Dr. Stefanie Tweedly
What is boundary setting and why is it important?
Simply put, boundaries are the rules by which we interact. These rules are both those we have for ourselves and those we have for others. Healthy boundaries communicate and demonstrate self-respect, as well as educate others on what is and is not acceptable and what we need.
In the mental health field, we talk a lot about setting healthy boundaries. While this concept is now definitely more available in general, there is still a lot of confusion and uncertainty regarding what it means to set boundaries, why we do it, how it “should” feel, and where to set them. This article is an introductory discussion of boundaries and what healthy boundary setting looks and feels like.
Simply put, boundaries are the rules by which we interact. These rules are both those we have for ourselves and those we have for others. Healthy boundaries communicate and demonstrate self-respect, as well as educate others on what is and is not acceptable and what we need. This leads us to a very important element in setting boundaries: we do it for ourselves, not for an outcome. This clarification may seem a little strange, considering what was just explained; however, it’s important to understand that we cannot control other people; not how they treat us, not how they behave, not how they react, not at all. If we are to feel the full positive effects of boundary setting the goal cannot be to change another, instead we need to set the intention of voicing what we need for ourselves. If we have done that, we have successfully set a boundary.
Why, you may ask, would we bother with all the effort of setting boundaries if we can’t get the response we prefer? The answer to this goes back to the idea of demonstrating self-respect, as well as honoring our needs. We deserve this, whether others are able to provide it or not. So boundary setting is a way to validate how we feel and what we need, even when others are not able to do so. If the other person responds positively to the set boundaries and changes, that’s a bonus…icing on the cake, if you will. If the other person ignores or negatively response in some other way, this gives us information that can assist us in setting additional boundaries.
All too often I have people tell me that setting boundaries seems selfish and they feel guilty when they do. While one may argue that it is, in fact, selfish; this is a healthy selfishness. Healthy selfishness takes others’ needs into consideration, as well as one’s own needs. Unhealthy selfishness places one’s self and one’s needs ahead of all others, with little to no consideration of others. As you see, there is a balance in healthy selfishness, just as there is in healthy boundary setting. Despite the fact that we are practicing a form of healthy selfishness, feelings of guilt typically accompany early efforts. The good news is that with practice these feelings of guilt often dissipate, and sometimes disappear all together.
Unfortunately, there is frequently no definitive right in healthy boundary setting, which creates quite a learning curve. This is especially true for those who tend to say yes to most everything and have difficulty voicing when they have been hurt, disrespected, invalidated, and/or betrayed. An important key to setting healthy boundaries is attunement to our own internal experiences and, relatedly, to that often quiet internal voice that tells us what we need. It’s noticing when something someone does hurts us. It’s noticing when we really want to say no. It’s noticing when that internal voice says “I need support.” From here we can help ourselves process our experience by asking ourselves what we are feeling, what this reminds us of, what we need, etc. Then we can decide what, if any, boundaries we need to set with ourselves and/or others.
Certainly, none of this is easy, but again it’s all about practicing so we improve our attunement and boundary setting skills. Frequently, early attempts will be less than “optimal.” We will set them too rigid or too flexible, too passively or too aggressively, too vaguely or too narrowly. What is important is not setting the perfect healthy boundary, rather it’s the fact that we are working on setting those needed boundaries, that we are trying to show ourselves respect, and that we are treating ourselves with the care and love we deserve. The journey to better being is just that, a journey, not a destination, so every effort is valuable.