Updated: Sep 24
For people who struggle with their self-esteem, boundaries can be very difficult to articulate and maintain. At a basic level, boundaries refer to the line between you and someone else. More importantly, they refer to how you want to be treated by others.
For those who struggle with boundaries, it is common to express boundaries aggressively or too defensively. The reason this occurs is because the person putting up the boundary doesn't feel comfortable with the boundary, so they unconsciously use aggression/anger to put it in place. If a boundary is healthy, there is no need for defensiveness, because the person enacting the boundary feels justified and comfortable with the boundary.
If you struggle with boundaries, here are a few things you can try:
1) Start by paying closer attention to how you feel around the people in your life. For example, are there friends who leave you feeling more guarded and reactive? Are there family members who instantly make you calm and feel loved? Remember, however you feel is valid. It doesn't mean anything about you if your sister makes you tense. It doesn't mean you're a bad friend if you find someone too critical. Trust your body and your instincts.
2) Next, try reflecting on who in your life requires the firmest boundaries. Maybe it's a parent who calls you multpile times a day and is constantly negative or a partner who doesn't respect your time or can be critical of you. These people will be the most challenging for you to put up your boundaries, as you will likely get firm pushback. It might be best to practice your boundaries with people in your life who are less argumentative or reactive. For example, maybe you have a kind friend who is always late, or your kid is loving but always disturbs you when you are working in your home office.
3) When practicing boundaries, you will find the most success if you try to consider the other persons ego. It's best to avoid blaming the other person or criticizing them, as this will lead them to become defensive and potentially lash out. Start with validating the person. For example, if you have a friend who is always late when you meet for coffee and you find it makes you feel hurt, try saying, "I know you are super busy with your kids, and your demanding job..." Starting in this fashion makes the person feel seen and will put them in a less defensive stance.
4) Your next step is to gently state the problem but try to do so in a way that sounds like a need of yours. For example, after you note how busy their life is, you could say, "...but I have noticed that when my friends are late, I can feel like I'm less important and then I feel bad about myself." The nice thing about this approach is that it's less threatening to the other person and that means they will be more likely to hear you and want to change.
5) Let's look at another example. If your father calls multiple times a day and you find that it leaves you feeling tired and dreading the calls (listening to your body), you could try validation, and then make it about something you are doing to everyone. Specifically, you could tell your father, "I know you are calling because you love me and want to talk (validation), but things are really busy these days and I'm telling everyone in my life that I don't have as much time to socialize (protecting their ego)". You could then tell your father that it would work best if you could talk twice a week at a specific time.
6) Following this approach does not guarantee that the other person won't react negatively or feel hurt. How they feel, though, is not in your control. All you can control is putting up the boundary and doing so in a way that increases the likelihood of it being respected. If you are worried that the other person is going to feel hurt, in your mind you can tell yourself, "It's sad if my dad feels hurt (empathy), but how I feel is also important and I need to take care of my mental health". You will likely have to repeat the boundary until the person starts to respect it. If they don't, even after multiple attempts, you may have to consider putting distance with the person.
To read more about boundaries, check out the following book: