I could see it in Kim’s eyes as soon as we sat down at our regular brunch spot for our weekly catch up. She had just endured five days with the in-laws and her red nose, puffy eyes and frown indicated she was upset. Kim appeared flat, her voice was deeper than usual as she slumped in her chair. What followed was a description of a difficult week, filled with passive-aggressive comments, subtle glares and occasional tears. I could tell this week had been challenging and unfortunately, I had seen this all before. Kim struggled with setting interpersonal boundaries and this time it had been her mother-in-law who had overstepped them.
According to research, a boundary is a limit or space between you and the other person – a clear place where you begin and the other person ends. The purpose of setting a healthy boundary is to protect and take good care of you, as well as your mental health and wellbeing. Boundaries in relationships both create and allow for emotional health – with healthy boundaries comes increase in self-esteem, confidence and emotional stability. When interpersonal boundaries are not maintained individuals can experience distress, burnout, financial burdens, relationship issues and stress, which is why setting them is a crucial component in caring for your wellbeing.
Like Kim, many people find it difficult to set boundaries. Trying to set them can be accompanied by feelings of resistance, frustration, anxiety, or thoughts such as “am I able to do this?” or, “is this the right thing to do?” One great way to help you on the path to articulating your boundaries has been developed by Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Elizabeth Quinn, who describes it as a three step process.
The first step is to acknowledge and validate the other person. This can be achieved through demonstrating you have heard what they have said by paraphrasing or summarising their main points. Kim and I used her example of her mother-in-law undermining her parental authority in front of her children.
The second step is to give a clear, assertive statement that this is a violation of your boundaries.
“I don’t want to be having this conversation in front of my kids, doing so is overstepping my boundary.”
Finally, it’s important not to over-explain or apologise for being clear about your boundaries. Instead, choose a statement to help get your point across and avoid confusion in the future.
“If you want to have these conversations in the future, please speak to me in private. It is important that we present a united front to the children.”
Boundary setting is not easy, especially when we are inexperienced in setting them. While it may feel uncomfortable to begin with, the more you practice, the easier it will become and the more your boundaries respected. For more on setting boundaries, check out the following resources: