How to start setting boundaries

It’s never too late to change your life

By Jessica Militello

Honestly I didn’t even know how to start this article. It’s one I’ve wanted to write for a long time but the brutal honesty of it all made me want to avoid sharing it and I also felt like a fraud doling out advice on something I’m still learning about.

I grew up in a home where there was always so much drama going on involving other people, that I learned my role and the way to be lovable was to keep my feelings and thoughts to myself; that other, way worse things were going on, and I couldn’t possibly ask my primary caretakers for help because it was selfish to “need” anything when there was already so much chaos going on.

I learned to be their caretakers, in a sense, from a young age. They couldn’t even get their own shit together- in my young mind, I needed to learn how to take care of myself. Through observing these relationship dynamics, I learned to stay quiet, put other people’s thoughts and feelings before mine, and to basically be invisible. The few times I did try to speak up in those instances, my feelings were often dismissed or minimized, followed by being shamed for having those feelings.

Throughout my life, before learning about all this and doing the healing work to grow from it, naturally, all of these patterns and behaviors I observed growing up played out in all my relationships. I didn’t trust my instincts because I would often dismiss my own feelings in light of someone else’s, struggled to communicate when I felt uncomfortable or wanted to say no to things, constantly felt guilty if/when I would put my own needs first, settled for poor behavior and careless treatment and justified it by worrying about what they were “going through” at the time, or told myself they probably didn’t mean it or that I was just being too sensitive or some other jedi mental gymnastics reasoning to blame myself for their poor behavior. And because I constantly struggled to communicate my own thoughts and dismissed my own feelings, I landed in relationships and friendships with people who did the exact same thing to me. I would hold onto resentment and in many times get to a point where holding in my thoughts resulted in me getting mad and lashing out at the other person for boundaries and communication that I struggled to convey.

Learning to have boundaries is a multi-step process- but there are steps you can take to get you headed in the right direction that you can totally get started on by yourself. So grab a notebook and a pen and let’s get started.

Observe the origin story of your lack of boundaries by reflecting on what you were taught growing up

I realize this first bullet point may be difficult because it is asking you to honestly look at a portion of your life that you may have spent many, many years minimizing or diluting your true thoughts and feelings on. But this first part is really crucial in realizing why you have certain patterns. This helps for having empathy for yourself and understanding in a non-judgmental way, why you are the way you are up to this point in your life. I really don’t need you to dig super deep on this one. If a lot of feelings are coming up on having to reflect on childhood memories, what could be helpful is recollecting on it from a third-person point of view in order for it to feel less heavy. How did the adults in your family talk to each other, what happened when someone made a mistake, or someone’s feelings got hurt? How did communicating take place or not? How were disagreements and arguments resolved? Was there talking it out, listening to each other’s feelings, any apologizing? Did everyone just pretend it didn’t happen and swept everything under the rug? Whatever you remember, or think may be important-write it down. It’s important to make sense of how your inner critic has been developed from your entire life, so if you minimize and judge your own thoughts and feelings, it is most likely because it is what you observed and eventually learned how to treat yourself/others. Again, I don’t need you getting super deep on this especially if you don’t want to. We don’t need to delve into every memory and feeling from the past, we’re just trying to get an idea of where these ideas originated from.

Taking an honest look at your own relationships

Now that you’ve objectively looked at what patterns you observed growing up, it’s time to look at your own friendships/relationships. Are there any that immediately stand out? Dynamics of past/present relationships where you hold resentment for things you did for a person, or feel depleted and used? Any kind of relationship that you look back on where you felt your voice was not heard, your feelings didn’t matter, or where the other person just took and took and then left you on the side of the proverbial highway? As life and relationship coach Mark Groves says, “you are part of the dance.” And as I like to say-the only way someone can waste your time is if you give them your time in the first place. Any relationships where I’ve held resentment of all I did or sacrificed without getting equal effort and consideration in return was because I chose to put that person and their feelings above my own or I chose to constantly give in order to “prove” my value. If I felt I constantly gave and they mostly took, it is because I lacked the self-worth at the time to realize there is never anything you need to do to prove your value or necessity in their life. It can also reflect overcompensating for your abandonment issues by trying to prove how useful you are. This is a self-worth issue which plays into boundary setting, because if you have no self-worth then you can’t set boundaries, but when you have no boundaries, you’re going to have a hell of a time building any self-worth. It’s a vicious cycle. Realize the roles you both played in these friendships/relationships-forgive yourself, forgive them. Look at it as a learning experience and then realize how dynamics you learned growing up played out in these adult relationships of yours. It’s always good to look at any relationships, past or present, reflect on what was good and bad about it, what you did best, and what you would like to work on about yourself. Your relationships with others can only get better when the relationship with yourself improves. If you don’t like yourself, you will constantly be flattered by any validation or attention you get from others. You will accept any relationships/friendships because when you have no self-worth you have minimal standards for the way others treat you because you are desperate for any kind of belonging. But now that you know this, you totally have the chance to turn it around.

Build your self-worth

As I wrote just a few sentences ago, when you have low self-worth you will struggle to have boundaries. When it’s more important to be liked, you will settle for a lot of nonsense. Speak your truth, communicate how you really feel without worrying about scaring a person away, stop saying yes to things you don’t want to do. Stop being afraid of what will happen when you show your true self to others-you know what will happen? The people meant for your life will stay, and the others will fall away. You have to learn to like yourself and enjoy your own company so that you don’t even allow people in your life who cannot meet simple standards of respect and consideration.

Learn what your standards and non-negotiables are for your relationships

A lot of this is all inter-connected and I don’t really see it as a matter of consecutive steps, which is why I didn’t number any of these points. You do need to first realize your intrinsic value to even be able to set standards, but having standards and sticking to them builds self-worth, so it all builds together. What are the standards that you have for yourself? Write them down. Sometimes it just goes back to the golden rule; treat others the way you would like to be treated, but also don’t allow yourself to be treated in any way that you would not treat others.

People are not mind readers-you still need to communicate

In the early stages of learning about boundaries, there can be a tendency to go to extremes in order to make up for a boundary-less past. You may know what you want and deserve, but struggle with feeling defensiveness and forecasting of your feelings being minimized. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean everyone will magically fall in line. This is the hard part because sometimes people who you really want to meet your standards may falter. Communication is extremely important. Everything is not personal, and we can’t just assume what we think others should know. This is the time to have a conversation in a very objective, fact-based way by noting a pattern and how it makes you feel, an openness for discourse, as well as a suggestion or solution. But if they completely dismiss and invalidate your feelings then that is more so where the red flag lies. Adjust accordingly. You might have the best of times with someone but they are just unable to meet you where you are. They may not be in the phase of change to even acknowledge it or do something about it. You have to know your worth and when others act or fail to act in a way that is hurtful and just not okay to you. Sometimes you have to distance yourself, and in some cases if things are unhealthy, end the friendship/relationship. It’s not always easy, but you have to know your worth and your non-negotiables as well as stick to them.

Are you learning more about setting boundaries? What has worked for you so far? Share some of your experiences in boundary setting in the comments.

6 thoughts on “How to start setting boundaries

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