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In today’s world, there are a host of demands placed on us. Between our bosses, best friends and families, there’s no shortage of people asking us to commit time to various projects, events and activities. In some cases, we’re not only asked but rather told what our top priorities should be. This works just fine when we agree and feel aligned with those requests, but what about when we don’t?
Failing to prioritize ourselves and our desires can leave us feeling overworked and burnt out. Perhaps more importantly, endlessly saying yes to others robs us of joy and fulfillment. It can prevent us from feeling passionate, empowered and energized. Our families and loved ones often pay the price.
Today, many mental health experts encourage us to set boundaries with others. That can be a scary prospect, especially for those of us who were brought up to be people pleasers. If you want to set better boundaries with others but not torch your relationships, here are a few things you’ll want to do.
1. Figure out what you truly do (and don’t) want to do
You’ll find it’s nearly impossible to set boundaries with others if you don’t first know what your boundaries even are. Sometimes, setting boundaries means telling others no. This is easier to do when we have a “greater yes” in mind. But that means we must know what our “greater yes” is.
Anytime you’re asked to do something, consult with yourself before anyone else. Ask yourself: “How do I feel about this? What do I want to do? What do I feel is the best decision?” Once you’ve decided these things, you’re already in a better place to communicate. But just wait until you’re asked. Regularly have these discussions with yourself, even before you get asked.
Become very aware of how much bandwidth and capacity you actually have during any given season. The more you spend regular time identifying your most important priorities and values, the more strongly you’ll feel about them and the easier it will become to articulate them.
2. Make an agreement with yourself that it’s okay to disappoint other people
Before you can have an effective conversation with others about your boundaries, it’s important to accept the possibility that they might be disappointed by what you say. Remember: That’s okay. People don’t have to agree with all your decisions, including those who love you. Someone else disliking your decision doesn’t make it wrong.
Recognize that others may not respond favorably when you set boundaries. When you say, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to do that this weekend,” others might do a variety of things ranging from asking follow-up questions to becoming upset or angry to attempting to convince you to change your mind. When you plan on these things happening before the conversation, it makes it easier to handle them if and when they occur. Understand that other people’s reactions are often more about them than about you. Those reactions don’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.
3. Communicate your position respectfully
Verbally articulating our boundaries with others is an important part of the process. You get the opportunity to share how you feel about something presently happening, and you also get the opportunity to set expectations for the future.
Perhaps you don’t like the nickname an acquaintance has given you. They think it’s a clever joke, but you find it offensive. Perhaps you are uncomfortable with how close a colleague often sits; you feel it’s an invasion of your personal space. Maybe your friends routinely stay far too late when you invite them into your home or your mother insists on visiting you every Sunday, but you no longer want her to.
Whatever it is, sharing how you’re feeling about the behaviors, asks or demands of others is important. That’s because, when done well, it can lead to change. This allows the relationship to improve. Oftentimes, we’re afraid to set boundaries with others because of how they will react. We can assuage these fears by remembering that setting boundaries is not about others; it’s about us.
There’s no need to criticize or attack others. Rather, we can simply share how we’ve been feeling and what we’d like to see change. It’s especially helpful to be specific. Instead of saying, “Mom, I just feel you’re too involved in our lives,” you can say, “Mom, I’d like to have some more time to myself to read, clean and spend time with the kids. You being at our home every Sunday has been tough on me. I’d like to ask that going forward, you only come twice a month instead of every weekend.”
4. Learn to feel good about it
I’ve noticed that many of us feel guilt or even shame when we try to set boundaries. These feelings discourage us from doing it. As you contemplate setting boundaries, instead of worrying about everyone else, remember to consider yourself first. It’s less important that everyone else around you is “okay” with it, and more important that you feel good about it. If someone or something is wreaking havoc on your life, you don’t have to simply “put up with it” at the expense of your happiness. It’s an act of bravery to ask (or say) what you want and need, and you should choose to feel good about having the courage to do that.
Setting boundaries with others can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it’s a key part of building a better life. We only get one shot at this life, and every moment matters. When we spend months or years tolerating things that make us uncomfortable, our worlds tend to shrink. Identify what’s most important to you and take these steps to advocate for it. Believe it or not, you’ll often find that doing this leads to better and more honest relationships with those around you, not worse relationships.