Happy Spring!! It’s finally here and, personally, one of my favorite times of the year. I hope everyone is getting outside in Nebraska to soak in the sun and take care of that vitamin D deficiency we’ve all been suffering from this winter!
A topic that has come up repeatedly in session is the need to set healthy boundaries. A large portion of my client load consists of caretakers, people pleasers, and other people who fit the description of a codependent (see my previous post on the Human Magnet Syndrome for more information on these qualities). In addition to these characteristics, many of them also identify with being an empath, or a person who is highly perceptive to the emotions of others. When these people have a difficulty setting boundaries, they put others’ needs before their own and focus too heavily on fixing emotional discomfort their partners feel. There are always good intentions, but their partner never really learns how to deal with those big emotions (i.e. develop an emotional tolerance).
1.) “I feel (emotion) when you (action) because (how it impacts you).”
Expressing your emotions in relation to the other person’s actions allows the other person to gain empathy (i.e. to understand how their actions have impacted you on a deeper level). Notice in this sentence structure that the emotion is not tied to a personal characteristic—that creates defensiveness and feels like you are attacking who they are. Be specific so they can begin to link your emotional response with that particular behavior, not who they are entirely.
DON’T: “I feel disrespected when you’re lazy because I’ve raised you better than that.”
DO: “I feel disrespected when you do not put your dish away after breakfast because I end up doing it while I’m already running late to work.”
2.) “I would like (expectation).”
These expectations should be observable, measurable, and specific behaviors that you would like to replace the action stated previously. Again, your expectation should not be a characteristic, but rather a specific behavior that can realistically change. A focusing on a characteristic or using negative communication skills will usually result in defensiveness or resistance. Stay calm and state your expectation in a way you’d like to hear it.
DON’T: “I would like you to pay attention a little more to what you’re supposed to do after you eat breakfast.”
DON’T: “I would like you to get your head out of your ass and do what you’re supposed to.”
DO: “I would like you to put your dish in the dishwasher.”
3.) Optional: “If you choose not to, (consequence) will happen.” Or “If you do this, (reward) will happen.”
Some people need this step in order to abide by your boundaries and some may not. Using this step helps the person you are communicating with understand the exact outcome to their actions. This especially helps with teens and kids since their prefrontal cortex, which helps them recognize the consequences to their actions, has not been fully developed yet. Make sure the consequence and reward are specific, reasonable, and time-oriented to help with follow through. If you choose to reward, it is important to steer clear of bribery with material good/candy and use positive reinforcement instead; otherwise, they may feel entitled to their reward with each positive behavior.
DON’T: “If you don’t put away your dishes, you’ll be grounded for the next 5 months!!”
DO: “If you don’t put away your dishes, you cannot play with your friends after school until you put them away.”
DON’T: “If you put away your dishes, you’ll get some candy.”
DO: “If you put your dishes in the dishwasher, I would be so grateful to you."
4.) Repeat steps 1-3 OFTEN. Practice makes perfect.
5.) Model these expectations yourself and be consistent in enforcing the consequence.
I have recognized that many of my clients struggle with the same boundaries being broken over an over. Here are a few relatable boundaries I have heard in session:
Clients have asked, “But what happens if it makes my partner mad or causes a bigger conflict?” I usually tell them this, “Them not handling your boundaries well has more to do with them. The people who react the worst to you setting boundaries are usually the ones who benefited the most from you not having them before. They probably won’t like it. Some may throw a temper tantrum or become upset. The response of the person having the boundaries set on them does not dictate whether that boundary is right or wrong, but an indication that they recognize they can no longer take advantage of you like they once had.”
Clients have also told me that having boundaries feels like they are being “mean” to the ones they love and the consequences they give feel like ultimatums. Here is the truth:
Other boundaries that are helpful to learn include the following:
I must admit, I haven’t always been the best about keeping healthy boundaries and I think we all have slip-ups by caring too much. You are still allowed to care for others, but care about yourself too. I think this post is a good place to start in learning how set positive boundaries and become the emotionally healthy people we want to be.