As a child, teen, and even into early adulthood, I was a big people-pleaser. I thought that being a good friend or child meant dropping everything and going along with whatever everyone else wanted. I used to believe that saying no and disappointing someone meant I was a bad person, or at the very least, not a good enough friend or child. I felt very depleted, and I felt resentful towards the people around me.
I’m very glad to say that’s not the case anymore. One of the best things I’ve done for myself is create healthy boundaries in my life. With healthy boundaries, I feel freedom. I’m able to be fully present when I agree to something with a wholehearted yes, and so my friends and family benefit from this, too. Has setting boundaries been easy? Hell no! For me, setting boundaries has been some of the hardest (and most rewarding) work of my life.
So how did I learn to set boundaries? I was lucky enough to have a couple of people in my life who modeled what healthy boundary-setting looked like, and I started reading about boundaries and thinking about how to apply what I learned. I took time to reflect on my own life and what I wanted to change. I began to practice setting boundaries—with myself, with my spouse, with my friends, and with my family. Slowly, over time, I noticed my confidence increasing. Boundary-setting wasn’t quite as scary as it was at first. And to this day, I’m still learning more about boundaries. Recently I’ve enjoyed reading Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab, a licensed therapist based in North Carolina.
What are healthy boundaries? In her book, Nedra defines boundaries as “expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships. Expectations in relationships help you stay mentally and emotionally well. Learning when to say no and when to say yes is also an essential part of feeling comfortable when interacting with others.”
One of the things I had to do when learning to set boundaries is recognize my limits and become more familiar with my bandwidth. I started paying attention to when I was feeling overwhelmed or resentful. Those feelings were signs that I had spread myself too thin or hadn’t communicated my needs/expectations, or even that I had agreed to things that didn’t align with me. I also took stock of my family-of-origin’s rules and how they impacted my ability to be assertive about my needs. Recognizing what I had been taught as a child about boundaries gave me perspective and enabled me to have self-compassion for struggling with setting healthy boundaries.
It can feel scary to set boundaries. It certainly was for me when I got started, and it got easier the more I practiced. Just so we’re all clear: boundaries with family can be the hardest boundaries to set. Even with practice, setting boundaries isn’t easy for me, especially when it comes to setting boundaries with my family. And, as Nedra points out in her book, that feeling of guilt that comes with setting boundaries is totally normal. I’ve learned to remind myself that feeling guilty for setting a boundary doesn’t mean I shouldn’t set the boundary. My future self is always grateful for feeling peace instead of resentment or overwhelm.
What do boundaries look like in your life? Are there tricky areas where you want support as you learn to set boundaries? Therapy is a great place to learn about boundaries, explore where you’d like to set boundaries, and even role-play setting boundaries so that you can practice. Your therapist can support you and encourage you along the way!