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Five Steps to Setting Good Boundaries

Grab a pencil and a notebook and get ready for Boundaries 101.

feet in black sandals in front of a lake

There is no tool that has helped my mental health more than learning how to set good boundaries. A good boundary makes it clear to others, and to yourself, what you will and will not allow in your life. You can set boundaries at work, with the people you interact with, and even with yourself. 


So what makes a good boundary? And how do you set and keep one? Grab your pencils friends, you’ve just enrolled in Boundaries 101. Let’s go.


Step 1 - Identify


The first step to setting a boundary is identifying where you need one. You might need a boundary in any situation where you feel overextended, exhausted, or taken advantage of. You’re looking for situations that consistently make you feel shitty. For example:


  • That one coworker that always sends you messages after hours

  • A “friend” that you get lunch with occasionally but who always makes you feel drained

  • A family member who constantly belittles your life choices

  • Your own habit of staying up extremely late, even when you have to wake up early the next day


Look for patterns in your life that consistently make you feel less than ideal. That’s where you need a boundary. Boundaries are the best way to change patterns that make you feel burnt out, overworked, or less than.



Step 2 - Define


This is the step that most people get wrong about boundaries! The instinct that most of us have when we find ourselves in a situation that needs a boundary is to try and enforce a rule. A rule is different from a boundary in one significant way: a rule is an attempt to control someone else’s behavior, a boundary is about you and your responses to those behaviors.


A rule often doesn’t work, because no matter how good a rule is, it’s impossible to control other people’s behavior. Trying to enforce a rule in a relationship is setting yourself up for frustration. It’s out of your control. What you can control is how you respond to others’ behavior. That’s what we’re doing with a boundary.


bare feet in the sand

Let’s take one of the examples from step one. In the case of the coworker that constantly contacts you about work issues outside of your working hours, your first instinct might be to contact that coworker and say “please don’t message me after 5pm.” If your coworker is responsible, kind, and emotionally mature, that might work. But depending on the person, it may not. “Don’t message me after 5pm” is a rule, not a boundary. Just saying that to them may not be enough to stop those annoying messages.


So how do we flip this into a boundary? We take that sentiment, “please don’t email me after 5pm”, and turn it into something that we personally can do about it. “Please don’t email me after 5pm,” becomes “I value my work/life balance, and do not respond to messages outside of my working hours. Anything I receive from the office after 5pm will be handled the following morning.”


Hear how the second version is about you, instead of them? A boundary may not stop the behavior, but it makes your response clear, to both yourself and the other person. In this scenario, even if the behavior continues, both parties are aware of your personal limits. This helps manage their expectations, and frees you from feeling like you always need to answer those late night emails.



Step 3 - Communicate


Once you’ve decided what your boundary is, it’s time to communicate it. If you’re unused to standing up for yourself, this part might make you nervous. Feel the nervousness and do it anyway! You’re allowed to set boundaries to keep yourself safe and happy, and people that care about you will be happy to accommodate them. The most important thing to remember about communicating boundaries is that anyone who gets mad about the fact that you have them, was probably taking advantage of you.


Take your new boundary and communicate it with whoever needs to hear it in whatever way feels most appropriate. At work, this can be a thoughtfully written email. With a friend or family member, this might be a phone call or a face-to-face conversation. Or if a text message feels more appropriate or safer, that works too. The method of communication is less important than the fact that you share it. 


Be kind, but be firm. We don’t want to shame the person or intentionally put them down, but we do want to make sure that they know what behavior you aren’t allowing in your life anymore. I’ll say it again: be kind, but be firm.



Step 4 - Enforce


Once your boundary is communicated, you’ll want to make a plan for what you’ll do if/when your boundary is tested or crossed.


Hopefully, you’ll never need this step. If you’re communicating a boundary with a kind, self-aware person, hearing the boundary is all they’ll need to want to respect it. If the boundary marks a significant change in behavior, they may need to be reminded a time or two, but a good person will want to respect your boundary, and will do better and better at that over time.


Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. In some cases, the people you communicate with will refuse to treat your boundary, and you, with respect. You’ll want to be prepared for this possibility. Having your boundaries tested and violated feels shitty, but you’ll feel less shitty if you've prepared in advance and know what you want to do.


Be prepared to re-communicate the boundary. And if you set a boundary and the other person’s behavior doesn’t change, don’t give in to them! This boundary is enabling you to live a healthier life, and no one should be allowed to take that away from you.

a candle, crystals, and a two of cups tarot card

Hopefully, your interactions with this person will improve after a few reminders of your boundary. But know this: it’s ok to limit interactions or cut off contact with people who consistently ignore and overstep your boundaries. If you communicate a clear, reasonable boundary, and the other person repeatedly ignores it, that person doesn’t actually care about your well being. You’re allowed to limit their access to you. You do you, babe.



Step 5 - Process


Boundary setting is hard work. Make sure you carve out some time for yourself as you go through this process. Honor your own feelings every step of the way. Acknowledge where you feel anxious. Praise yourself for making your well-being a priority. Have a toolkit of things that make you feel good about yourself, and use them relentlessly if anyone tries to devalue you by ignoring your boundaries.


This is self-care in the truest, non-bubble-bath-y sense of the word. Setting and maintaining boundaries is hard fucking work. Be as kind to yourself as you possibly can, and know that every move you make here is enabling you to live a healthier life.



Want More Guidance in Setting Boundaries?


I hope this guide helps you define and set the boundaries you need in your life. If you’re looking for additional support in this transformative process, I have two resources to help you.


The first is a worksheet designed to help you think through this lesson’s talking points and craft the boundaries you most need in your life. You can get this worksheet by signing up for the Arts and Adventures newsletter: a weekly email with updates about recent posts to the blog, teasers about upcoming topics, and bonus stories and helpful hints.


By subscribing to the blog, you’ll also be the first to know when my course and workbook on this topic go live! This course will go in depth about the process of defining, communicating, and enforcing boundaries, and taking care of yourself every step of the way. It will be available as a guided workbook and a video series, so you can choose the format that works best for you. Subscribers will get early access and a discount!


I’m so excited for you to start your journey with setting boundaries and improving your well-being.



Love and Shenanigans,


Andi


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