Boundaries 101

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Reasons Why Your Boundaries Suck (And How to Fix Them)

Okay, y’all. We need to talk. I’m going to hit you with a bit of tough love from your resident couples therapist.

If you’re anything like most people, your boundaries probably suck. I say that in the most loving way possible and from a place of deep understanding. At various points in my life, I have been the president of the Sucky Boundary Club! We have t-shirts! (Which nobody paid me for, because I said “I got it” even though I didn’t have it so now I’m stuck with 200 t-shirts. Ugh. Sucky boundary problems).

Before we dive into the boundary talk, we need to get on the same page. What even is a boundary? In short, boundaries are needs and guidelines that you create that allow you to show up at the fullest, safest, you-iest version of yourself. A boundary is the place where you end and someone else begins. Some boundaries are fluid and flexible, like our need for alone time. Other boundaries are immovable, like our need for physical safety in our relationships. Boundaries keep us safe, whole, and secure. 

Why are boundaries so hard? Well, partially because most of us never learned how to set them. We were taught to be accommodating, polite, or unobtrusive, even at the expense of our wellbeing. We also avoid setting boundaries because we’re scared. We’re scared of being rejected, minimized, not liked, or seen as “too much.” When we abandon our boundaries, we abandon our needs. We give ourselves the implicit message that our needs and emotions matter less than other people’s needs and emotions. And no matter how kind, selfless, and compassionate we are, the chronic neglect of our own needs will absolutely lead to resentment. Poor boundaries are a classic pattern of codependency and one of the major focuses in codependency counseling and therapy for all of our caretakers, healers, and people pleasers out there. You are not alone in this.

Before we get into the how of boundary-setting, let’s discuss what boundaries are not. Sound good? 

What Boundaries Are Not:

Boundaries are not ultimatums. Think of boundaries as a moat around a castle. It takes time and energy to dig the moat, but it helps keep the castle protected. An ultimatum is a moat three miles away from the castle. It still takes time and energy to dig that moat, but it does absolutely nothing to protect the thing you’re wanting to protect. A boundary gets to the core of an attachment need, while an ultimatum focuses on controlling another person’s behavior. A boundary is vulnerable, while an ultimatum is not. A boundary might sound like: “I get so scared that I don’t matter to you. I need us to start couples therapy so we can strengthen our relationship foundation.” An ultimatum might sound like: “I need a ring on my finger by the end of the year.”

Boundaries are not walls. The point of a boundary is not (necessarily) to create distance. In fact, most boundaries exist to allow us to connect more fully, authentically, and safely in our relationships. A boundary is not intended to push someone away, but instead to teach them how to have a safe and fulfilling relationship with us. For example, in a marriage counseling session, we might practice sharing a healthy, connection-creating boundary that sounds something like “It matters to me so much that I know I’m a good enough spouse. Can you give me some reassurance of ways I’m doing okay?” That invites the partner to come close and meet the needs of the person they love. A win-win!

Boundaries are not a punishment. When we weaponize our “boundaries” to punish people in our lives, we begin to create some really toxic cycles. This is the opposite of what we want. When we use “boundaries” to punish the people in our lives, we actually pass off the responsibility of the boundary to them. We say, “I have this boundary because you did xyz.” Instead, we need to take ownership and responsibility of our boundaries. We need to say, “I have this boundary because I need abc.”

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Okay, Boundaries Sound Cool, But How Do We Know What Boundaries We Need? 

How are you hanging in there? You okay? Take a minute to tune into yourself. Do you need anything? A cup of coffee? A break? A blanket? Take a moment to listen to your needs and meet them. Alright… You good? Good. Let’s keep going.

You are hopefully on board with the necessity of boundaries. But how the heck do we actually figure out what boundaries we need?! One surefire way to figure out where we’re lacking boundaries is to find our resentment and work backwards.

Let me give you an example: Maybe I’m feeling resentful toward a friend who keeps flaking on our plans to get together. I might even be seething in that resentment. How dare they? That is so rude! I canceled plans to make time for them and then they canceled! In this example, my resentment is letting me know that I need some better boundaries around hang out time with this friend. Here’s another example: Maybe I find myself feeling resentful toward a partner. I always do so much! I do so much around the house, and I always write them love notes and buy them flowers! Why can’t they do the same for me?  Again, my resentment is leading me to a really important need to be cared for, supported, or romanced. Resentment isn’t bad. It’s a compass that points us in the direction of better self-care.

See if you can take a moment or two to find some resentment in your life. Ask yourself, “What unmet need is this resentment pointing me to?” Beautiful job!

How to Set A Top-Notch Boundary:

Now… You’re hopefully convinced that boundaries are important. You might have even figured out some places in your life where you could use a little boundary-setting love. But now comes the tough part: Actually communicating that boundary to another human being (cue ominous music).

In all seriousness, I promise that setting a boundary isn’t as hard as it may feel in moments.  Let me share with you a helpful formula for setting a vulnerable boundary with a safe and close person:

  1. Safety statementAnchor in the relationship.
  2. Validation – Acknowledge the other person’s position or emotions.
  3. Boundary – Set that boundary!
  4. Intention of boundary – Give context if appropriate.
  • Example: I love you (safety statement). I know we have different opinions about parenting (validation). When I hear parenting advice, I feel really overwhelmed so I need you to not share parenting advice with me (boundary). That will help me show up more fully with you, which is so important for me (intention of boundary).

If someone you love and care for (a spouse, a friend, a parent, etc.) has a response to your boundary, you are allowed to honor their response without changing the boundary. That might sound like you saying:

  • I know this boundary is hard to hear. I can’t change the boundary, but it’s okay that the boundary is upsetting to you.

Some additional examples of boundary statements:

  • No.
  • Stop.
  • That’s not okay for me.
  • *Not answering phone calls*
  • I hear that we had different experiences of that event. Let’s be done talking about it.
  • I love you so much, and I’m not in a good place to support you on this today. Can we talk about it tomorrow at noon?
  • Mom, I love talking to you. Weekdays aren’t good for me. Let’s talk on Sundays so I can be fully present with you.
  • Talking about dieting feels triggering for me. Let’s talk about work instead!
  • I’d rather not.
  • You’re special to me and I want to show up as my best self with you. To do that, I need us to not talk about our differing religious beliefs.

Get Out There and Set Some Boundaries, You Boundary-Setting Genius!

Whew! We made it! We learned about what a boundary is, figured out how to track down our boundaries, and learned how to communicate them openly, compassionately, and directly. Now it’s your turn – Get out there and start setting some boundaries. You’ve got this!

About Carly Goldstein

Carly received her Bachelor of Science degree in Human Development from UC Davis and a Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy from SDSU, and is passionate about helping others create their dream lives and relationships. She currently works as a marriage and family therapy associate at Estes Therapy with individuals and couples.