The old thought tape is familiar: “What if it causes a scene? What if I’m asking too much? What if I’m being too sensitive or needy?” It can be anxiety provoking to be on the edge of expressing your needs or setting boundaries, and this is especially true for those of us in an environment where our emotions and needs are not often honored.
At their core, boundaries are morally neutral choices about what belongs to us and what belongs to others. They define us by articulating what we believe is ours and what is not ours. For example, we may choose that it is our responsibility to kindly engage in conversation with our in-laws at a Christmas event, but not our responsibility to manage their emotions, please them, or make them feel good. But even though boundaries are theoretically a free and morally neutral choice, many of us experience feeling fear or guilt when we anticipate setting them, leading us to assume that what we’re asking for must be selfish.
Although we may be afraid that assertive communication will increase our stress, research indicates the exact opposite effect. Practicing boundary setting can often bring peace, due to clarifying expectations, minimizing conflict, decreasing burnout, and strengthening our identity and sense of self. Learning to practice boundaries is a bold and brave endeavor, and it can feel terrifying to share our authentic selves with the world. In this way, boundaries challenge us to make space for and sit with our feelings of discomfort, vulnerability, and fear.
If you’re learning to practice setting boundaries, here are some helpful ways to start:
Explore why the idea of assertive communication brings on feelings of guilt and anxiety. Are you afraid of someone’s disapproval? If so, what would it mean to experience separation? How much power do they hold over your identity? Are you feeling selfish? Then it might be helpful to examine what’s leading you to draw the boundary. Are you setting it because you want to control others or because you want to honor your needs? If someone else were asking for the same thing that you are (e.g., support, respect, safety), would you accuse them of being selfish? Opening up and nonjudgmentally becoming curious about “what’s underneath” the boundary can be incredibly empowering and enlightening.
Asserting our needs, drawing boundaries, and communicating effectively are all learned skills, just like cooking, computer coding, or skiing. In the same way that it’s irrational to expect yourself to move from cooking box macaroni & cheese to beef wellington and fresh croissants, practicing boundaries in high risk situations is often too much to ask of yourself. Start small by expressing your needs with people and situations that feel safe.
Practice Ahead of Time
If we’re expressing our needs in a split moment of panic and anxiety, it’s unlikely to come out sounding exactly how we wanted. It can be helpful to practice your language ahead of time, identifying phrases and requests that sound comfortable to you. Intentionality ahead of time allows you to reach for well-known phrases with ease, even in a moment of stress. This might sound like, I’m not sure what you said was funny, I don’t feel comfortable talking about this, or I can only continue this conversation with a mediator present.
Imagine the Outcome
Finally, ask yourself how you’ll feel after you’ve communicated clearly. Are you proud? Empowered? Relieved? Who will celebrate with you? How can you honor this milestone? We’re more likely to take action when we’re connected to our values and can articulate what this growth means to us.