All over the world, we’re grappling with family and friendship dilemmas. In America alone, these challenging situations are probably more complex than they have been in a very long time — probably even since the Civil War. Most of my friends, colleagues, and clients are in the midst of dealing with impossible relatives or conversations that revolve around prejudice, hatred, racism, insurrection, political divisions, immigration, or homeless intolerance, to name a few. Others deal with overbearing parents or in-laws, interfering extended families, or even spousal or platonic clashes.
In difficult situations like these, we will all need to set boundaries — to protect and take care of ourselves as well as our loved ones. We might need to do this to keep relationships from breaking or reduce awkwardness, hurt, and anger from festering.
In over 40 years of my clinical practice, I’ve counseled my clients to set clear, graceful boundaries from their most patient, kind and strong place. Today, I want to share some of my insights on how you can also learn how to set clear yet mutually respectful boundaries with your family and friends.
Why are boundaries important?
People don’t need a big event to knowingly or unknowingly breach your boundaries. It can happen on an ordinary Tuesday, or it can happen during Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner. How many of us haven’t been in situations dealing with someone who has been offensive, abusive, or neglectful of us? We’ve all dealt with inconsiderate family members, friends, acquaintances, or co-workers. Setting boundaries can be challenging, and doubly so when you have someone you love that you want to protect, but they’re also connected to the person who keeps breaching your boundaries.
Boundaries exist to help protect and reduce you and your loved ones from hurt or feeling like you’re being taken for granted. At the same time, they are helpful indicators for others to not (unknowingly) hurt you or intrude where they’re not welcome. Personal boundaries are critical to healthy relationships because they can reduce resentment, anger, and hurt on both sides. In essence, they are a blueprint for healthy, sustained interactions that can foster trust and stronger connections.
Why is it imperative to set boundaries gracefully and respectfully?
You may wonder why it’s important to be respectful when stating or setting a boundary, particularly if the other person has already overstepped. However, unless the offensiveness is so severe that you feel you truly have no other option but to cut the person out of your life (as a last resort) and not look back, the chances are that you or your loved ones likely have some love for them and will have to interact with them again.
So then, there comes the point where we need to find the balance between taking care of our loved ones and ourselves without acting upon the impulse to set the ‘offender’ straight. This is the starting point of contemplation for you — what words, actions, and attitudes do I need to employ to diffuse this moment and set the stage for future boundaries?
It is vital that you’re able to be assertive but not aggressive, precise but not rigid when setting your boundary. It is also crucial that we convey the limits with a tone of voice that is one with a soft yet strong voice. We need to combine sensible and sensitive limits when considering those we love to avoid hurting anyone.
Three steps to effectively set and enforce your boundaries:
Keeping in mind the fact that setting a boundary gracefully requires enormous maturity and sincere understanding, here’s how you can do it:
1. Identify the core need that you need to express
The first step is to identify what you need. Awareness of your need, how you feel when it’s ignored or sidestepped, and what needs to be done is extremely important. Instead of protesting against what you don’t like, you are focusing on what you need. The most common needs include respect, kindness, a permanent truce (where both parties agree not to bring up certain topics), and reduced or eliminated contact to minimize pain. If you’re unsure of what your needs are (like most of us tend to be) and are having difficulty identifying them, you could check out our free Introspective Guides that offer over 75 essential needs and qualities.
The goal is to express this need in as neutral a way as possible using respectful language and attitude. This requires a great deal of maturity, love, and respect for the other person as unquestionably, in this situation, you’d have to contain your hurt, anger, and any desire to lash back out. Setting your boundary gracefully is essential to maintain relationships and protect any loved ones and yourself from continuing a power struggle or mutual attacks with those who are also involved in this situation.
2. State your boundary clearly and assertively
Once you’re aware of what needs to be done, you need to state it explicitly, clearly, and gracefully. This will set clear expectations for others and allow them to realize that your behaviors and attitudes are predictable and even as well as strong and assertive.
For instance, you could say something like, “I would appreciate it if you would join me in not talking about [triggering/painful/angering subject].”
Or “While I appreciate your presence, I do not require any inputs on [anything they’re offering unsolicited advice on].”
Make it clear that you want the opposite of what’s happened when they overstepped your boundary. For example, if you have been disrespected, ask for respect. If you’ve been criticized without asking for comments, ask for acceptance and understanding. If you’ve been engaged in a discussion you’d rather not partake in, ask for that topic to be off the table or ask that it take place in your absence.
Expressing your boundary gracefully will take care of the present and also set precedence for the future, resulting in less hurt, anger, and pain.
3. Follow through
Now, sometimes, despite your best efforts, it may so happen that the other person continues to overstep. So when you state your need, you should also mention what you will do to protect yourself if there’s a lack of response and understanding. Maybe you can say that if this continues to happen, then out of consideration for others (including your loved one you’re trying to protect), you will give a fair warning before you remove yourself from the situation. For example, you could leave the room, house, or the general location depending on the degree of violation.
When you follow through on your stated need, it shows others that you take your boundaries seriously, and this isn’t just something you said. Offering a chance for retraction or apology ensures that you’re not taking extreme action but at the same time prioritizing yourself and your loved ones’ feelings. When your boundaries protect more than just yourself, you will need to consider a multitude of feelings and emotions, so clear communication and follow-through are the way to go.
Other times, there’s no third party or loved one to consider. You have to prioritize yourself and extricate yourself from any situation that might cross your boundaries. The same steps apply to take care of yourself without unnecessarily escalating the situation into greater alienation and violation.
Boundaries and holiday season
There’s no better time for boundaries to be set and overstepped than at holidays. This is when family members meet up after long periods. There can be surprise and shock, joy and judgment all rolled into one.
Like I shared above, so many people I know feel the need to learn how to set boundaries so that they can celebrate with their loved ones peacefully and without being violated. The 3-step process to healthy boundaries works for both everyday and holiday needs. Whether you need to tell a coworker to respect your time off or whether you need to tell your relative to stop commenting on your body, identifying the specific need and following through is the way to set your boundaries gracefully and naturally.
Here’s an example that can help put this into perspective:
A couple and their toddler were visiting the husband’s widowed mom during the holidays. Now, the mom in question considered herself an expert at all things parenting and mothering.
Immediately, she had a lot of opinions to share. “This is how long the baby needs to cry before you soothe him. This is how you get him to sleep. This is how often he needs to eat.”
Now, these weren’t shared as helpful tips but as harsh and rigid standards. The mom-in-law endlessly criticized her daughter-in-law due to differences in parenting styles. It might seem like a familiar situation because it is one that more than a few of us or those we know have faced.
When I counseled this particular couple, I suggested that they talk to the mother from their most patient place and ask her to please refrain from giving any more mandatory rules and to do her best to trust their common sense. I encouraged a clean statement born from maturity and mutual love, one that asked the mom-in-law to please respect the difference in parenting techniques and understand that they had different ideas on how to handle these situations.
Unfortunately, the mom-in-law continued to force her views on the young parents in an overbearing verbal assault. I suggested that the husband and wife share a warning about continued violations of their boundaries out of consideration for the mom-in-law. They were both advanced communicators and told her that regretfully they would leave for that time if the judgments, superior attitude, and unsolicited advice continued.
Sure enough, they had to leave to protect and take care of themselves. They offered her a second chance, but only if their needs were honored. In doing so, they soon figured out the maximum amount of contact they could have with the husband’s mom without hurting themselves.
Healthy relationships forge greater connections
Developing the capacity to set boundaries will allow you to feel safe because you grow to learn and trust that you will take care of yourself as needed. In my life, I’ve found that for both myself and my clients and friends, this is an evolutionary state that brings a certain strength, peace, and wisdom all at the same time. Of course, this doesn’t mean that any of us have the capacity to change others’ attitudes or actions. It simply allows us to see how we can free ourselves with dignity and strength.
At a time when our country and also the world are filled with escalating tension, we need to find ways to de-escalate and listen to each other. This will improve family relationships and promote peace and understanding on a much larger scale in our divided country and world.
Most of us haven’t developed the ability to set boundaries in a respectful tone and peaceful strong words yet. It’s a necessary skill to have during the holidays or during family get-togethers. The details will change across situations, but the focus needs to be on remaining true to what we feel. We need to stay with our own attitudes and words and not fall prey to the temptation to go to the extremes unless we’ve exhausted all efforts.
Family is integral to most of our lives and is often worth the effort to make the best of a difficult situation. Try to visualize what you might need to say, how you need to say it, and break it down into as many steps as possible to allow for the most peaceful and connected outcome. Of course, sometimes nothing will work. We have to evaluate and internally ask how to best take care of ourselves.
No matter what situation we face in the holidays or beyond, it is important that we work on it with the best sensitivity we can, along with healthy boundaries and attitudes. It may sound relatively easy, but it requires enormous maturity. After all, when emotions and attitudes like anger, righteousness, and superiority run the show, it can all go south very quickly. But when you take a step back and make efforts with sensitivity and grace, it can help you make greater connections while keeping the peace.