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Why Is It Hard To Set Boundaries?

Updated: Dec 10, 2022

Good fences make good neighbors. When we have good boundaries, our relationship are better.

“Don’t talk to strangers.” For most of us that’s the sum of our training in setting boundaries. There are no grade school classes or college courses on human interaction and boundary setting. So how do we learn?

Answer: most of us don’t.

Boundaries can be physical, emotional, energetic. Boundaries with parents, boundaries with children, boundaries with our partner, boundaries at work, and so on. Are you a people pleaser? Do you ever feel like you’ve given yourself away? Is it hard to say no? This is because you weren’t taught how. We learn about boundaries by watching our caregivers – mom, dad, auntie… and they in turn learned from their caregivers. So if their caregivers didn’t teach them, then they couldn’t teach you. The good news is that you can learn to do it now. It just takes a little practice.

I got my first lesson in boundaries from an unlikely source. In 5th grade I had some “friends” who could be rather mean. I remember vividly one day on the playground when they said something especially nasty to me, and I walked away feeling shocked, hurt, worthless, and like a deer in the headlights. A girl I barely knew came over to me as I sat alone, and told me that I needed “stubborn lessons”. A fast friendship was born. Together we practiced saying “NO!” and then giggling. We turned it into a game, but we learned from it too.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to set healthy boundaries.

A healthy boundary isn’t rigid like a rock wall. It is flexible and you can choose what you want to let in and what you want to keep out. It is like a fence with a gate. You can still let people in, but only when you choose. Choice is the key to building a healthy boundary.

The most obvious boundary is probably a physical one. You can feel when someone has broken your physical boundary when they stand too close, or give you an unwelcome hug or a handshake that lasts too long. It’s OK to say no. Decide how you will say it in advance and then practice on a friend so you won’t be caught off guard. “I appreciate the gesture, but I’m not much of a hugger,” for example. Think about what would work for you and test it out.

Another difficult place to set boundaries is with our parents. Oh my!!! My mom and I have a great relationship, but it wasn’t always the case – we worked hard to get to where we are now. One place where we have different boundaries is talking on the phone. At the end of the day I’m tired and the last thing I want to do is talk on the phone. My mom, however, is a talker. And a worrier. If I don’t answer or call back right away she gets worried. So I set a boundary with her. If she calls and I don’t have the energy to talk, I will text her to let her know I am OK and then will call later. The cool thing is, my mom has now learned to text and we have a new way of communicating that works for both of us! No, it wasn’t easy at first, but it really works. (Mom, if you’re reading this I hope you agree!)

“OK, great, but how do *I* learn to set boundaries?” I might be biased, but I think that therapy is a great place to learn. If you already have a therapist, chances are you’ve had this discussion. If therapy isn’t your thing, that’s OK. There are some great books you can read. One of my favorites is Facing Codependence by Pia Melody. Don’t let the title throw you – it’s one of those books that pretty much all of us can relate to on some level. Check it out and see if it looks interesting to you.

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