Throughout life we come across people who try to take too much of our time, energy, or money. For example, you may have a parent who criticises you in every telephone call, leaving you feeling sad, worthless, or frustrated. Or a friend who repeatedly asks for a financial loan without paying it back, and you feel too awkward to bring this up because you worry that it will end the friendship. Or a colleague who takes up too much of your time asking questions or is disorganised, leaving you stressed or unable to complete your own deadlines.
If you are kind-hearted, compassionate, and generous, you may try help these people, whether that means giving them your time, attention, energy, or money. However, this can lead you to feel physically, psychologically, or financially drained, which is not helpful for you or others around you. One way to reduce the impact of this is being able to set and maintain effective boundaries. Below is a 3-step process that can be a helpful skill in looking after yourself and maintaining effective relationships with others.
Firstly – identify the behaviour you are no longer going to put up with. For example, for a negative phone call from a parent, you might decide that you are no longer going to put up with being nagged or criticised because this behaviour is not acceptable and makes you feel like crap.
Secondly – set the boundary for the behaviour you are no longer going to put up with. For this step, think about some ways you could put the boundary in place. You don’t necessarily need to tell the person “this is my boundary now so back off”. It could just involve establishing some rules for yourself or for the person. For example, for the critical parent phone call, you might decide that you are only going to speak for 10 minutes per phone call and if criticism starts in that time, you are going to make an excuse and end the call. Or, you might ask your parent not to make negative comments about your career choices when they phone you.
Another example of a boundary might be to decide never to speak to your parent at all, but this will probably not be helpful if you want to maintain a relationship with your parent. Think about the boundary that you want, but be realistic at the same time.
Thirdly – maintain the boundary. Sometimes people will react negatively to changes. For example, a critical parent might try and make you feel guilty about shorter phone calls. However, this does not mean that you should get rid of the boundary, but instead that you will have to work to maintain the boundary. It will take practice, consistency, and persistence, but it is worth it if you want to work towards no longer being criticised and emotionally drained each time they call.
Some things to remember. Boundary setting and maintenance can be hard and takes work! This is especially true when you are setting boundaries for people who have not had many limits placed on them before. However, if the reason for having the boundary is solid this will provide the motivation for continuing to work to keep the boundary in place.
Boundary setting can be a new skill to learn so you might make mistakes when starting out. Keep at it, as it may get easier over time and with practice. Being able to set and maintain boundaries is a useful skill to have in terms of practicing good self-care, standing up for yourself, and being assertive.