Setting boundaries with loved ones can be challenging, as we often fear hurting their feelings or being perceived as “harsh” or “mean”. It can also be difficult because you might not be fully clear on what your boundaries are yet and there is a general belief that when we set boundaries we have to be certain about them and that they cannot be undone: these beliefs are untrue. Far from being harsh or mean, establishing healthy boundaries is essential to maintain our well-being and preserve the quality of our relationships – especially if you have issues with people-pleasing and minimising your self. In this blog post, we will explore the importance of boundaries, the difference between boundary limits and "micro-boundaries," and provide practical examples of what boundaries sound like, along with a foundation structure for setting boundaries effectively.
There is a common misconception that boundaries are final and cannot be changed. This belief is often reinforced by people who never really wanted you to set boundaries in the first place, so when things change they may tease you for an old boundary, or even continue to guilt-trip you about it. This is their discomfort, not yours. Boundaries are not about certainty or finality; they are about communication.
Few things in life are permanent and boundaries are as fluid as you want and need them to be: the key to knowing your boundaries and setting them is not certainty, but communication. You can set boundaries even if you are not yet entirely clear on what the exact boundary is. Instead of going along with something you're unsure of, or uncomfortable with, it's crucial to voice your discomfort and take time to reflect. You could say something as simple as "I'm not that comfortable with this, and I need some time to think about it" or even "I feel weird about this. I need to take some time out". This does not come naturally to us because we often don't have it role-modelled to us in our formative years, so we have a lack of tools and phrases, but setting boundaries is a learned skill, and actually very achievable. It is about finding your voice and communicating your needs and feelings. These are bound to change as we, as individuals, change and as our relationships change.
To delve deeper into the concept of boundaries, it's helpful to distinguish limits and what I call "micro-boundaries". A boundary limit represents the hard line: it is often something you feel very strongly about, but often more extreme and less likely to occur in your day-to-day life. Boundary limits are often set from a place of survival, desperation or pain - therefore we come away from setting those boundary limits believing that boundaries are always difficult and painful.
On the other hand, a "micro-boundary" is much more fluid, much more common, and much more likely to result in a gradual build-up of exhaustion until we reach a breaking point. It's often when we repeatedly ignore our micro-boundaries that we experience excessive reactions or encounter our boundary limits. Recognizing this pattern reveals that the pain associated with boundaries arises from neglecting our needs rather than setting and communicating them.
So what boundaries sound like?
Having a few phrases that you familiarise yourself with can be life changing - it can help you to stay calm when the moment comes and feel confident in what you want to say when you might not be ready to set the full boundary. Here are some basic, quick-fire examples of boundaries that you can change, add to or mix up as you need them.
1."Thank you for wanting to support me. I just need to not talk about that right now".
2."I'd rather not talk about *insert literally anything, but maybe these examples: my job/relationship/sexuality and/or diet"
3. "I need some time to think about this"
4. "When we visit your family I need you to stand up for me"
5. "I'm not OK with you making jokes about me"
6."Just because you are family does not mean you can criticize me"
7. "Thanks for the offer but I can't right now"
8. "I know you are upset but it's not OK to treat me like that"
9. "I respect your opinion but it's my decision"
10. "I don't want to be spoken to like that so I'm going to end the call/leave the room"
11. "I'm not comfortable with that"
12. "It's OK that you are angry but I'm not OK with you slamming things"
For a longer, more thought out boundary it is useful to use a foundation structure:
*Tip: Keeping boundaries in "I" language prevents the temptation of blame language, for example "you did this".
Foundational structure can include;
1) “I felt [disrespected/hurt] 2) when I heard [a raised voice]. [Optional] I understand you were [struggling with your emotions] but I am not ok with [what happened]. 3) I need [an apology] and [changed behaviour] 4) Please respect [that this cannot happen again]. If it does, I will [leave immediately and want you to give me space”].
In this example I added in the phrase about understanding why something has happened. This is not necessary but bridging with empathy and still reinforcing the boundary can be a powerful way to mitigate possible (even unintentional) guilt-tripping and manipulation.
As you become more connected to and comfortable with your boundaries, you'll find it actually gets easier to ask for help, to find your direction, and to confidently say no when necessary. Your relationships become both more vulnerable and more empowered as they are based on the honesty of who you are.
Moreover, when you are comfortable with your boundaries, you also enrich your relationships when you give to others, as you can do so without anxiety, people-pleasing, or resentment This transforms the act of giving into a joyful and heartfelt gift of time, money, or other resources.
Remember, setting boundaries is not only about saying no but also about expressing yourself calmly, without guilt. The key to this is about communication, vulnerability and strength. Setting boundaries becomes easier the more attuned you are to that little voice inside that says it is uncomfortable, and after tapping into that feeling of discomfort, it is simply a skill that you can practice. By implementing the examples and structure provided in this blog post, you can navigate setting your boundaries calmly and lovingly, and in turn you will cultivate healthier, more fulfilling relationships.