Nine Ways to Set Healthy Boundaries

In my last blog, Healthy Boundaries – Healthy Relationships, I wrote about boundaries and why they’re important. I told you about Dave, the adult child of an alcoholic, who was struggling to set appropriate boundaries with his alcoholic mother. I also mentioned that I do a lot of work with people from homes where there is an alcoholic or addict, and with people who grew up with an alcoholic or an addict. As a result, I spend a lot of time talking about boundaries in counseling sessions. I noted that many adult children of alcoholics struggle with issues related to boundaries in relationships. Difficulty with boundaries is one of the cornerstones of codependence, which is common in families with alcoholism or addiction.

I used Dave’s experience as an example to demonstrate why we need to set healthy boundaries to have healthy relationships. They help us set expectations and let people know how we want to be treated.

And I promised that in my next blog I would offer tips on healthy ways to set healthy boundaries.

To begin, here are some examples of boundaries:

  • Telling a friend s/he can’t call you after 9:00,
  • Telling your boss you can’t come in to work on your day off,
  • Asking your neighbors to keep their dog out of your yard,
  • Asking your parents to call first before they come over to see the grandchildren.
  • Saying no to things you don’t want to do.

If you’re not used to it, setting boundaries can be difficult at first. Many people simply don’t know how. So, here are some ways to set boundaries:

Give yourself permission: You’re allowed to decide what works for you, what doesn’t and how you’re available to friends and family. You’re allowed to say no, and ask for what you want. Some people might be unhappy at first, or resist. You’re still allowed to state your needs and expectations.

Be clear: Clearly identify your boundary. Don’t hedge, or expect other people to know what you mean. You’re not telling your parents they can’t ever to come over to see the grandkids. You’re simply telling them to call first, to make sure it’s a good time: For example: “I’d appreciate it if you’d call first before coming over to see that kids.” That’s clear and straight forward.

Just say it: Don’t equivocate, hedge or be cryptic and vague, out of fear you might hurt someone’s feelings. State exactly what you want. Say it clearly. The kindest way to set a boundary is to be direct and say what you want.

Say what you mean, but don’t be mean: Use a kind and polite tone. There’s no need to get confrontational the first time you tell someone what your boundary is. That helps them feel respected, while you’re expressing your needs and expectations.

Move early: Set your boundary as soon as you feel like a situation isn’t working for you, before you become angry and resentful. Small problems can become big problems if you let them go on until you’re feeling angry and frustrated. It might have been easier if Pete had told his friend he prefers not to get calls after 9:00 the first time it happened, rather than letting it go on for months, until he was angry. Then the friend is confused about why Pete didn’t say something sooner, and the friendship may suffer.

Make it about you, not them: Use “I” or “me” statements (that does not include “I think you’re an idiot.”) That helps avoid putting people on the defensive, and it’s part of speaking kindly (see above). For example: “It really doesn’t work for us when you come by without calling first…” Or, “I’d appreciate it if the dog didn’t come into my yard…” Or simply, “I’m not available for that.” Jennifer was tired of her parents just showing up to see the baby whenever they felt like it, but she didn’t say anything. Eventually, she got angry and said, “You always do this and it’s so inconsiderate…” An angry confrontation ensued. It would have been easier for all involved if she had said early on: “It doesn’t work for us when you come by without calling first. We’d appreciate it if you’d call to make sure it’s a good time.”

Don’t apologize, or give long explanations: This is your boundary, you’re allowed to have it (see first tip). You’re allowed to set expectations about what you are, and are not, available for, and how you want to be treated. Apologizing and explaining gives the impression you’re not sure what you want. It makes it appear that you’re not sure you deserve to be treated the way you want to be treated. It also undermines your authority and makes it easier to people to feel they can ignore your boundary.

Get support: Setting boundaries can feel difficult for people who are not used to it. This can be especially true for people who struggle with codependence, or people pleasing. That’s why support is important. For people struggling with someone else’s addiction or alcoholism, there are support groups available, like Alanon. Otherwise, enlist the support of friends. When setting boundaries with her parents, Jennifer could get her husband’s help to present a united front, and so he can validate her feelings.

Trust your feelings: If you feel that a situation isn’t working for you, trust that. If you feel like you need to make a change in a relationship, or set a boundary to make yourself life more manageable, trust that. You are the ultimate authority on what works in your life and what you’re available for.

Yes, it’s true that setting boundaries can disrupt relationships. Saying no can be hard if you’re not used to it. Indeed, some people may resist. You may have to set the same boundary more than once. But it’s important to stick with it. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

If you need help setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries, or with the accompanying anxiety, I’m here to help. I offer therapy and counseling for families of addicts and alcoholics, and for addicts in early sobriety. I also help people overcome codependency and people pleasing. If you're interested in learning more or scheduling an appointment, I can be reached at (812) 371-6330 or ken@insight-counseling.org.

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Don’t forget to take good care of yourself.