Four Steps for Building Better Boundaries

Many of us—and an especially high percentage of those of us who identify as female—suffer from the “disease to please.” We’re more apt to say “yes” than “no.” We’re more apt to self-sacrifice, putting others’ needs above our own. We’re more apt keep our mouths shut when we’re feeling trod upon rather than speak up and risk rocking the boat. And we’re less apt to advocate for our needs, wants, preferences, and desires.

All this gets us nowhere.

“You set every relationship in your life up to be filled with conflict, misunderstandings, and frustration when you don’t set appropriate boundaries,” says psychotherapist and master coach Terri Cole, who admits that our society values “niceness” above most other virtues typically classified as “feminine.”

While the stress and anxiety of not setting boundaries can negatively affect sleep and even lead to autoimmune disorders and other maladies, Terri says the biggest consequence of having unhealthy boundaries is the inability to be authentically known. “How can people authentically love you if you never let them authentically know you?” she asks.

As with so much of our character, how we set—or don’t set—boundaries as adults is intimately connected to how we saw our family members set boundaries among themselves and with the outside world as we were growing up. “How separate or enmeshed you were heavily impacts how well or poorly you create boundaries in your personal relationships today,” Terri explains. “The good news is that, like an architectural blueprint for a house that someone else designed long ago, if you don't like the ‘downloaded boundary blueprint’ you were handed, you have the power to change it.”

According to Terri, six unhealthy boundary styles are common among women. While out-of-balance boundaries can cause some of us to be overly accommodating, hyper-vigilant, or codependent, others can become pushy, aloof, or inflexible.

Not surprisingly, becoming aware of our boundary style is the first step in creating change. “Then comes self-acceptance, self-compassion, and finally a level of self-love,” says Terri. Most of all, though, the Boundary Boot Camp founder is quick to remind women of one of the biggest myths about having strong boundaries: that women who do are mean, selfish, difficult, and shrewish. “The truth about having healthy, transparent boundaries,” she insists, “is that it’s the most loving thing you can do in any relationship.”

Here are a few of Terri’s tips on how to draw those ever-important lines in the sand.

Take time before making decisions.

Stopping the "auto yes" is crucial to establishing proper boundaries. “You don't owe anyone an instant answer to anything unless it’s a true emergency,” Terri says. “Remember, poor planning on another person's part does not need to constitute an emergency for you.” It’s important to have one or two simple phrases ready to go for occasions when you receive invitations or are asked for help out of the blue. Terri suggests, “I’ll get back to you on that—I need to check my schedule" or "I have a 24-hour decision-making policy, so I’ll get back to you with an answer tomorrow."

Use simple, straightforward language.

“This is the most effective way to verbalize a boundary preference,” Terri explains. “For example, ‘I'd like to make a simple request that if you’re going to be more than 10 minutes late, you let me know.’ Instead of saying nothing and seething, saying something and making a specific request goes a long way towards getting your needs met.”

Look for patterns in romantic relationships.

Scan your romantic relationships for repeated issues, like acquiescing to your partner’s preferences rather than voicing your own, or depending solely on your partner’s approval and reassurance for your self-esteem. “If you’re always attracted to unavailable people, there's a reason,” Terri says. “If you're always the ‘giver’ and endlessly find yourself with ‘takers,’ there’s a reason. These patterns can become the roadmap back to original injuries that need healing, so you can stop repeating them.” Remember, she cautions, “You train people how to treat you.”

Be aware of boundary pitfalls with family.

“When spending time with your family of origin, regressing to an earlier stage of development is common,” Terri notes. “If staying at your parents’ house is stressful or toxic, decide to stay at a hotel and actually enjoy your time, even if you get push-back. You’ll be surprised at how family members will ultimately respect your boundaries if you create them with confidence, as a choice, rather than make them out of fear or anger.”

The bottom line is that disordered boundaries create confusion, and inevitably lead to resentment and conflict. Drawing healthy boundaries, on the other hand, allows us the satisfaction of being authentically known. We’re no longer pretending to feel something we don’t or be someone we’re not. We’re no longer keeping others at arm’s length to protect ourselves from being hurt. We’re no longer cutting people out of our lives rather than telling them how upset we are. “There’s true liberation and a feeling of lightness that comes from having healthy boundaries,” Terri says. “Instead of feeling like a victim, where life is happening to you, a boundary skill set allows you to be in control of your destiny as you dictate what happens.”

Check out Boundary Boot Camp with Terri Cole.

Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer for more than 15 years.

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