a taxi
If you want to INFORM him: Say something like: “I need to feel safe when I’m with you. I don’t feel safe when you drink and drive. If you drink and choose to drive (boundary) I will call an Uber for myself. (consequence)
WANT: I want to maintain my positive feelings about my sisters
The RELATED BEHAVIOR: When mother starts talking negatively about my sisters….
CONSEQUENCE: then I will do this:
- Change the subject
- End the conversation and hang up
If you want to INFORM her: Say something like: “I need to feel good about my relationship with my sisters. I don’t like hearing negative, critical, and judgemental things about them. If you talk smack about my girls (boundary) I will change the subject or end our conversation (consequence).
Do you see the difference between simply putting up an emotional wall/avoiding certain people/trying to control another’s behavior, and setting a boundary to take care of yourself? Think about the difference. It’s huge.
After you’ve developed a boundary, ask yourself:
Does the boundary take care of me?
Am I trying to control the person’s behavior or am I trying to take care of myself? Is my “boundary” more of a threat or ultimatum?
A healthy boundary should give the other person the ability to make choices. If they are not left with any choice or have only one “choice”, then it’s not a healthy boundary.
To inform them or not
As shown above, the final step you may want to include after you’ve set a boundary is to inform the people involved. You don’t have to inform, especially if you think doing so will make your boundary be taken as a challenge. I would say “do not inform” if you think the person will break the boundary just to test you. Do not inform if you think it will provoke an argument or put you in danger. You will carry out your boundary and the consequences, and the person will learn that the boundary exists that way.
However, if you want to inform, you will choose the right time, and simply state your boundary and the consequences, that’s it. As uncomfortable as it might be to state and enforce a boundary, you may still want to do it as a way of expressing your expectations.
Informing others of your new boundaries can feel scary or intimidating. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy or painful conversation. In fact, I believe that “stating the facts” is all that’s required. You do not need to justify, answer questions or deal with drama. If a tug-of-war is offered, you are not required to engage. Drop your end of the tug-of-war rope and do something else.
Whether you inform or carry out the boundary and consequences without informing, the choice is up to you. I would suggest being very comfortable with the consequences and knowing without a doubt that you can carry them out.
Putting it together: Needs, Boundary, Consequence
- State your need.
- State your boundary.
- State the consequence.
- Inform them or not
Setting boundaries can feel so scary that sometimes we avoid doing it. Start with just one and see how it goes. It takes practice to set boundaries, especially if we haven’t learned how to do it when we were children or if we’ve never seen healthy boundaries in action. Sometimes the boundaries we set, or their consequences, will need to be tweaked or adjusted so they work better. That’s absolutely OK! Just make sure that whatever your consequence is, you will absolutely be able to carry it out. If we back down and don’t enforce our own boundaries, we can end up feeling defeated or resentful, or weak. If we don’t enforce our own boundaries, we’re sending the message that we’re not serious! If you don’t feel you can carry out the consequence, you need to re-think the consequence and create a new one.
What to do when your boundaries are challenged or rejected
This can be tricky. Dealing with someone who’s challenging us or daring us to enforce our boundaries requires us to feel a high degree of self-worth, self-esteem, and self-confidence, or at least for us to be actively working on those things. We’ll need to be able to respond with something like “I understand that you don’t like this (boundary). It’s absolutely something I need and intend to do for myself.”
Sometimes people can be hurtful, critical, or judgmental when we start setting and enforcing boundaries. They’re not used to it and they don’t like it. In the spirit of positive detachment, that’s all OK. They don’t have to like it. Whether they like it or not has nothing to do with you or taking care of yourself. So when someone challenges your boundary, remind yourself that you can do hard things. You do hard things every day and you’ve been doing hard things all your life. This is no different.
When they challenge the boundary, you re-state your want/need, the boundary, and the consequence. If they go ahead and cross that line anyway, then you go ahead and carry out the consequences.
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- Pause. Take time to think. Don’t respond right away. Say something like:”I’m going to need to think about that”, or “I’ll get back to you on that.”
- Practice saying yes and no to real or imaginary questions.
- Know when something is your responsibility & when it’s not. Say it nicely, say it with firmness. “No, that’s actually something you should be doing for yourself.”
- Remind yourself that you’re worthy of setting that boundary and that you’re worthy of being fair to yourself.
- Pay attention to the physical sensations in your body when you think about saying yes or no and then do the thing that honors your body.
- What are some other things I can say when I don’t want to say yes but I’m uncomfortable saying no? Possible replies:
- “ I appreciate you asking but no that’s not something I can do.”
- “No, I can’t do that but here’s what I can do.”
- “No, but is there something else I could do to help?”
- “At this time in my life no, I’m sorry I can’t do it.”
- “No, thank you.”
- “Count me out.”
- “I’ll get back to you.”
You may also like these resources:
Understand the Cycle of Abuse
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, author Diane Metcalf developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those with others who want to learn and grow.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on family dysfunction, and narcissism. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology. She has worked in numerous human service fields, including domestic violence and partner abuse.
She has authored four transformational books about healing and moving forward, including the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains maternal narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing and moving forward.
The Lemon Moms series, as well as her other books and articles, are an aggregation of education, insight, and personal growth resulting from childhood experiences and her subsequent recovery work.
She writes about strategies for recovering and moving on from hurtful people and painful, dysfunctional, or toxic relationships on The Toolbox blog.
See what’s happening on her author’s site: DianeMetcalf.com
Learn about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.