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How to Set Boundaries

What are boundaries? Before I entered the counseling world, I always thought boundaries involved me telling someone else what they could or couldn't do around me. Part of that is true, but I was missing the most important part of boundaries. Telling someone else what they can or can't do is a RULE, not a BOUNDARY. And, creating a rule for someone else doesn't usually work because I can't control what a person does or does not do. I can only control myself. "It's not a boundary if we can't enforce it" (The New Codependency, Melody Beattie). Boundaries are more about the behavior of the person setting it. When I set a boundary with someone, I am letting them know the consequences of their behavior and what I will do in response to their behavior.

  • An example of a RULE: "You cannot talk to me disrespectfully anymore".

  • An example of a BOUNDARY: "If you speak to me disrespectfully, I will hang up the phone".

The BOUNDARY involves what I will do in response to your actions. The RULE only involves your actions, which I cannot control.

In the book, The New Codependency, Melody Beattie outlines when boundaries should be put in place. Some of these are when:

  1. We're done saying "yes" when we mean "no";

  2. Hurtful, disrespectful behavior must stop;

  3. We are ready to say what we feel whether the other person is ready to hear it or not; and

  4. The pain of living without someone is less than the pain of living with someone.

Because boundary-setting is new behavior, expect others to test you or even guilt you into old patterns of behavior. You might feel some guilt for saying what other people aren't ready to hear, and you might even lose some relationships. But, ultimately, you are not responsible for other people. Finally, the only way that boundary-setting works is if you can enforce it. Don't make empty threats or set boundaries that you are not willing to follow through with. Remember, that setting boundaries involves being truthful with your needs and loving yourself enough to say what you feel rather than what you think others want to hear.

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