So much suffering in life is reduced to unhealthy limits:
Decades of resentment and loss of intimacy built up because you “put up with” your spouse’s bad habits.
Stress and burnout at work because you routinely “compromise” with your boss about workloads
Chronic worry and anxiety that comes from “just going with the flow” and never speaking up for yourself
And while most people know that better boundaries are key to healthier relationships, they’re also essential to your own emotional health and well-being.
So whether your goal is to improve an important relationship in your life or to increase your own well-being, learning to set better boundaries is critical.
Here are 5 principles to help you create healthier boundaries in your life.
Be hyperspecific with your limits
Suppose you want your mom to stop calling you and complaining about your dad every day. Telling her that she should see a therapist instead of dumping all her baggage on you is a good idea, but it’s not a limit.
A good clear boundary in this situation might look like this:
Mom, I don’t want to hear you complain about Dad anymore. If you call me and start complaining about dad, I’ll say goodbye politely and hang up.
Notice how specific you are, both in terms of input (what the other person does) and output (what you will do in response).
Do not set limits that you are not willing to impose
Suppose you want your manager to stop sending you emails and text messages for “urgent” tasks at night and on weekends.
You can set a perfectly clear limit:
James, it is company policy that I will not respond to work related emails outside of official business hours. I will reply to you as soon as possible when I am back in the office.
But if you don’t enforce that limit, what’s the point? If you see your “urgent” email at 10pm, when you go to bed, decide to open it, read it, and finally respond because the thought of not responding makes you anxious, your crystal clear boundary was no use.
Praise when your boundaries are respected
Unfortunately, many people will only change their behavior if there are consequences for that behavior, hence the first two points above. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t influenced by positive reinforcement and rewards, too.
While being clear about setting limits and being consistent in enforcing them is essential, it really helps to reward people for sticking to them.
Avoid moralizing your limits
Many well-intentioned boundaries don’t work because people frame them as a moral question of right and wrong.
Here’s an example from a woman I worked with several years ago:
After setting and enforcing a clear line with her partner about sarcastic comments, she began to reflect on how unfair it is that this is an issue… Why can’t she just be a mature adult and agree to my request without me having to do it? define? Boundaries? It’s like a child! If I had married…
After only a few minutes of this, she was so angry and bitter that she confronted her husband about it and, in her own words, “blew up at him.”
Consequently, her husband “blew up” at her in response and then refused to honor that boundary and went back to his sarcastic ways.
All you need to know
Setting better boundaries is essential to the health of our relationships, as well as our own emotional health.
If you want to get better at setting healthy limits, remember these 5 rules:
- Be hyperspecific with your limits
- Do not set limits that you are not willing to impose.
- Praise when boundaries are respected
- Avoid moralizing your limits
- Clarify the why behind your limits