Scared to Set Boundaries? How to Set Boundaries to Strengthen Your Relationships and Find More Peace of Mind

Photo by Isaiah Rustad via Unsplash

For years I avoided setting boundaries because I was scared. I was scared I would be seen as a bitch, as difficult, and I was scared of causing a stir and being disliked. I wanted to avoid conflict, and sweep shit under the rug. The result? I stewed in silence and let resentment build, causing chronic stress that could have been avoided with a few quick but uncomfortable conversations.

I probably could have saved some money in therapy bills had I learned to set boundaries sooner.

Some people don’t like a boundary- setter. But life is infinitely easier and better when you don’t care if people like you or not. My goal is no longer to be liked, it’s to be authentic, and to find people that connect with the real me. This feels like freedom after living on the other side for so long.

Also, plot twist: most people won’t care when you set a boundary, and they’ll be glad to know. Most people don’t want to intentionally disturb others.

Way too often, we’re made to feel guilty for setting boundaries in our lives. We believe we are good people, and good people want to help others, be accommodating, empathetic, and generous.

We can sometimes run the risk of over-extending ourselves to others or putting up with bad behavior if we fear setting boundaries. Oftentimes, a lifetime of people pleasing and chasing external approval causes us to stretch ourselves thin, or take shit from others.

You Are Not a Puppet

When you learn to like and love yourself, you don’t need approval from others. You are comfortable and confident with who you are, and if someone doesn’t like it, then they’re not for you and that’s fine. When you love yourself, you have your own back, don’t need validation from others, and you believe you are worthy of the love and acceptance you receive from the people closest to you. You don’t have to perform to receive or accept love.

When you love yourself, you’re not afraid of setting boundaries because you know that if it scares someone away, you probably don’t want them in your life anyways.

When we rely on external validation from others to prop up our self esteem, setting boundaries is extremely difficult. When you put your worth in someone else’s hands, you run the risk of losing that worthiness if the person in question doesn’t like the boundaries you set.

So, the first rule of setting boundaries, is learning to love yourself and building healthy self esteem outside of the love and approval from others.

Boundaries Get A Bad Rap

The second rule to setting boundaries is to accept that having boundaries is part of having healthy relationships, and while sometimes they make for uncomfortable conversations, boundaries are ultimately a good thing. Setting boundaries does not make you a bitch, it makes you a good communicator, and it’s actually a healthy, perfectly normal thing to do. Being able to openly communicate your needs allows others to step up and meet them. The people in your life can’t read your mind. Help them by openly communicating, even when it’s hard. Remind yourself you can do hard things.

If we grew up in a household where boundaries and privacy weren’t respected, and there was enmeshment (a close relationship with unclear or fuzzy boundaries, or frequently taking on the emotions of others) then setting boundaries as an adult will probably feel pretty scary.

This is because, similar to our attachment styles in romantic relationships, we are likely to repeat the relational patterns that we learned from our early caregivers.

The Bitch Myth

We don’t learn how to set boundaries in school, and we don’t necessarily learn what a lack of boundaries looks like, either.

We often learn to swallow our discomfort, accept things the way they are, and avoid causing a fuss or a stir at all costs. We learn to keep the peace, to be good girls, likable young men, sugar and spice, everything nice, be quiet, be polite, fall in line and avoid conflict.

We mistakenly believe the lie that when a woman sets boundaries, it’s bitchy, even though we may secretly admire and envy her strength. When a woman calls out sexual harassment, or toxic behavior, she might be labeled “hard to work with,” “demanding,” or “too sensitive.” It’s happened to me, and it’s happened to many others. So, we learn to be quiet. We learn to deal. We learn to swallow abuse of power and try to forget about it. We learn to numb. We pick up habits that help us forget, whether that’s excessive shopping, a nightly glass of wine or three, excessive comfort food or binge-watching TV.

Some people may very well reject your boundaries.

The people who get upset when you set boundaries are the ones who benefited from you having none.

Quick Discomfort vs. Prolonged Resentment

It’s hard to change our behavior and habits, and take an honest look at ourselves and how we might be making someone feel uncomfortable.

It may seem easier to just accept things as they are, even if someones behavior makes you uncomfortable, than it is it to speak up about it. Speaking up is uncomfortable, but the discomfort is temporary. Avoiding confrontation creates resentment that lasts much longer.

The relief you’ll feel afterwards is infinitely better than the short term discomfort you’ll experience setting a boundary. Is it really easier to be stressed out all the time because you’re afraid to speak up? Resentment builds up, discomfort passes.

I’ve been learning to set boundaries for years, from reporting sexual harassment at a job that did nothing about it (ok, they finally hired an HR person, and eventually fired the guy years later as more women came forth to speak up) to asking for more space to pursue my goals in romantic relationships, to telling a new friend she was asking too much of me, to telling my landlord I don’t want to split bills with a new neighbor to telling a colleague to stop “accidentally” touching my butt every time he walked past to telling a man standing behind me in line to get on his 6ft social distancing dot. I do not hesitate to say something anymore, because I’m tired of being walked on in the name of being polite, in the name of being good. I’ve also learned that speaking up typically solves the problem, I feel better afterwards, and if the other person continues to cross the boundary, at least then I know where we stand, and that I took action instead of willing someone to change.

After years of swallowing my discomfort in favor of the comfort of others, I sometimes need help picking my battles. For instance, I’ll find myself wondering if it’s easier to let something go or if I should speak up. One way I decide is thinking about what I want my nieces to do, what I want my sisters to do, and how I’d like to see culture shift. Sometimes we have to take ourselves out of the equation to gain perspective.

When People Don’t Respect Your Boundaries

Some people aren’t interested in your boundaries. Sometimes these are the people closest to us, who have a hard time changing old habits. Sometimes they are colleagues who simply don’t get it. Let’s say, for example, you tell an ex you want to go no contact, and they text you every day anyways, or show up at your house the next day, or continue to try to contact you for years even after you’ve deleted every text and blocked them on every platform.

While this isn’t a fun experience to deal with, it’s beneficial because these people are showing you that they don’t understand boundaries, they don’t respect your boundaries, and you can move on with your life knowing you’re better off without these people. It will cost you some discomfort, but these experiences offer us clarity, and an opportunity to practice better communication, or in extreme cases, denying people access to us.

Wouldn’t You Rather Know?

Most people don’t realize they’re doing anything to make you uncomfortable. Most people are well-meaning, and doing their best to fulfill their own needs and live in the best way they know how, with the information they have. Most people are quick to course correct, and don’t want others to feel uncomfortable. Most people would rather you state your boundaries than unknowingly do something that makes you uncomfortable. Wouldn’t you?

Think about it: say you have a friend, and you, an outspoken individual, blather on and on about all the juicy details of your sex life, assuming this friend is cool with the sex talk like your other friends. But perhaps this friend is quite private and reserved when it comes to sex, or is healing some part of themselves related to sex, and these conversations are actually quite triggering and uncomfortable for your friend. Wouldn’t you rather know and change the freaking topic than have this person slowly fade out of your life without a chance to adapt? There’s a million other things to talk about! We can get different needs met with different people. If this friend could just tell you you’re making them uncomfortable, you could save the friendship.

Save your relationships, friendships, dignity, well being, and energy, and learn how to set boundaries.

How to Set Boundaries and Feel Good About It

Get Real

Take a good, hard, look at what’s been preventing you from setting boundaries in your life. Are you afraid of what people will think of you? Are you afraid to lose relationships and friendships? (Note: if setting a boundary causes you to lose a relationship, my advice is to let that one go) Think about if there were examples of healthy boundaries in your early family life, or if privacy was invaded, and emotions were enmeshed.

Reframe

Reframe your perspective around boundaries. Boundaries are healthy, normal, and help you have better, more fulfilling and healthy relationships. If you can’t openly communicate with the people in your life, how can you expect to have healthy relationships? Boundaries will improve your life, even if that means weeding out toxic people and situations.

Flip it and Reverse it

Remember to reverse the roles, and ask yourself, wouldn’t you like to know if you were (unknowingly) making someone uncomfortable? Also, ask yourself, if this were happening to my niece/daughter/son/best friend, what would I want for them?

Evaluate

Evaluate whether someones behavior is inappropriate, or if your expectations are. We have to set boundaries with ourselves, as well. Being controlling is not the same as having good boundaries. For instance, expecting your friend, partner, or family member to be at your beck and call 24/7 is not realistic. If you can’t handle someones absence, perhaps you need to work on your presence with yourself. If, however, a friend or partner isn’t giving you enough space to nurture your hobbies or other relationships, or is breaking promises and disrespecting your time, it is totally appropriate for you to set a boundary. It might be worth confiding in a trusted friend or therapist what’s been going on to get a second or third opinion. At the end of the day, trust your gut.

Plan

Plan what you’re going to say. Sleep on it. Be kind, but firm. Assume best intent, and that the person you want to talk to has no idea they are crossing a line for you or causing harm. Remember all the things you like about this person, and consider all the hardships they may have on their plate (that you don’t know about.) Be direct without attacking.

Keep it Light

Setting boundaries doesn’t have to be a big, heavy conversation. It can be one or two clear or direct lines. You can crack a joke if that feels good. You don’t have to avoid the person afterwards. Oftentimes, I find my relationships feel easier after setting a boundary and being clear about my needs, and I continue to treat the relationship the same as before.

Breathe

Take a few slow, deep breaths, and set the boundary in person, face-to-face, or over the phone, ideally. Hopefully you can do this in person, and in private (although if it’s a case of sexual harassment or harassment in general, it’s often a better idea to call someone out in front of others for accountability and witnesses.) Try to keep it lighthearted. You can throw in a “I’m sure you don’t mean to, but…” or, “I think you’re great, and I really respect you,” depending on the relationship. If this is someone you don’t really know and don’t care to know, feel free to give the finger to any of my sugar-coating suggestions. Be as clear and direct as possible. For instance, “You are standing too close to me. Please back up,” versus, “Um, you’re standing a little close.” Or, “Do not touch me. That’s not ok,” vs. “Excuse me? Did you just touch me? Could you not?” Be blunt and crystal clear. It will be uncomfortable for about two minutes and then everyone will get over it. Hold your head high, keep your shoulders back, remember to breathe. Own your decisions.

Let it Go

Take another deep breath, pat yourself on the back for doing something hard, and congratulate yourself for standing up for yourself. Let the pieces fall where they may. You may have to set the same boundary twice, or let someone go. Rest easy knowing you have done your part.

Conclusion

Having boundaries doesn’t make you difficult, it makes you direct. You don’t have to go through life accepting unacceptable behavior. Stand up for yourself. Don’t take shit. Don’t shape shift and drain your energy to accommodate other people’s shortcomings. If they call you a bitch, let them! That’s their burden to carry, not yours.

You do not have to play the role others want and expect you to if it doesn’t feel right or good to you. You write your own role.

The ability to set boundaries will change your life, offer you more peace of mind, improve your relationships, confidence, and prevent resentment from building up. It’s normal for it to feel scary at first if you’re not used to setting boundaries. It will get easier with time.

Learn to set boundaries. Practice. Even if you’re scared and shaky voiced when you do it (I’ve been there) it still works, and it will get easier with time. You’ll realize you weren’t powerless after all, and your direct communication skills will carry over into other areas of your life.

The ability to set boundaries will change your life, offer you more peace of mind, improve your relationships, confidence, and prevent resentment from building up. It’s normal for it to feel scary at first if you’re not used to setting boundaries. It will get easier with time.

Learn to set boundaries. Practice. Even if you’re scared and shaky voiced when you do it (I’ve been there) it still works, and it will get easier with time. You’ll realize you weren’t powerless after all, and your direct communication skills will carry over into other areas of your life.

2 thoughts on “Scared to Set Boundaries? How to Set Boundaries to Strengthen Your Relationships and Find More Peace of Mind

  1. This is such an important post! I agree when you talked about the fact that if the roles were reversed you would rather the other person told you about the bounderies they want, so that is something you should always keep in mind!

    Like

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