How to Set Difficult Boundaries in a Compassionate Way

“We can say what we need to say. We can gently, but assertively, speak our mind. We do not need to be judgmental, tactless, blaming, or cruel when we speak our thoughts.” ~Melody Beattie

When I first learned about the concept of boundaries, I imagined how freeing it would feel to finally be able to say an empowered “no” at every turn. I imagined myself turning down drinks from leering strangers at bars, denying eager clipboard-carriers’ requests for money, and rejecting requests to do more than my fair share of work projects.

“‘No’ is a complete sentence” would be my anthem.

Eventually, though, I began to understand that boundaries are more complicated than simply saying no to strangers. Sometimes setting boundaries meant having awkward, painful conversations with loved ones about dynamics in our relationship that no longer served me.

For example: I needed to ask a friend to leave more space for me in our conversations. I needed to ask a family member to please stop complaining to me about another family member. And I needed to have a talk with my partner about my dissatisfaction with the division of emotional labor in our relationship.

And the thought of having these conversations filled me with discomfort.

Intellectually, I knew that I had every right to set healthy boundaries with my loved ones. Emotionally, though, the thought of actually having these conversations elicited anxiety—and a great deal more of fear than I originally imagined.

Within the past decade, conversations about boundary-setting have taken center stage in mental health discourse. Being able to set boundaries around our time, space, and bodies is a critical skill for maintaining mental health, recovering from addiction, and building healthy relationships with others. But boundary-setting can also prompt very real, very intense discomfort for both the boundary-setter and boundary receiver.

As I contemplated my discomfort, I wondered: How can I set boundaries authentically when I’m afraid of hurting someone I care about? How can I simultaneously set boundaries while letting the recipient know that I really, truly care about their feelings? 

These questions inspired me to consider an approach to boundary-setting that made these difficult conversations a little less… difficult.

In my experience, most boundaries can be divided into two distinct categories: Shield boundaries and sandbox boundaries.

Sometimes boundaries are like shields: moments of verbal self-defense that protect us from others’ unwanted behavior. Shield boundaries ward off unwanted physical touch, defend against others’ anger or cruelty, or protect our time, belongings, and material goods.

Shield boundaries might take the form of “Don’t touch me like that,” or “I’m sorry, but you can’t borrow $20,” or “I can’t volunteer at the phone bank next week.” Generally, they’re simple, short, and clear-cut—variations on saying “no.”

Some boundaries feel less like self-defense and more like letting go: detaching from old patterns, feelings, and relationships that no longer serve us.

Imagine a sandbox that is filled with various things belonging to various people. You reach down and pick up only the items that belong to you. You avoid picking up your mother’s guilt, your partner’s debt, your boss’s anxiety, and your friend’s insecurity. They are not yours to carry.

Having healthy sandbox boundaries means that you only carry your “stuff” out of the sandbox—nobody else’s. They distinguish your emotions and responsibilities from others’ emotions and responsibilities.

Of the two, sandbox boundaries are especially challenging for recovering people-pleasers because we are accustomed to carrying everyone’s stuff out of the sandbox—not just our own. Historically, we’ve assumed responsibility for others’ happiness, health, finances, relationships, addictions, and so on. (By the same token, many of us have probably under-assumed responsibility for our own health, happiness, and beyond.)

When we set sandbox boundaries and break these patterns of over-giving, we literally rewrite the status quo. We let go of the roles we’ve played in our relationships for years or even decades. We may have become so accustomed to acting like others’ caretakers, fixers, or de facto therapists that letting go of these roles can bring a great deal of fear.

We may wonder, “Will he still love me if I’m no longer willing to caretake?” or “Will she think I’m selfish if I ask for more attention?” We might think, “What will she like about me when I’m not fixing her problems?” or “What if they don’t care what I have to say?”

In order to set boundaries that allow our relationships to continue in new and healthy ways, we need to face these fears head-on. In fact, these fears can be gateways to authentic and meaningful boundary-setting. Here’s how:

Radically Transparent Boundary-Setting

Radically transparent boundary-setting gives you permission to honor your feelings in the moment, fear and all, and invites the boundary-recipient in instead of pushing them away.

You don’t have to pretend to be cold, stoic, or flawlessly confident in order to set a successful boundary. In fact, by acknowledging that boundary-setting is unfamiliar or even scary, you can create a vulnerable container that invites the boundary-receiver in for a meaningful, compassionate conversation.

Radically transparent boundary-setting includes three key ingredients:

  1. Acknowledge your fear or discomfort around setting the boundary
  2. Express the “why” behind the boundary
  3. Set a clear, direct boundary

Imagine, for example, that you have a dear friend who regularly consults you to process her family drama. You’re beginning to feel frustrated that your conversations revolve entirely around her, and you realize you’re no longer willing to assume the role of her therapist. In this case, you might use the Radical Transparency approach like this:

Example 1: “It’s hard for me to say this, but I want to be honest with you: I feel upset that so many of our conversations revolve around your family trouble because it makes me feel less like a friend and more like a therapist. Can we practice making our conversations closer to 50/50?”

Example 2: “I know that in the past I’ve offered advice and support around your family issues, but I’m trying to take better care of myself now, so I can’t continue to be the person you come to with your family trouble. I need our friendship to be more balanced.”

Example 3: “I’m afraid of hurting you, but the health of our friendship is important to me, so I want you to know that I can’t continue to be the only person you come to with your family trouble. Our friendship has begun to feel imbalanced, and it’s important for me to have friendships in which I feel seen and valued.”

Example 4: “I’m nervous to say this, but I’m making an effort to communicate more authentically with those close to me, so I need to tell you that I’m feeling sad about how imbalanced our conversations have been. I feel like you don’t make an effort to ask me about my life. Can we discuss how to fix this?”

Radical transparency has two key benefits.

First, by naming your fear or discomfort around setting the boundary, you acknowledge that you’re initiating a difficult conversation that can elicit mixed feelings⁠—for both of you. This also helps the recipient understand that you’ve taken into account the impact this boundary could have on their feelings.

Second, by expressing the “why” behind your boundary, you remind the recipient that your boundary isn’t an attempt to control their behavior, but rather an attempt to protect yourself, be it your body, integrity, mental health, time, resources, or material goods. You might also emphasize your desire for honesty, authenticity, or openness in the relationship, each of which conveys a genuine intention to keep your relationship healthy.

Radically transparent boundary-setting gives me permission to be fully authentic while helping my loved ones feel considered.

Of course, this approach isn’t appropriate for all scenarios. I use this method to set difficult boundaries with close friends, family, and partners⁠—individuals with whom I generally feel safe, have a certain degree of emotional intimacy, and have a vested interest in continuing our relationship. (I don’t use this approach when I’m setting boundaries with casual acquaintances, with folks who make me feel emotionally unsafe, or when I’m enforcing a previously established boundary that the recipient has ignored.)

Ultimately, we can’t control how others respond to our boundaries. Even if we state them with the utmost compassion, the recipient may still feel hurt, insulted, or confused—and that’s okay. If we avoid these critical conversations, we create conditions in which resentment, anger, and frustration seethe and boil over, unaddressed⁠—which is almost always more devastating to the relationship than the boundary conversation would have been.

It is not only our right, but our responsibility to set healthy boundaries in our relationships with loved ones. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when it’s scary. It’s our responsibility to communicate our needs and limitations in our relationships because, if we don’t, we leave others with the burden of mind-reading our needs⁠—a burden no person should have to bear.

Like marriage and family therapist Vienna Pharaon writes: “You cannot stay quiet and expect people to show up the way you need them to. Your words are the gateway to your needs getting met.”

About Hailey Magee

Hailey Magee is a Codependency Recovery Coach who helps individuals conquer people-pleasing, set empowered boundaries, and master the art of speaking their truth. She has worked with over 100 clients from the US, Canada, Ireland, France, South Africa, and more. Sign up for a complimentary consultation to learn how coaching can help you live from a place of authenticity and inner freedom. You can follow Hailey on Facebook and Instagram, or visit www.haileymagee.com.

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