Three ways to set boundaries without bullying


I like to talk about boundaries. Like I really like to. There was a time in my life when I didn’t even know what that word meant, and as a result, havoc was reeked in my life and those of the people I loved. In so many of our families growing up, healthy boundaries were not only never discussed, but also never exhibited.

Healthy boundaries stem from a clear sense of who one is…and an authentic ability to feel safe saying “no.”

There are really three types of boundaries: rigid, diffuse and healthy. As you can probably tell, rigid and diffuse boundaries are both part of an extreme spectrum that can not only push people away, but also keep you from feeling empowered and safe in your relationships. Healthy boundaries are boundaries that are clear, consistent, not out of left field, and precise. Healthy boundaries stem from a clear sense of who one is, what one requires in order to be in some sort of relationship (personal, professional, communal, etc.) to them and an authentic ability to feel safe saying “no” (without shame and guilt).

Boundaries that are in line with who we truly are also include boundary-setting with ourselves and our own choices, actions, reactions and behaviors (as well as remaining accountable when we transgress those boundaries and making amends when we transgress the boundaries of others).

Healthy boundaries really are at the forefront of any well-adjusted emotional life. And for that reason, this blog is dedicated to anyone and everyone who either loves learning about topics that can improve their lives or who are actively seeking to learn how to build, grow and maintain healthy boundaries. This specific topic – boundaries without bullying – is directed at people who have had diffuse, or loose boundaries in the past that are wanting to learn how to say “no” without becoming too stern or rigid.

First, practice setting boundaries with yourself.

When we grow up in a home where the boundaries are unclear – people screaming, opening doors without knocking, parent telling child all of their personal life details, or situations of physical, emotional, or even sexual abuse – there is an absolute fissure around what is okay to do, say or inflict on me.

While one might think that growing up with these non-existent boundaries would create an adult that is rigid and hidden and stern (because that can happen), what most often happens is that child grows into an adult who let’s others roll over them in ways that are both familiar and re-wounding.

If I learn that boundaries mean violation, then I learn that adult “love” includes violation. While that could not be further from the truth, what we learn impacts us into adulthood until we change the way we act and think.

If you are in a place where you are realizing that you over-give, over-accept anger or aggression, over-work, or over-seek love and affection in ways that get you hurt; this not only indicates you have some pretty deep wounds that need healing, but also that you are a perfect candidate for starting the healing process with yourself.

Any time there is a violation in our past, we need to start the practice of boundary setting slowly. While it is very easy for me to sit here and write, “Don’t let that person scream at you, don’t let your boss belittle you, don’t date people who don’t respect you…” and so on, it is WAY harder to execute those changes than just saying them.

What is possible though, is to start with tiny behaviors that you can learn to erect personal boundaries around that can build your self-esteem and self-trust and that can lead to healthier relational boundaries over time.

Call to Action: Take out a piece of paper and a pen. Write down three things that are seemingly small that you notice you would like to set boundaries around with yourself. This list should include things that you promise yourself you are going to do and don’t stick to, or things that you want to achieve but haven’t yet attempted. Some examples might include: Not eating a bedtime snack, keeping your promise to yourself to journal three times a week, getting to work early instead of ten minutes late, doing your laundry more than once a month, or even making coffee at home three days a week instead of spending $6 on a latte. While these behaviors may seem totally unrelated to your problems, which may seem huge; it is only through small, consistent and persistent change over a long period of time that we evoke bigger relational and personal growth.

In other words, you don’t get to get the big stuff unless you are willing to do the small stuff first.

Once you are done with this list, set a timeline for yourself to give these new, smaller goals a go.

To prepare, I’m going to give you both what the healthy version of this boundary with yourself would look like and what the bullying version of this boundary with yourself would look like.

Bullying: “You loser, I knew you couldn’t do this for a whole month….You shouldn’t have even tried anyway…This isn’t worth my time, I have real problems…You missed a day, you may as well quit…What is the point of trying anyway, nothing ever changes….This is too hard, you should just quit…You should do more than three to prove you are worthy…..”

While I could list hundreds of these self-defeating and shaming thoughts, you get the drift. Any thoughts or actions that you take related to such thoughts are you bullying yourself. And we can never be bullied into healing. Never.

Healthy: “I’ll start with one item, since I’ve never tried anything like this before…Maybe then I can try two and even three….Okay, so I missed one day of making coffee at home, that is okay, nobody asked or implied that I needed to do this perfectly…..Wow great job today doing laundry on a Sunday instead of shopping online for things you don’t actually need…I’m proud of you for even attempting these changes, they aren’t easy..”

Again, you get the drift. While attaining these healthier thoughts can be difficult at first; this is just to show you when you start to lean more towards a healthier ability to set boundaries within yourself that you will have more and more positive internal dialogue.

Next Try Setting Boundaries with One or Two Safe People.

One common misconception about saying “no” when we mean “no” is that we are mean or selfish. While nothing could be further from the truth, it is easier to default to that than to change a behavior from a lifetime of feeling guilty about asking for your needs to be respected (or even not knowing at all what your needs are).

The best way to practice early-stage boundary setting is to pick one or two people you know and can trust to practice with. It is also a good idea, if you feel safe enough, to let that person or persons know that you are working on learning to set boundaries and to please be patient if you go over the line or miss the mark at first.

One common misconception about saying “no” when we mean “no” is that we are mean or selfish.

Once you pick these people, spend some time thinking about times you say “yes” when you really want to say “no” or things that may be happening in those relationships that make you feel like you need to draw a line or have a conversation, but you keep letting it go for fear of them abandoning you or getting mad, etc. Once you identify those, you can begin the call to action.

Call to Action: Pick a time that you have plans with one of these people, or have told them “yes” when you wanted to say “no.” Take some deep breaths, write down five reasons that you need to remember that this person is a safe person, and then let them know in a non-apologetic way that you have to actually change your “yes” to a “no” in this situation because your needs have changed. I know this can sound really really hard, but it is possible. People say no to people they love (and still maintain loving and close relationships with them) everyday. It just takes time, personal patience and practice.

Bullying: The flip side of this is that when we first start the practice of setting new boundaries, we can go over the mark, so to speak. And we can have a tendency to overcorrect and start setting rigid boundaries (examples like always saying “no,” not returning phone calls, not saying sorry when we mess up, etc.). If you start to feel the desire to go in that direction, just remember that this is all part of growing and that setting rigid walls is more a way of acting out or manipulating to get your boundary needs met, instead of talking about them directly.

Healthy: Healthy boundary-setting in the early stages looks like picking the issues that truly matter to you most. It looks like not saying no to everything all the time, but saying “no” when it truly counts. If this is really new for you, you can also make a list of your top five bottom lines in relationships or your top ten things that you really care about to expect and to ask for in your relationships to other people. Then, when you want to say “no” or cancel or not offer to pay for dinner for the 5th time in a row, you can refer to your list and see if it makes the cut. If it does, great. If not, you get permission to not make an issue of it. This kind of list setting – especially early on – can take the anxiety of guesswork out of the process and keep you on the right track.

Practice Boundaries in the Larger World.

Once you have really mastered more comfort in setting boundaries with yourself around the small things in life, and then realize you feel less and less guilty saying “no” to the people you picked as your safe people; you are now ready to go out and practice this stuff in the real world (always being patient and delicate with your ever-emerging true self).

If you start the practice of trying to set boundaries in your larger world and you panic, it is always advised to go back to steps one and two before you expand to other areas of your life. You can really do this process over and over and over again until it becomes more and more comfortable in your daily life.

Examples of boundaries you may want to start setting in the larger world can include telling a stranger who touches you that you do not want to be touched, not texting someone back immediately if you are working or busy, making it clear to a cashier that they short-changed you, telling your boss that you had this vacation scheduled for the past year and you are not available to change it at last minute’s notice, or even ceasing a relationship with someone who is not consistently kind to you (this is like black belt level so no rush to get there).

Call to Action: Using the list method to keep you in control of this process and always to give you another safe space to land; go ahead and take out the pen and paper and make a list of five to ten ways you notice in your life that you let the external world sort of transgress your boundaries. Focus only on those things. If something else comes up that you notice later, you can always add it to the list. You can also remove items from the list once they become areas of boundary setting mastery for you.

Now, go out into the world and practice, practice, and practice. There is no perfect here (for any of us). Only practice from here on out.

Bullying: Signs that you are becoming too rigid or aggressive in your boundary-setting can include yelling, slamming things, honking your horn aggressively every time you drive, refusing to go to team meetings at work because you are mad at your boss, canceling all of your plans to prove to yourself you can say “no,” beating yourself up for not getting better faster than you can, or even seeing signs that you are starting to take more than you give in your long-term relationships. These are signs you are erecting walls, and remember that walls are just as unsafe as diffuse boundaries in the long-run.

Healthy: Being consistent in who you are and how you treat others. Using that internalized consistency to then go out and expect the same in return. Trying to remain calm when you have to say “no.” Saying you are sorry when you lose your temper. Forgiving people who are doing the best they can, but you had to say “no” to. And living in freedom rather than fear about interacting with the outside world (again, black belt level, but always something you can achieve over time).

Always remember that any suggestions are things I encourage you to take in, digest, filter through your own belief system and then alter to meet your unique needs.

If you are coping with challenges around boundary-setting, I can help. Click here to set up your discovery call.

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