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How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Your Life

February 17, 2014

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You need to know your limits in personal relationships, work life, and with yourself, which is why setting healthy boundaries are so essential to a happy life. How much extra work can you commit to? How many hours a week can you spend with a needy friend? How much of your kid's homework will you do? How hard will you be on yourself? The importance of establishing these limits can’t be overstated.

And yet, setting these boundaries isn’t a skill that comes easily to most of us. Our personal boundaries should be guidelines, based on our own belief system, which we use to identify appropriate behavior. This means, of course, that you need to understand your own needs and limits before anything else. Once you’ve established your non-negotiables, you can start working to implement these boundaries in your life. Follow this 5-step plan to get you on the road to healthy boundaries in all areas of your life:

  1. Be clear on what you need. Get as much clarity on this point as possible. If you're not sure what you need, others never will be, either. Defining your needs will help you pick your battles and not waste energy defending what is less vital. When situations arise that make you feel uncomfortable, it could be that a boundary has been crossed that compromises one of your essential needs. This is important information.
  2. Investigate why you feel so strongly about this boundary. Saying “No” is an essential part of defining who you are. When you feel crossed, take a moment to explore your emotions—are they related to self-care, or are they learned reactions from past situations that mirror your current one? After you understand what is triggering your reaction, you can make a reasonable decision about when you need to say “No.”
  3. Start slow. Setting boundaries that you can maintain is a little like learning to ride a bike. You need to start slow and build the skill. Pick a small, unthreatening goal to start. For example, perhaps you tend to post too many private details about your life on Facebook. Setting this boundary with yourself is a good place to start, since it requires no confrontation. It takes courage and practice to master the skill, so flex your muscle a little before tackling more difficult tasks.
  4. Don’t try to control how others react. Being assertive, especially if it is a new trait, is bound to upset someone. Don’t try to take responsibility for how other people might react to your new boundaries. The woman who always pushes in front of you to get coffee is not going to like it when you ask her to wait her turn; however, this doesn't mean you shouldn't stand up for yourself. It's important to be respectful when reinforcing a boundary, but also be ready to accept that it might make someone else unhappy. 
  5. Take action. Although healthy boundaries can be flexible and adaptable, when it is time to say “No,” you need to back it up with your actions. If your words are not respected, give yourself permission to walk away or refuse to discuss it further. Words can embroil you in endless debates where your feelings become lost, but actions are clearer and harder to ignore. This may mean forgoing an activity with someone for a period of time, or finding another way to get your needs met until your boundaries are respected. This is normal and healthy. Be willing to do what you need and take responsibility for your own peace of mind.

Healthy boundaries are a new concept for many of us, but defining your own is a positive step towards establishing relationships that fulfill your needs. It is a skill set that can only make life better if done correctly. Take your time and create a strategy that allows you to express yourself firmly and fairly without burning bridges. 

What strategies have you found effective in setting healthy boundaries?