A therapist explains how to avoid falling into these five common traps when setting boundaries.
If you find it hard to say no, you’ve probably struggled more than once to set boundaries in your life.
And that’s the problem: so many of us are socially conditioned to think of other people first that our identities are often tied up in what others might think of us, rather than what we think of ourselves.
According to The Resilience Centre, healthy boundaries are necessary components for self-care. Without boundaries, we feel depleted, taken advantage of, taken for granted, or intruded upon. Whether it’s in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries may lead to resentment, hurt, anger and burnout. But even after we’ve passed the first hurdle of recognising that we need to reinforce our limits and expectations, expressing our boundaries can still feel like a minefield to navigate.
It’s certainly a fine balance. How can we advocate for ourselves while maintaining close relationships and making sure nobody is upset?
As therapist Abby Rawlinson explains in a recent Instagram post, mistakes are often made when it comes to not just setting boundaries, but sticking to them as well. But as she identifies, the five most common oversights can be easily fixed when you know what they are.
1. Over-explaining and being too ‘nice’
Even when it comes to setting our limits, many of us have a tendency to people-please rather than simply saying what we mean. But while we may think that kind requests will help our cause, they can actually create problems of their own.
“People often ‘sugar-coat’ their boundaries to avoid hurting other people, but this tends to make boundaries unclear and can leave people feeling confused,” explains Rawlinson.
Instead, she advises trying to make your boundaries clear and to the point, without over-explaining. Remember, you don’t need to give grounds for setting your margins. They should be accepted and respected without the need for justification.
2. Phrasing your boundary as a question
If your instinct is to ask a co-worker to stop emailing you outside of working hours or a friend if they’d mind giving you some space, be wary of serving other people’s needs above your own.
“Boundaries should be communicated as statements, not as questions,” Rawlinson stresses. “Try to stick to facts and use statements like ‘I will’, ‘I can’t’ or ‘I need’.”
This isn’t to say that politeness doesn’t go a long way, it’s just important to remain clear and in control. You don’t need to ask anyone else’s permission to take your own time, space and energy back.
3. Not setting a consequence
According to Rawlinson, when our boundaries are crossed, we often get angry but we don’t know what to do or say beyond that, so the violation gets repeated. Therefore, it’s helpful to explicitly state the action you will take if the boundary isn’t respected.
Try phrases like: “I won’t answer if you call me during work again” or “If you can’t respect my privacy, I won’t be able to spend time with you.”
4. Ignoring messages from your body
Have you ever said yes to something you know you don’t want to do and felt the immediate lurch in your stomach? Our boundaries aren’t just mental things, but can often be physical, too.
Rawlinson suggests trying to become more aware of your limits by noticing how you feel in your body when you do set a boundary.
“For example, when a colleague asks you to stay late and help them with something, how do you feel? Is there a tightness in your chest with resentment bubbling up, or is there spaciousness and excitement? The goal is to listen to what your body is communicating and choose what feels right for you.”
5. Forgetting that you can set boundaries with yourself
Yes, we can even disrespect our own boundaries sometimes, whether they’re around work, our health, our self-talk, our money or our time.
“Honouring the boundaries we set for ourselves can be a powerful act of self-care and improve our self-esteem,” Rawlinson writes. “Setting a boundary with yourself might sound like: ‘I will not spend money impulsively as a way to make myself feel better’ or ‘I will step away from my computer at lunchtime.’
Abby Rawlinson aka Therapy With Abby is an integrative therapist specialising in imposter syndrome, anxiety and burnout.