You’ve likely heard that it’s difficult to set boundaries, but what does that even mean—and does it apply to you? Ask yourself if any of the following scenarios sound familiar:
You chose to work evenings and weekends for a better grade in a class.
You chuckled nervously and avoided eye contact with a friend who teased you about a sensitive topic.
You went out on a Friday night when friends insisted, even though you wanted to catch up on sleep.
Someone in your group project didn’t contribute, but you gave them credit anyway.
If you relate to one or more of the above situations, you’re not alone. It can be difficult to even identify when your boundaries are being crossed, let alone know how to set them.
However, you can begin to learn boundary setting by applying these two skills: self-compassion and assertiveness.
1) Practice self-compassion
Kristen Neff, a doctorate psychologist and self-compassion researcher, defines self-compassion as “…giving ourselves the same kindness & care we’d give to a good friend”.
It has three components:
Self-kindness is when we are gentle, kind, and understanding toward ourselves when challenges arise (ex: when our boundaries are crossed).
Common humanity is the understanding that suffering is part of the shared human experience; we all feel this at times (ex: everyone has their boundaries crossed sometimes and has the right to restate them).
Mindfulness is a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment without trying to change it (ex: acknowledging your feelings and thoughts around having your boundaries crossed, without judging yourself).
By practicing self-compassion, we are essentially telling ourselves that we are not wrong to be feeling the way we are, that others have felt this way, and we do not need to judge ourselves for these feelings. Self-compassion can empower us to actively set our boundaries with assertiveness.
2) Act with assertiveness
Assertiveness involves the protection of your individual rights while also respecting the rights of others. It can often be understood as the middle ground between being passive and aggressive.
Assertiveness is a valuable skill to possess — and, incredibly, it’s a skill that you can develop at any stage of life.
Here are some ways you can practice assertiveness:
Be aware of your rights and responsibilities so you know when your boundaries have been violated. Exploring what emotional boundaries look like for you can help with this process.
Simple direct assertion is frequently disliked, so if you are concerned about sounding defensive, you can be sympathetic or praise the person you are talking to about another matter—almost like a compliment sandwich! For example: “Hey, I really appreciate your concern, but please do not bring that topic up in front of everyone else. Thanks for understanding.”
It is better to start with the simplest assertive response possible and increase as necessary. For example, you can start with stating what you need; if the person continues to cross your boundaries, you can state what the consequences will be if they continue to do so.
Try using “we” language to emphasize you are this together. For example, “We would all benefit from not receiving work calls past business hours”.
You can also use “I” statements to emphasize what you need, rather than “you” statements which could lead to feelings of blame. For example, “I feel like I need more consistent communication with you”, instead of “you never answer my texts”.
Beginning the path of boundary setting can feel daunting and you may feel unsure where to start. We encourage you to start small and practice this skill one step at a time. Here are a few tips you can use to get started:
Practice saying no to going out with friends on a Friday night may feel easier with a trusted friend or family member, or with yourself in the mirror, before trying it with a supervisor
Writing down key points of what you want to say before hard conversation can help ease stress as well.
Learn more about the art of boundary setting from students, to students!
Content in the video referenced from sources above.
About the Author
Healthy U Volunteers
Hi everyone! This post was written and created by five Healthy U volunteers; Caitlin, Alma, Megan, Jayanti, and Maha.
We have been volunteering with Healthy U for the 2022-2023 academic year and together, have been working to spread knowledge about a shared topic of interest; boundary setting and self-compassion!