I present for your consideration: the humble front door. We have many openings in our houses but doors are the universally recognized “correct” method for entering and exiting. I mean, thieves might burst in through the windows, but our friends know they need to come in the right way. Even better, they probably text before coming over to make sure they are welcome. To make sure we will admit them past the boundary of the door. We understand how to set boundaries in our home.
Remember that terrifying moment in E.T. when the astronauts burst in through the windows and door without permission. When these physical boundaries are being violated, it leaves us scared, vulnerable, and open to attack. We might also be open to negative effects from the weather i.e. rain, wind, cold temperatures. Our house is built of solid, physical boundaries for a reason. To protect us, give us control over who has access to us and our stuff and differentiate “mine” vs “not mine.”
In the same way, we need to know how to set boundaries in the emotional realm. I spent the first portion of my adult life without these, and maybe you know first hand how that looks. We let people walk all over us. Answer them any time they want. Say what they want. Treat us how they want. This is not how it’s meant to be.
I am not a licensed therapist or mental health professional. If you are suffering and need treatment please seek the help of a professional. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
How to set boundaries: “Me” versus “Not Me”
As a first step, It’s important to stop and recognize the “me” vs “not me” of our emotions. What is my responsibility? What is their responsibility? My feelings are my responsibilities. My feelings include how I react, how I respond, how I process through a situation or statement. Feeling angry is totally permissible. It can be appropriate to feel hurt. Sometimes, it’s necessary to feel sad. These are for me to own and no someone else.
What is “not me”?
“Not me” is when someone else is sad, angry, or hurt. Now I can influence these feelings and when my feelings overflow and flood all over someone, I need to own that. But, at the end of the day, their feelings are their responsibilities. Sometimes we think “I can’t do that because it will make them sad.” We are even taught this is noble and self-sacrificing in our cultures and religions. But you know what? They can be sad, it may need to be, and they will process it and be ok. At the root of all of it might be a fear of emotions. We are afraid to feel what society has deemed “bad” emotions but they are all just fleeting processes in our brain. I feel like that could be a whole conversation of its own!
Emotional Walls (the good kind)
Which brings us to the practical question of actually how to set boundaries. Emotionally, we need to take time to figure out where our walls belong and how we can be a wiser doorkeeper. What we don’t need to do is jump to drastic conclusions and begin cutting people out of your life. I mean, that might be necessary, but there are several steps to do in setting boundaries before that has to happen.
Exercise in Vulnerability
Let’s make this all less abstract. Think of a part of your life that feels uncomfortable. Can I be vulnerable with you? The big family Sunday dinner was something that drained me, rather than energizing me. It had the tendency to fill the entire day, and I love my family, but as an introvert that many hours is very tiring. Inevitably I would get grumpy and that doesn’t make me much fun to be around. See how this is 100% a personal scenario? I know some of my relatives absolutely find energy in a prolonged gathering. That is wonderful too. We are each the keeper of our own boundaries.
So, I decided that a time boundary was important to my emotional health. If I arrive shortly before the meal, set the expectation for what time I need to leave, then enjoy myself until then, I know I will leave before I reach exhaustion. It didn’t serve me to wait until I was overtired and cranky. Was my decision popular? Not necessarily. That’s ok. That is the “not me” that my family can process.
Does this feel selfish? Does this feel self-centered? I imagine that’s because it is. I want you to repeat after me:
It is acceptable to make my emotional boundaries priority numero uno.
Believe me, when I first started reading about all this, I was uncomfortable. Especially with an Evangelical upbringing that idolized self sacrifice, I didn’t see how this could be ethical at all. If you are feeling that tension, I encourage you to sit in it. Study it. Get curious about why you feel that way. In my life, I unearthed a cavernous emotional pit called the Cave of Feeling Unworthy. If you feel like that might be the case with you, stay tuned for a future post exploring this dark cave.
Let’s Review How to Set Boundaries
I feel like it’s time for a quick recap. Your house represents your physical boundaries, and in the same way you need strong emotional boundaries. We each have to figure out what our general boundaries are and also situational boundaries because it looks different for everyone. The process may go against the grain of your upbringing, but I promise you, it will support your emotional health and that is a very good thing. This work and transformation is how you set boundaries.
I shared a specific illustration of a situational boundary, now it’s your turn. Journaling through this could be super helpful when practicing how to set boundaries. Think about a relationship or recurring situation that doesn’t leave you feeling good. Think about what it is. Is it how someone talks to you? The way they respond to what you say? Or is it past experiences you are bringing to the table that leads you to infer motives? Processing the situation to figure out if it’s “me” or “not me” will help you know what to do next. If it’s “not me,” come up with a plan. If they use unkind language, you can set the boundary. “I don’t like when you speak to me like that, please don’t.” “I can’t let you use words like that when speaking to me. Please call me back when you can respect this request.”
You have the Power
No matter the situation, people should treat you respectfully. The power is in your hand to set and communicate the boundary. Role play in your head, or in your journal, one of these situations so that you already know how you want to react. Put it into practice, and see how it feels afterwards. It will probably feel awkward, clunky, and weird. That’s ok. Avoid negative self talk during this process, I promise it will get better as you practice. What has been holding you back from learning how to set boundaries? What do you plan to do to help ease this? I would love to hear your thoughts!