Boundaries: What are they and how do I set them?

As I start writing this blog about boundaries, I can’t help but recall my high school geography class. A huge part of the class was actually coloring; I remember trying different coloring methods to figure out what felt natural and comfortable. Initially, I loved outlining with markers but after some time, I became more comfortable with shading with pencils. Little did I know that as I got older and life became messier, these simple coloring techniques would become a metaphor for boundaries.

So, what exactly is a boundary? The basic answer is that it is what you are okay or not okay with. Simple…right? Yes, and no. The rigidity of boundaries depends on how invested you are in that relationship.

Let’s do a quick exercise. It’s best if you take a moment to write down the answer.

Think of something you are absolutely NOT okay with. You need to be very specific about the action as well as the consequence of someone not respecting your boundary. Now, imagine someone completely ignoring your direction.

Are you okay with a stranger violating your boundary?

How about…a


…what about your grandparents?

Notice the change in your reaction and intensity of the consequences? When it is a stranger, our boundaries are extremely rigid; we are not as invested in the relationship so it is easy to cut ties with strangers or even acquaintances. When we are disrespected by someone we are heavily involved with, we tend to be more lenient.  

But…what if the person violating and dismissing your boundaries is you?
What if you are the one blocking yourself from a healthy relationship because you are not good at setting and enforcing your limits?

Keeping my distance from toxic individuals definitely takes some work!  One of the most difficult experiences I had was to learn to set boundaries for myself from myself. One of the sad “jokes” of my early professional years was sarcastically reminding myself to hang up my cape. Like all newbie social workers, I wanted to save the world. I found it difficult to leave the work at work and the frustration definitely bled through into my personal life. I even shamed myself for having a relatively blessed life. I badly needed a boundary between my professional life and my personal life. After some stress-related health issues, I took a step back and was able to create a more clear line, and I finally accepted that setting boundaries didn’t mean that I was not passionate about my career or I feel any less about empowering others.  Setting boundaries meant that I was allowing myself a better chance at helping more people over a longer period of time because I was taking care of my own mental and emotional needs

The steps to set boundaries are not difficult to read,  but it can feel difficult to put into practice:

  1.     Identify your boundary.
    Look at that! You did this one already (scroll up…that was the example we discussed earlier)! Follow the example to add more activities you are or are not okay with.
  1.     Why did you choose this?
    Why is this important to you? That activity took time- you didn’t just randomly put something down. Why is that action important enough to be part of your boundary?
  1.     Asking doesn’t have to be rude.
    People misunderstand setting boundaries sometimes with being obnoxious. When you know your reason for your boundaries, you don’t feel as defensive. That will show in your response and confidence.
  1.     Keep it tight.
    If you are just starting out, regardless of the relationship, keep your boundaries very rigid. You are most likely very nervous about this. So let’s take some pressure off and keep the “what ifs” out for now.
  1.     Don’t keep it to yourself.
    You don’t have to walk around telling people you have boundaries now. When you find something unacceptable, address it sooner rather than later. I feel that is a respectful way of allowing the other person the opportunity to invest in the relationship as well.

I’m sure you will find yourself falling off the wagon like I found myself multiple times. It is going to be hard and I know you will question your choices but can achieve it. Keep going! You already have step 1 done!

Try out these steps with a safe person this week and let me know what the experience was like for you!

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