Parents! In-Laws! Spouses! Bosses! Kids! Exes! We have a million people to please on a daily basis, and it’s no simple task to manage all the demands and take care of our own needs at the same time. But believe it or not, we can do something about it-it’s called setting boundaries. “Boundaries are essential in every relationship,” says Dr. Aziz Gazipura, clinical psychologist and author of Not Nice. “Without boundaries you may end up feeling burnt out and resentful,” he says. Of course, it can feel super uncomfortable to tell the people you care about to back off, so we enlisted the experts to tell us how to tactfully set healthy personal boundaries (without setting fires).
Don’t feel guilty.
“Most nice people are afraid of upsetting others and being perceived as rude, mean or selfish,” says Gazipura who points out that our fear of disapproval is the core reason many of us have difficulties setting boundaries. Nancy Levin, life coach and author of the upcoming book, Setting Boundaries Will Set You Free agrees: We often say “yes,” when we should be saying “no” because we are concerned that we will hurt someone’s feelings.
“It’s our fear that keeps us in the people-pleasing, over-giving mode,” explains Levin. But the best way out of fear is through it, according to Gazipura who notes that once we take the risk of setting a boundary, we will find that people won’t react in anger. “Most people actually care about what you want,” says Gazipura.
Start by making a request.
Levin says setting a boundary consists of two clear parts: a request and, if necessary, a declaration of intention. Start by stating clearly what is acceptable and what is unacceptable to you-this is the request. For example, say to your partner, "When your brother makes inappropriate comments, I feel angry and uncomfortable. I don’t want to see him socially except at family gatherings. Does this work for you?"
Then state the consequence.
If the other party is unable to meet your request, the next step is to take care of yourself, says Levin. “This is when you let the person know how you’re going to handle the situation,” she says, stressing that it’s important to have a back up plan in place before you make your boundary request. So, in keeping with the example above, if your spouse will not meet your needs, despite your concerns, you may respond, "Since you still want to see your brother socially, I will simply make other plans when you two go out."
Now be prepared to follow through.
“Do not set boundaries you aren't willing to enforce,” says Sunny Joy McMillan, certified life coach and author of Unhitched: Unlock Your Courage and Clarity to Unstick Your Bad Marriage. If there is no accountability, then the boundary is basically non-existent. Keep in mind, this is not your way of controlling other people, instead, says McMillan, “it is a way to honor and protect your own physical, emotional and energetic space."
When setting a boundary, be confident.
“Often we feel like we need to provide an excuse or an explanation when we feel insecure about a choice,” says McMillan. And Levin agrees: “We apologize because we are uncomfortable.”
She says that if you have the tendency to say "I’m sorry" every time you say "no" to something, it “sends a mixed message that weakens and dilutes your position.” Instead, says Levin, “Remember you are not doing harm in refusing to attend to another’s demands.”
And use “I” statements.
“While you may need to mention the other person’s behavior, bring it back to yourself,” explains Levin. This keeps the focus on your feelings. For example, if your in-laws are constantly criticizing your food choices for your children, you can say, "Please don’t comment on what or how much my children eat. I will be in charge of that," suggests Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks PhD, LCSW, author of The Assertiveness Guide for Women, “The clearer we are about how people can treat us, the easier our interactions will be,” says Hanks.
But be careful not to place blame.
"If you're upset, it may be hard to keep your anger in check," says Levin. "If you say something accusatory, you open the door for an argument that may do more harm than good." McMillan suggests taking timing into account when you set your boundaries to avoid a screaming match. "Don't set them when you are feeling frustrated, resentful and angry." Instead, she says to wait until you've had time for some reflection and are feeling composed.
Remember, don’t freak if there’s pushback.
“New boundaries have the potential to change a family or workplace system,” says McMillan. You’re likely to ruffle some feathers, but don’t let that stop you. Instead, says McMillan, “Choose to see the pushback as an indication that you are making healthy changes.” Realize it may take time to for everyone to get onboard. Gazipura agrees: “Don’t try once and then give up if it doesn’t go the way you want,” he advises. “The more you practice, the better your results will be.”
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