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How to Set Clear Boundaries

Matthew Cuddeback LCSW 

           We have all been there, someone who we want to be a part of our lives is doing things is in way that is not healthy for us. They may not mean to be doing this problematic thing, or they may think they are in the right in how they are acting. However, whether it is intentionally problematic or not does not change the fact that you do not have to let them to act in a way that is unhealthy for you. So, it is important to send a message that a change is needed for you to continue to have them in your life. Let’s discuss how to send this message that will set you up for success:

  1.     Say It in The Right Setting/Context- There are a lot of ways to send this message poorly. Some of them are very simple but underacknowledged. If you are trying to make a complex and thorough point about changing behavior in the middle of a conflict, it likely will be too tied up in all other aspects of the conflict. It is best to wait until things are not so heated to have this conversation. The actual setting matters too, if you have a well-reasoned but difficult point to make, doing it in front of friends while you are out to eat is not likely going to be met with calm and understanding.
  2.     Be Specific- One of the easiest ways to mess up your point is by being too vague or unclear. If they don’t understand the point, we are making they may not think it’s all that important or be as concerned about following through on it. Maybe they don’t totally understand, or they get it wrong. Is it their fault that they thought you wanted X when you really wanted Y? Further, sometimes people will intentionally use this vagueness to their advantage, being specific disallows these intentional misunderstandings.
  3.     Know Your Audience- Maybe the person you are trying to build healthy boundaries with is uncomfortable with direct talk, maybe they become defensive with certain kinds of language. Or maybe they miss the point unless you are specific, they prefer directness. Knowing these things help set you up for success. Knowing your family member, or your friend, or you partner is sensitive to direct talk and choosing to do it anyway will get in the way of your message.
  4.     Be Consistent- This is a big one, an area we often falter on and it is crucial to the success of our message of stronger boundaries. I often see this, people set up great boundaries and they did everything above really well, but then the person they are building boundaries with does something a certain way that causes them to relent and they lose a lot of the progress they made. Build your boundaries with each step above and then stick to them. People are incredibly adept at identifying weaknesses in boundaries, it is in a lot of ways one of our great strengths. However, we need to stay consistent in this point. Which leads to the following…
  5.     Adapt- So, the person we are building boundaries with found the weak point and exploited it. You don’t scrap the whole thing, you instead adapt, maybe there was something you overlooked, that’s okay, THIS WILL HAPPEN. So, you patch up that hole and keep going.
  6.     Much of This Can Be Done Indirectly- Sometimes we have tried to be direct and it wasn’t successful, or we don’t feel comfortable being direct about our boundaries. You can do a lot of this through modeling behavior. Not engaging when they are doing something problematic or us, not engaging in that behavior ourselves, consistently changing direction when they are trying to do these things, are all forms of the same thing but less direct. This can be an appropriate approach, but the consistency and specificity of your actions are especially important when taking this route.

The human brain likes boundaries, we are more comfortable with them. However, we hate when they are being implemented. Letting people know what is and isn’t okay for us can be a frustrating process but once the clarity comes, once you have followed the steps above, stayed consistent and patched holes that they identified they start to become more comfortable. It is important to remember people can think what they want and do what they want, but that does not mean we have to allow them to do things that are unhealthy for us. In the end it is healthier for everyone to have clear boundaries in place.

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