Setting personal boundaries means prioritizing yourself.
You’ve finally revved yourself up enough to tell the person you’ve been seeing that you want more from them, when they come back and tell you they aren’t on the same page. What do you do? Continue seeing them even though you know you want more, or are you able to keep looking out for your well-being and gracefully give a kiss on the cheek and say adios?
For most of my life, I did the former. I was the girl who said one thing and did another. It wasn’t only in romantic relationships but also friendships, agreeing to go to dinner or to a party when I really didn’t want to, or saying I would ask for a raise and then never doing it. Talking about boundaries is easy, but actually drawing them is off-the-charts hard, because it falls on us to do it, it’s our responsibility.
Through a lot of trial and error here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
Take Yourself Seriously
A lot of why I wasn’t able to stick to my boundaries was because I didn’t take what I was saying seriously. I had let myself down time and time again, by going back on my word, that I didn’t believe anything would be different the next time around. I didn’t believe in what I was saying because I didn’t believe in who I was. The times when I went back to an ex-boyfriend, or agreed to take on more work than I could handle was at a time when I didn’t like myself. And in a way, breaking a boundary made it easier to continue seeing myself as not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, worthy enough, you name it enough. Breaking a boundary made it somewhat OK to be down on myself.
How you shift from not being OK with who you are to being OK with who you are is by letting yourself simply be as you are. Sounds difficult, right? Maybe you raise your voice at someone out of frustration. Afterward you may say things like, “Why did I just do that?” “What kind of friend am I?” or “I’m so stupid for saying what I did.” But instead of judging yourself in that way, what if you simply felt the feeling the action brought up and accept that you feel badly for what you said?
What that means is allowing yourself to experience whatever it is that you are feeling without judging that feeling: to see yourself apart from the emotions so that you can observe without evaluation but with understanding.
The more you accept yourself as you are, the more you’ll take who you are seriously and thus believe you deserve boundaries.
Stand Up For Yourself
After I started to like myself I was able to assert myself, because I knew that what I felt and had to say was important. It wasn’t only with saying what I needed to, but it was also with my time. When I would get e-mails, instead of responding right away, I would wait until I was ready to answer. By doing this, I started setting others’ expectations and my own boundaries.
If I wanted more time to figure something out, I started saying things like, “I don’t know the answer right now, I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Or sometimes, I’d just say “No, I can’t do that right now.” Saying no started becoming easier, because I no longer felt the need to do things I didn’t want to do. The more I started paying attention to what I wanted and needed, the more I wanted take care of myself, which meant I didn’t want to lie anymore.
To make sure I’m standing up for myself I say yes when I mean yes, and no when I mean no, because as Toby Rice Drews, the author of nine recovery books, states, “When you’re doing what’s right for you, it’s OK to say it once, simply, and then refuse to discuss anything further.”
Repeat The Process
It’s more than likely that at some point you will break a boundary, but the key is not to get upset with yourself after the fact. Again, it comes back to being able to see yourself without judgment. If you go back on your word just recognize that you’ve done so, and try to understand why you did it. Then after you understand it, let yourself off the hook, and go back to the beginning. Maybe it means you need to do more work on caring for yourself, maybe it means you need to be more assertive, but know that setting boundaries is a daily practice and maintaining them is all about where you fall between a positive or negative self-esteem.
At night, before I go to sleep, I like to review my day. I think of all the things I did and if there are things I maybe fell back on or wanted to do differently. Then I let myself know that today is over, but I have tomorrow to try again. And in the morning I tell myself the following: I give myself permission to do what’s best for me today.
A boundary is created to protect, which means it is an act of self-care. What this means is that you can’t maintain a boundary until you like yourself enough to want to take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself means doing what’s best for you in any given circumstance. It means thinking about what you want over what others want and need—you are your priority. It’s not that you are out to hurt others by taking care of yourself; it isn’t the petty kind of selfishness where you are simply doing what you want because you want it. This is different.
It’s not selfish, but human to want to feel good, and if we feel good about ourselves it’s likely that we will create boundaries to keep out what doesn’t make us feel most alive.
Cynthia Kane received her B.A. from Bard College and her M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College Along with writing for magazines, newspapers, and online outlets, Cynthia mentors individuals to live deliberately. For a free consultation e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more of Cynthia’s writing visit her website or follow her on Twitter.