How to set boundaries and stop being a pushover

Knowing how to set boundaries is one of the main ingredients for happy, fulfilling, and respectful relationships. In this blog post, Dr Lauren Coles, Senior Associate Psychologist at Altum Health, has focused on:

      Why boundaries are so important in relationships.

      Why some of us find it hard to set and assert boundaries.

      How to set boundaries.

What are personal boundaries?

Personal boundaries are the guidelines, rules, or limits that we create to outline reasonable, safe, and acceptable ways for other people to behave towards us. Personal boundaries can be emotional or physical, and help us to determine our response to someone passing those limits.

What do we mean by ‘setting boundaries’?

Setting boundaries in relationships is really about respecting our own values and beliefs; the things that are important to us, and the things we’re comfortable with.

You may be sure or unsure of your own boundaries. Or, you may have them clear in your head, but struggle to communicate them to others, whether that’s to family members, friends, or a partner.

Why are boundaries so important?

Assuming that others know what your personal boundaries are can negatively impact your relationships, causing stress, frustration, and resentment.

For example, if you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you may feel uncomfortable eating in a busy environment. If your friend isn’t aware of this, she might excitedly book a bustling restaurant for dinner.

You may start to feel stressed thinking about the event as it looms closer. You may even develop feelings of resentment towards your friend for making you do something you’re not comfortable with. It could also knock your confidence and your recovery.

Failing to communicate your boundaries to your friend while allowing them to make these decisions for you can lead to a breakdown in the relationship. Instead of clearing the air and talking to your friend about your needs, you may choose, instead, to distance yourself from that friend for fear of being in this uncomfortable situation again. 

Why can it be hard to set boundaries in relationships?

Some people seem to feel so comfortable expressing their limits, saying no, and respecting their own sense of psychological and emotional space. Others, however, find it painfully difficult to navigate this important skill in their relationships.

If you’re a ‘people pleaser’, and perhaps a bit shyer, setting boundaries may feel as if you are taking up too much space. It may even feel like confrontation to you, which you tend to avoid like the plague! You may do anything to ‘keep the peace’, even if this means allowing others to make decisions for you.

If, as a child, you’ve grown up surrounded by strong personalities, you may have found that it was hard to get your needs met directly. While others seemed to get their way, you rarely did, and you learned to almost slip into the background to make for an easier life and to think of your needs as less important than those of others.

As a child, we tend to adapt to our environments, rather than challenge them. And while it’s important to know when to give and when to take, when it’s your turn…your right to take…it may feel unnatural at first. However, as an adult, it’s important to understand where your boundaries lie and how to communicate them effectively if you are to get your needs met in a mature relationship. 

If you’ve been in an abusive or controlling relationship, your default role may have been to be submissive, as this may have been necessary for you to make yourself safe. It’s easy to see how this survival strategy helps you under threat, but it makes it easy for stronger personalities to continue overpowering you.

Recognising your need for boundaries 

As time goes on, you may begin to notice that you are increasingly uncomfortable in your relationships. It can take time to develop this insight and clarify what’s important to you, and this will often come from being in a scenario that might begin to bother you.

Say you’re cleaning your apartment and it’s upsetting you. It hasn’t done so before, but it’s really starting to bug you that you’re cleaning up, again. In fact, you’re starting to feel really angry. Towards the situation, and towards your partner, who’s not doing their fair share.

In amongst these negative feelings, it’s hard to unpick what’s at the cause. You just know that it feels wrong. Perhaps you’ve always felt that chores should be split 50/50, but for whatever reason, you’ve fallen into the role of housecleaner. You’ll likely feel a sense of unfairness and injustice that this isn’t the case. A boundary has been crossed, and you feel angry.

It might be hard to recognise the issue at first, especially if you’ve not had autonomy or learned to establish your own boundaries as a child – you may find it hard to understand these uncomfortable feelings as an adult. Talking to a trusted friend or family member to gain other perspectives and greater clarity will help.

How to set boundaries

We’ve discussed why it can be tricky for some of us to set boundaries and how it can negatively impact us, so let’s look at how we can begin to improve things.

The three steps below show you how to set boundaries and feel empowered as you learn to be your open and honest self.

  1.   Assertive communication

If you feel there’s an imbalance, and decisions are often made for you in your relationships, you can practice assertive communication to let the other person know how it makes you feel. This focuses on using ‘I’ statements, keeping the points short, and not apologising for how you’re feeling.

For example, instead of saying, “I’m really sorry, but when you comment on my weight it makes me feel uncomfortable”, lead with, “I feel uncomfortable when you comment on my weight and I’d like you to stop”. Simple and unapologetic.

Be sure to prepare what you want to say in advance and have your main points clear in your mind.

  1.   The broken record

You’ve got that assertive communication down to a tee, and hopefully, others are starting to respect the boundaries you’ve laid out. However, you may need to repeat the message many times, to reinforce it until it sticks. Just repeat the same message and remain strong. This can feel scary at first, but over time, you will begin to feel more powerful and in control. 

Often, someone failing to respect your boundaries says more about them than it does about you. Perhaps there’s an auntie who always comments on your weight at family gatherings despite you letting her know how uncomfortable this makes you feel. This could be more of a reflection on her relationship with food, than yours.

If you’ve set your stall out and that person continues to disrespect your boundaries, chances are there’s someone else who’s experienced this behaviour from that person, too. This person could be useful as an ally if you need to use the broken record technique.

  1.   Personal debrief

Once you’ve expressed yourself – and perhaps even repeated yourself once or twice – assess how you now feel after spending time with this person. Do you feel they are respecting the boundaries you’ve set? Are you enjoying the time spent with them? Are they continuing to talk over you? Are they really listening to you?

If you feel they’re continuing to cross the line, you have a few options depending on whether this is someone you wish to keep in your life.

    You’re an adult, and if a relationship makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re entitled to put an end to it and walk away.

 –        If this is someone you cannot reasonably cut out of your life, for example, a family member, you could choose to limit how often you see them. When you do see them, mentally prepare yourself for their comments and have that trusted ally by your side for moral support. Try not to take their comments on board. Remember, their behaviour often says more about them than you.

Setting boundaries and asserting them using the tips above may feel strange at first. You may even feel guilty for addressing people in this new way.

However, when you see that it works, your self-respect and confidence will grow. It may even positively impact the way you have conversations in other areas of your life, such as at work.

For example, rather than working through lunch, you could let people know you don’t respond to emails over lunchtime. Not only do you feel empowered to speak up, but you’re role modelling this behaviour for others who may struggle to make their needs known. 

Learning how to set boundaries – understanding what feels comfortable for you and making decisions based on this – is a really positive part of your eating disorder recovery. It will help you to reconnect with yourself and distance yourself from your inner critic, which is often so powerful in those suffering with an eating disorder. If you need more support, why not book a free consultation today to find out how we can help.

Take care,

Lauren Coles

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