How to Start Setting Boundaries – When You Haven’t Been

by | Jul 26, 2022 | Healthy Relationships

You know two main things get in the way of setting healthy boundaries?

  1. Our fear of how other people might react.
  2. Self-doubt and insecurity about our ability to respond to those reactions in effective ways.

This challenge is made even more difficult when we’ve been letting some behavior continue and the other person has become used to the status quo, but we now want to update our boundaries with them.

People – generally speaking – tend to resist change.

So, when the other person has gotten used to the way things have been, how do you change the rules of the game – nonviolently?

On a recent Conversations from the Heart Q&A call, a mom brought up this very issue. She wanted to start setting some new boundaries with a teenager, but was worried about the shock and resistance that she might need to field for “changing the rules.”

Many of us can relate, and you can click here to listen to the conversation or read on below to dive into the content a bit more deeply.

You’ll find out how to:

  • Prepare for these conversations
  • Develop the emotional strength to field whatever may arise
  • Use compassionate communication tools for co-creative solutions

Whether you’re parenting teenagers or not, the general frameworks here can be applied to navigating boundaries in all kinds of relationships. See what might work for your situation.

Definition: What’s a Nonviolent Boundary?

I am using the words “boundaries” and “limits” to point to the strategies that we use in our attempt to meet our universal human needs and serve our collective well-being.

When I use the word “boundary” I am referring to the things we each agree to do and choose not to do. I’m assuming these are grounded in our sense of integrity, our collective human needs, and that we are wanting to engage in authentic, connected dialogue with one another seeking agreements that work for us all whenever possible.

However, since many of us have mostly experienced “boundary setting” in the context of domination structures, we often associate boundaries with a form of punitive force, and we use these words to normalize exerting power over one another.

When used to implement domination structures, boundaries are often announced with little to no discussion and are unilaterally imposed by one person on another person. They often result in submission and resentment, and they break trust in the relationship.

On the other hand, nonviolent, compassion-based, relational boundaries take the form of agreements that are grounded in deep care for both people’s needs. These kinds of boundaries are a form of power-with: We take full responsibility for what we will and will not agree to, choose or participate in, while honoring that others’ will have feelings, reactions, preferences and their own choices around that.

Nonviolent boundaries are attempts to nurture our collective well-being, instead of forcefully imposing cultural norms and personal preferences on one another. They are co-created, tried on, and then re-evaluated as people live into them.

With this said, when we open up a conversation where we are changing our mind about something, wanting to share a “no” that has emerged for us where there was previously a “yes,” and inviting others into a new agreements and ways of being with one another, it can stir up a lot of “stuff” for us to navigate.

Here are a couple of common fears that can inhibit us: 

Concern #1: “They’re not going to like it.”

First of all, take this in:

It is okay for people to be surprised when you start setting boundaries, especially if that hasn’t been your habit.

Some of our work involves cultivating a willingness to let people have their emotional reactions instead of being unduly controlled by how somebody else might react.

Remember: While we care about how someone feels, it cannot be the main reason why we do or don’t do something.The main reasons we do or don’t do something is to live in alignment with our own values and to serve our collective well-being.

Simply take a deep breath, relax, and stay as openhearted as you can with how others may  interpret, feel, and react to your new limits.

Now, there’s a very good chance they’ll try to get you to go back to doing the thing that served them better. Anticipate there’s going to be push-back and pressure and take time to get grounded in your own reality.

This is about self-trust. Ask yourself:

  • Do I trust the validity of my boundaries?
  • Do I trust my ability to state my boundaries?
  • Do I trust my ability to ask for what I’m needing?
  • Do I trust myself to be okay with receiving a no?
  • Do I trust myself to remain empathetic when someone is angry with me?

Where do you go into self-doubt? Ask yourself:

  • Is that a healthy self-doubt, in which I’m taking in others’ feedback and attuning, learning, and growing?
  • Is that a disabling self-doubt, in which I lose self-connection and self-trust?

Exploring these reflection questions will help you get grounded in your own reality and your values – a perfect way to prepare for the conversation!

Concern #2: “I don’t trust that I can handle this.”

If you realize that you don’t trust your ability to handle their response to your setting boundaries, here’s an exercise for developing your confidence, clarity, and self-trust:

Imagine it.

Go through the difficult conversation in your mind and feel all the feelings. For example:

I’m a parent who’s setting a boundary with my two teenage daughters, and they’re both going to get very angry and say terrible things and then they’re going to leave, and I’m going to be alone and feel tons of shame.

So let’s sit and feel the shame now. Go through the nightmare in your mind and find out what’s on the other side.

When I find I’m avoiding a difficult conversation because I’d rather not experience some painful feelings, I walk my way through it in my mind and imagine what that experience is going to be. I feel my way through it and ultimately discover that I’ve survived.

I might feel terror, shame, and dread, but on the other end I might discover that also feel a bit of relief, some self-respect, and a little more clarity.

Imagining the conversation in this way is another way to prepare ourselves: growing our emotional strength, expanding our consciousness, and nurturing our resilience. We can then better trust our capacity to handle whatever may come.

Since we ultimately don’t get to control what other people do with where we stand on things, building this emotional strength can be vital to our ability to follow through with setting boundaries, especially when those boundaries might not be welcomed.

Creating Conditions for Happy Boundaries

Now let’s back up for a moment.

While we might worry that the other person won’t accept our new boundaries or that we won’t have the capacity to handle whatever their reaction might be, there are some other things we can do to create conditions in which that kind of resistance is less likely.

These recommendations especially apply to making changes within a family system, as in the case of a parent setting new boundaries with their teenagers. Again, you can take the general principles and apply them to various kinds of relationships.

If you’re going to make a change in a family system, I recommend starting here:

  1. Explicitly acknowledge the change.
  2. Reveal how this thing you’ve been doing isn’t meeting some of your needs.
  3. Share why you’re going to start doing this other thing instead to better meet those needs.

The more you keep your focus on the values and the needs that you are trying to live into with this new boundary, the more smoothly the conversation will go.

Why’s that?

Teenagers are likely to take it personally. It’s just a natural part of their current stage of development. They will likely perceive it as a criticism and as a punishment. Knowing that, you can do whatever you can on the front-end to ameliorate their natural tendency to interpret it as a punishment.

You help them understand what isn’t working for you about how you’re doing it, what you’re going to be doing differently, and what needs you’re trying to meet in the process.

And then ask them how they feel about that.

Be willing to be in a conversation. In these early stages, hold whatever strategy you’re proposing lightly and be willing to take in their feedback. Listen to their needs and pick up what they’re caring about.

Then, whatever decision you get to at the end feels like it’s been co-created, including everyone’s perspective. They won’t feel like something has just been “done to them.”

Sometimes you do need to make an executive decision, and sometimes not everyone is going to get their preference. But if you can own the decision as something that you’re doing for your well-being and their well-being and if they have the experience of you really caring about what matters to them, it will grease the wheels for those new boundaries to be accepted.

Empowering Principles – No Magic Bullets

Keep in mind that every situation is unique.
There are no guarantees, and there are no magic bullets.

However, we do have empowering principles to rely upon:

  1. We can do the inner work to become more self-connected and grounded in our needs and values, and we can develop our emotional capacity to field whatever may come.
  2. We can open conversations to set boundaries from a place of deep self-trust and self-responsibility, revealing our desire to meet our own needs and also caring for the needs of others.

When we approach setting boundaries with these guiding principles and are willing to go with the flow of whatever arises – co-creatively, consciously, compassionately – we have the potential to emerge from these difficult conversations more connected than ever, connected both to ourselves and those we love.

Where do you get stuck in setting boundaries? Has this framework been helpful? Did you discover some new things to try here? Is there something you would add?

I’d love to know – leave a comment below.


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