Whether it’s with a parent, child, sibling, partner, friend, etc., setting boundaries is one of the more challenging things we do with loved ones. That challenge is precisely what makes it, in Brené Brown’s words, daring and courageous:
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when
we risk disappointing others.”
As we know from other areas of life, it is through facing, rather than avoiding, our challenges (and their aftermaths) that we develop strength, resilience, and bravery; the same is true when it comes to setting boundaries with loved ones.
But what makes setting boundaries so challenging in the first place? To understand that, we must first understand what boundaries are.
Boundaries are psychological limits that we set with others and/or ourselves to A) protect our wellbeing and/or B) create realistic expectations on how to healthily participate in relationships, groups, and/or activities. Boundaries may be internal, meaning we have set them with ourselves, or external, meaning we have set them with others.
An internal boundary might involve identifying our capacity for something and setting limits to ensure we don’t surpass that; for example, if you know that you get overwhelmed by engaging socially too often, you might set a boundary with yourself to only make social plans once a week. While this might not be what you want to do on a given week, it might just be what you need to do to reach your desired level of wellbeing. An external boundary might involve identifying how we do (not) want to be treated in a relationship and making that known to the other person/people in the relationship; for example, if you are planning to take off work for a week and do not want to be contacted, you might set a boundary with your boss/colleagues to request that they not reach out to you until you return. While this might be difficult for your boss/colleagues to hear, and it might even be difficult for them to adhere to, it might just be what you need to continue maintaining a healthy work/life balance. Both internal and external boundaries can be challenging to set, but we will focus on setting external boundaries for the purposes of this blog.
So, what makes setting boundaries with loved ones so hard?
In some cases, we may not have had models for how to set healthy boundaries in childhood. Many families have boundaries that are too rigid or too loose, neither of which is healthy for the family system or its members. When boundaries are too rigid, family members may feel isolated from each other, they may feel like there’s no room for error, they may keep secrets, etc. When boundaries are too loose, family members may have difficulty separating their experience from the experiences of other members, they may feel like there’s no structure or order to depend on, they may feel like they have no limits, etc. As with most aspects of relational functioning, if we miss out on learning how to set healthy boundaries in childhood, it becomes increasingly difficult to learn later in life.
In other cases, we may be trying to set boundaries with individuals or groups that do not respond well to them or do not have a history with them. When we have no boundaries with our loved ones, they often feel like they can have access to us at any time, or like they are our top priority; this serves them well, as they can rely on us to get their needs met. If we do eventually set boundaries, and therefore our loved ones can no longer rely on us to meet their needs for them, they often feel threatened; this is when you may hear things like, “you’re being selfish,” or, “you’ve changed.” While it may be true that you’ve changed (and most likely for the better), it is NOT true that you’re being selfish! This is a prime example of the phrase “self-care is not selfish”—setting boundaries with loved ones is a major form of self-care, as it allows us to protect our time, energy, and wellbeing.
In other cases, still, we may have trouble identifying what our needs are in relationships with loved ones and, therefore, what boundaries we can set to help meet them. In this way, setting boundaries requires a certain amount of self-awareness and -understanding; if we struggle to get in touch with our present feelings, needs, values, etc., we will likely struggle with setting boundaries in the present moment. This is one of the many reasons why boundaries are a common topic in therapy at The Holding Space, where a major therapeutic goal is to reconnect parts of the client’s self that have split off over time. Making and strengthening these connections is a great first step toward not just meeting the challenge of setting boundaries with loved ones, but also the challenge of setting them with ourselves!