What Steps Can You Take to Set Healthy Boundaries? 

July 20, 2017
A teacher and student having a conversation

Over the years through private practice, I’ve worked with many people struggling with issues affecting their mental health:

  • Drug or alcohol addiction
  • Other mental disorders, like depression or anxiety, or lower-grade symptoms of these conditions
  • Relationship troubles
  • Difficulties coping with job or other life stressors
  • A sense of feeling stuck/personal or professional paralysis
  • A general malaise or lack of life purpose and passion
  • Unresolved grief issues

In many of these same cases, it often quickly becomes evident—within as little as a couple sessions with a client—that healthier boundaries are a critical need. Healthy boundaries equate with knowing and articulating one’s limits, a task that’s easier said than done. Here are some steps that anyone can take to set healthier boundaries in their relationships:

1. Build your self-awareness by getting in touch with your emotions.

Setting healthier boundaries requires self-awareness about what you’re feeling and when. For many of us, connecting with feelings can be scary or unfamiliar terrain, especially when we’ve grown up in a family environment that downplayed the role of feelings and/or discouraged their expression.

Negative or uncomfortable feelings like anger or anxiety can often be harder to acknowledge, for various reasons. Take a client who we’ll call Gina, for example. Gina learned early on in life that when she expressed feelings of anger toward her parents, she was either ignored or harshly disciplined with spankings. Over time, her default mode became one of repressing her anger in other situations—to the degree that by the time she reached adulthood, her anger manifested as clinical depression and an inability to set healthy boundaries with not just her parents but other authority figures as well.

2. Accept what you are feeling with self-compassion.

With my help and the use of various meditation and breathing techniques, Gina was able to get in touch with her unresolved anger and its various causes. But it was equally important to accept these emotions from a place of self-compassion. In Gina’s case, it was hard to accept these feelings of anger without first judging them. Why? Because growing up she had gotten the implicit message that anger was bad and deserved punishment. Gina’s gut reaction, then, was to self-judge for feeling anger, which only exacerbated her suffering. She instead had to learn to listen to her anger nonjudgmentally, with a view to learning what her anger was telling her about her own needs and limits.

Many of us need to do the same—and not just with the negative or uncomfortable feelings we experience, either. For many of us, accepting and acknowledging positive emotions, like happiness or contentment, can also be a challenge. But with tools like journaling, yoga, and mindfulness meditation, in addition to therapy, anyone can become more emotionally attuned and self-accepting.

3. Be as clear, direct, and specific as you can about your needs.

This step can be intimidating for a lot of people, because it demands a level of trust and vulnerability that takes courage. After all, there is a real risk that the expression of your needs will be met with rejection. But vulnerability—opening up to another human being about what you are really feeling—is the only way to a meaningful relationship, anyway.

4. In choosing what you say, always be mindful of the relational context.

How you express what you need will depend on the relationship, and whether it’s a close, personal relationship or a purely professional one. This relational context is always important to keep in mind.

Say, for example, that you are feeling frustrated because your partner has been spending money on big purchases without first consulting you. In this context, setting a healthy boundary would involve letting your partner know that you need them to talk with you first before running up the credit card bill. But in this case, too, your relationship may benefit from your sharing the emotions behind that expressed need. (You feel angry, because you feel hurt when your partner doesn’t consult you first, etc.)

On the other hand, in a professional situation, your job security and self-preservation may require that you keep your emotions out of the equation, depending on the context. If, for example, you’re feeling resentful and harried about the fact that your boss is piling on an unreasonable amount of deadlines, it’s probably best to stick only to solution-oriented statements about your needs, rather than calling attention to your feelings of anger and resentment. Relational context is always important.

5. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements.

“You” statements can be misread as criticism of the other person, and can elicit a defensive reaction. Instead, use statements like “I feel,” “I would love,” “I need,” etc.

6. Keep it positive.

One option is the so-called “sandwich approach”: begin with a positive compliment, deliver the criticism, and follow the criticism with another positive compliment. Another option is to frame whatever you say in affirmative terms, as an opportunity to deepen your relationship or grow in a particular area. How you express your need—the tone you use and what you say—can be as important as what you say.

Let’s return to Gina one last time. Gradually she learned how to express her needs and limits in her relationships. Paying attention to the relational context was important. So was using “I” statements and being as clear, direct and specific about her needs as possible. As a result of these healthier boundaries, Gina saw an overall improvement in her mental well-being. The same can be true for anyone who puts the above steps into action.

About the Author

Candice Rasa, LCSW, is clinical director of Beach House Center for Recovery, a drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center in Juno Beach, Florida. She has more than 10 years’ experience in the mental health and substance-abuse arena, and supports healing in the clients she serves from a solution focused, strengths-based client care.

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