Boundary-setting for Dummies
February 5, 2017 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Firm-bordered ladies and gents of Mefi (and fellow soft-around-the egdes ones, on a mission to be firmer) kindly share your tips, resources, advice, book recommendations etc. that helped you establish strong personal boundaries in your lives.

If you too belong in the category that feels tremendous guilt when saying "no", feels always responsible for other peoples' feelings and feels shame to put themselves first, I would love to hear how you overcame and/or are coping with this compromising attribute.

I've realized it is one of the greatest unhappiness-generating sources in my life, and I am ready to work on changing it, and go from being an emotional silky tofu to extra firm tofu. I don't know where to start though, and I'm also scared of the inner resistance that will inevitably arise, because since I remember myself, disappointing others was a terrifying thought, and made me fear that no one would love me anymore/abandon me.

I would like to hear anything you have learned on this matter, from personal experience, things that have helped you achieve them, from the lucky ones that were always so naturally and didn't have to learn how to set them, the challenges on the road to setting boundaries etc. I'm a total beginner I'd say, and I wasn't even aware of this concept until someone pointed it out to me and I had a "holy sh*t, that's it" epiphany. Thank you in advance for your wisdom.
posted by ariadne_88 to Human Relations (35 answers total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
What helps me is realising that decent people like me with boundaries. It makes their lives easier because they don't have to second guess what I need. I have a friend who says I'm the best babysitter, because she never has to feel bad about asking me to babysit, because she knows she can trust me to say "no" if it's too much of an imposition.

Similarly I had a friend who was seriously ill. His partner was running herself into the ground looking after him. He said that made it far more difficult and stressful. Like, he was really ill! He didn't have the spare energy to keep track of whether his partner had eaten and slept. He needed to be able to trust her to look after herself properly as well.
posted by emilyw at 8:56 AM on February 5, 2017 [37 favorites]

I think the best advice is something that I see here often on AskMe is saying kindly, but firmly (because I know that it's hard to say "no," and you don't want to come across as feeling "mean" - at least it was that way for me), and practice in your head often: "I'm sorry, but I just can't." No explanation necessary. It does takes practice feeling comfortable with yourself to have to say it.
posted by foxhat10 at 9:02 AM on February 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

What Foxhat said, but the apology is not necessary either.
posted by sibboleth at 9:06 AM on February 5, 2017 [8 favorites]

Frame it this way. Let's say you make $10 each payday. You help 10 others in need and give them a dollar each. You'll have none for yourself to survive on until the next pay day. So, if you want to give, you have to find a balance with giving and reserving (surviving) to continue on.
posted by mountainblue at 9:10 AM on February 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

As linked in a previous comment of mine, read the essay "Quitting Guilt" in The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt.
posted by limeonaire at 9:22 AM on February 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have family issues requiring major boundaries. I feel guilt, so I go with the philosophy of faking it till I make it. My most successful conversations enforcing my boundaries feature me imitating other people who seem to have them hard-wired. I bet you can think of some people you know that are amazing at keeping their boundaries, and I bet you can practice saying what they say. And I further bet that you maybe sort of admire them for their ability to stand their ground.


[Picture my ex sister-in-law in my head] "No, I won't be doing that."
[Picture my brother in my head] "I have no intention of doing that."
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 9:25 AM on February 5, 2017 [5 favorites]

I have had to do a lot of work on this! It's still an ongoing project... I found this podcast on boundaries very useful.
posted by Nilehorse at 9:35 AM on February 5, 2017

Best answer: I come from a family with screwed-up boundaries. Something I have learned is: people push back when you try and establish a new boundary with them. It upsets them or makes them angry. The status quo exists because it works for them and so they will not want to change. So when you set boundaries in a relationship that has been dysfunctional, don't go in expecting them to agree with you or think that it's a good idea. It sucks, but there it is.

It also takes a while to establish a new boundary. You can't just tell someone, "No," once and then be done with it. You have to help them form a new habit of treating you more respectfully, and that takes a while. So don't get discouraged if you have a conversation with someone about them not doing something, and they seem to get it, and then a day or two later they're back to doing the exact same thing you asked them not to. That doesn't mean you've failed at boundary-setting. It just means you've taken the first step, rather than the last step, towards getting a boundary respected.

The second step is being consistent: in order to get a new boundary to stick, you have to re-inforce it every time that person tries to cross that boundary. In order to be consistent, think about some possible reactions beforehand: are you going to say, "Please don't talk to me like that" or tell them you're leaving the conversation (and then actually leaving)? If you are inconsistent and sometimes let a person get away with whatever it is, it's a lot harder to get them to change.

So I would pick your battles and start establishing new boundaries slowly at first, because it's going to take a lot of energy. Pick one person and one of their behaviors and start there. This will give you some practice in battening down the hatches and weathering the storm, and if you stick with it, you'll also get some proof that it works. You can't change who people are inside, but you can change how they treat you.

Also, something that took me way too long to figure out: anger--and particularly resentment--that you feel but can't explain are often internal signs that your boundaries are getting stomped on. Learn to listen to those signs.
posted by colfax at 9:36 AM on February 5, 2017 [38 favorites]

I've found a lot of strength in the concept of loving detachment. I see it discussed most often in terms of dealing with an addict, but I think it's applicable to just about all relationships. From the link:

As you learn to detach, you learn to allow others to be themselves. You allow them to make their own choices and live their own lives, and you save your energy to work on building your life and a sense of self-love ... You can grow in acceptance that changing or controlling another person is impossible. And it’s OK. You don’t have to save anyone else.

Setting boundaries means believing - really believing - that the other person is responsible for their own feelings and behavior. You couldn't truly change them even if you wanted! They might not believe that - and may even become angry if you break a pattern they've come to expect - but even that anger is theirs to manage. They can, and will, do it without you.

Once you recognize that you are not, and cannot be, responsible for the feelings of others, I find it becomes easier to treat them with compassion while still prioritizing your own needs.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:42 AM on February 5, 2017 [10 favorites]

Amen to what emilyw said. My partner is I think the first person I've had an adult relationship with who has solid, easily discerned boundaries, and it makes life so much easier. I've had great friends with fuzzy boundaries who were hesitant to enforce them, and it always made things into a complicated guessing game of trying to figure out if they are quietly unhappy or not. My partner is not a jerk--he is just straightforward about what he will and will not do, and that's the end of it. I actually now feel that this is more compassionate than trying to contort yourself into uncomfortable shapes to avoid having to enforce your own boundaries, because then you become resentful, or at least I do.

Having said that, I do think it's much easier for him, being a guy, to be this way.
posted by whistle pig at 10:00 AM on February 5, 2017 [13 favorites]

I've found it helpful to watch TV shows or movies where the characters are very clear about their boundaries and enforce them well. Recently I've been working to channel Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary. The first couple of seasons are on Netflix.
posted by mcduff at 10:04 AM on February 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think major life changes (like getting married, having a kid, things that say "I am a grownup now") also help, on both sides of the equation. You feel more like an independent adult, and other people start to see you in this new light. Do you expect anything like this to happen soon? That's a good time to start enforcing your new boundaries.

Be prepared for an extinction burst when you start saying "no" to people who previously walked all over you. Knowing what to expect, and that it will taper off, will make it easier to power through. It will suck, but it will also pass.

My own experience was that, once I started to stand my ground, it got a lot easier. The training worked on both sides: I got better at it, and other people adjusted their expectations.

In my case (which might not apply to everyone), I use my snarky wit to advantage: I can banter with people and give as good as I get, so it's clear that I'm not a pushover but I also don't look angry or resentful. I think the humor conveys a subtext of confident strength and willingness to push back, without making the other person feel too bad - hey, we're all laughing here! (Caution: pointed humor is a weapon that takes some practice to use effectively, and you have to know your audience.) Good luck!
posted by Quietgal at 10:26 AM on February 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another tip: if you decline a request and someone responds with "Why?" it is perfectly acceptable to say, "I don't feel like I owe you an explanation."
posted by Mr. Fig at 10:30 AM on February 5, 2017 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Something that worked for me was to realize how I was starting to default to doing things that were most inconvenient for me and being overly accommodating to everyone else. I also realized that it was SO selfish of other people to expect that I do the most inconvenient thing for me just because it was the most convenient thing for them. I would NEVER expect that of someone else so I started pushing back, refusing to do the most inconvenient thing for me. Either a compromise was reached or it wasn't but I no longer do something that is inconvenient for me, merely because it is the easier way for someone else.

A really good phrase: "Oh, hmm. That isn't going to work for me." PERIOD. HARD STOP.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 10:39 AM on February 5, 2017 [11 favorites]

Setting boundaries means believing - really believing - that the other person is responsible for their own feelings and behavior.

This is helpful for me. I grew up in a family with bad boundaries and one in which both my parents treated me as basically a weird extension of themselves (one a drunk, one a narcissist) and one of the things that was very helpful to me was the awareness that I could still love them even when I said no to them and saying over and over (sometimes out loud and sometimes to myself) "Well that's a choice you're making" So some examples

- My mom says she doesn't hear from me enough, says it means I don't care about her, says I am a bad kid for not contacting her enough. "Mom, I love you but you want to hear from me more than I am in contact with any other person and it's too much. I will [insert compromise here] and if that doesn't work for you, you can work on that." Mom says this is mean, other parents and kids do it differently etc. "Mom, I love you but you want to hear from me more than I am in contact with any other person and it's too much. I will [insert compromise here] and if that doesn't work for you, you can work on that" So the big deal is you're sort of a Loving Broken Record about whatever the boundary is and eventually if they won't let it go, THAT IS A CHOICE they are making. I just made the choice to have a boundary and respectful people respect boundaries.

- My dad wants to see me more, complains that I don't visit enough, says that his house is getting all fucked up because I don't come "help" him clean it, why am I abandoning him, etc etc. "Dad, I love you but it's not fun to visit because you treat me like Cinderella. I can help you get someone in to clean your house but I don't work for you and I visit when I can." More moping and sulking and refusing to interact except to talk about this topic to try to wear me down "Dad, I'll be visiting [some compromise time] but not before. If you want my help solving your other problem I am here for you but this is not a negotiable topic" and if he wants to sulk and be a baby about it (he has since passed away, I do not live with guilt about this) THAT IS A CHOICE to decide to have one inflexible way to try to interact with me.

So there's what I consider a normal amount of guilt I've had about this but a lot of it is just a bit of wistfulness that I had a "normal" family instead of these people who hassle me all the time. But with my boundaries in place I'm not doing shit I don't want to do for people I do NOT have a back and forth relationship with. Loving Broken Record.

And sometimes it's helpful to have friends or colleagues or even family (I have a sister) who can back up your version of events and make you feel better about the boundaries that you are setting. Sometimes it's nice to have someone be like "Yay you, good boundaries" because it can be really hard to maintain them.
posted by jessamyn at 10:50 AM on February 5, 2017 [26 favorites]

Best answer: Many people don't care about other people's needs or feelings, and are focused on looking out for themselves. They find it easy to say "no", and to advise you to take more of a "fuck those people" attitude. But if that was your thing, you wouldn't have this issue.

And generosity and thoughtfulness are not bad qualities. Only a phenomenally selfish society would deem them so. You're not going to become selfish, and you're not going to stop caring, and that's not dysfunctional! So the real question is "how can I follow my impulse be helpful and considerate without tanking my life by indiscriminately attaching myself to everything proposed to me?" That's a different question, and it's a matter of fine-slicing.

Always consider whether "yes" will truly help. Buying an alcoholic a vodka, submitting to the whims of a control freak, giving a bratty kid every toy, participating in illegal or ethically shady activity, or letting yourself be intentionally exploited, manipulated, or used...none of those is truly generous. It's not truly helping, long-run. So cut all that stuff right out, and make it a very hard line. Strong commitment! Would you shoot people because it made someone happy? Of course not!

You will find that if you cut out enabling bad, self-destructive, harmful behavior, and choose not to enable people's negative impulses, the load will lighten considerably for you. This is how you get to the "just right" point.

I'm glad to help just about anyone do just about anything short of that same hard line, myself. I frequently find myself carrying boxes to help people move (good exercise!), and dipping into my bank account to help solve bona fide problems (it's just another form of consumerism; as enjoyable as shopping!), and often committing when something needful presents itself. Yet I've gotten lots done in my life and been successful. In fact, most of my accomplishments and success have come out of this very obligation. My helpfulness hasn't been a side-track, it's been the route to a satisfied, comfortable result. Sacrifice does not equal train wreck (except in the deluded perspective of a phenomenally selfish society).

Finally, I think of myself as extremely selfish, because of all the good I've declined to do, all the feelings I've hurt, all the people I've let down. I've been horrendously inconsistent in making myself available, and it bothers me. People who think of themselves as overly generous are inevitably selfish ogres. In fact, that's the very hallmark of selfishness. So be careful about implanting this notion; it's not something you necessarily want to foster, even if people see your impulses as dysfunctional and try to drill this "I'm too obliging!" meme into you as a sort of contagious mantra of selfishness.

Planet Earth needs obliging generosity; don't let anyone tell you otherwise (they're just projecting their own selfishness)!
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:10 AM on February 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

I just really had to value myself more. Intentional solitude and independence helped with that (may be impractical if you have kids/spouse). Say no to everything for awhile and it will help you figure out what you really DO want. Make lists of those things! Maybe you want X hours per week to pursue a hobby instead of feeling obligated to volunteer for the PTA. Maybe you only want to talk to your overbearing mother once a week. Maybe you want to save money for a trip instead of giving it to your brother who's always in trouble. Set goals.

Listen to your body. When someone asks you for a specific thing, does it make you tense or relaxed? When you pick up the phone and see [Person] on the caller ID, do you sigh? Does it start to give you a headache? Learn to respect how you feel.

Communicate honestly. It's not respectful to do things and resent people later. You're not doing them a favor, you're lying to them when you tell them you'd be glad to do X.

Push through the guilt and fear of confrontation. Trying to avoid it just makes it worse. Adults are responsible for their own emotions. If someone gets angry, you can remove yourself from the situation.

You'll get to a point where you're much happier and confident, and people respect you more because they know that when you say yes to a request, you genuinely mean it.
posted by AFABulous at 1:11 PM on February 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

This is more for when you're dealing with people who really want to trample your boundaries or blame you for their problems -- I find it helps to think about how they're adults and all the other ways they could have prevented or could now handle their problem.

Also, because I was dealing with some unreasonable people, I had to learn how to let others' feelings be their own problem. I had to really absorb that if he is angry about X, that's his anger, and his anger is not actually my problem. He can deal with it in multiple ways, just like how I go running when I'm frustrated. Being able to say "I'm sorry to hear that he's feeling angry, but hey! I don't feel angry! I feel happy, and I'm going to go watch a movie!" was something I had to learn to do. Telling people that their feelings are their own problem and they can go pound sand for all you care is not a great way to build closeness with people you trust enough to want to open up to. But it's an essential precursor, I found. Everyone occasionally has an emotional reaction that is 95% about them and only 5% about what you did, so it's really useful to be able to kindly shrug and say "I hope you feel better" rather than feeling like their emotion is your problem to solve.
posted by salvia at 1:13 PM on February 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think reading the Captain Awkward blog could be very helpful to you, because most of the advice given to letter writers is how to express boundaries and manage feelings about them. There's a lot of content there that's build up over time, and the repetition of concepts across all the different situations will help you internalize more productive reactions.
posted by foxfirefey at 1:26 PM on February 5, 2017 [8 favorites]

N-thing the comments above about how maintaining proper boundaries is actually a kind thing to do, both for yourself and others, and leads to stronger, more resilient and satisfying relationships for all concerned. Martyrdom--not saying that's where you are, but it is one of the dangers of not setting limits--is exhausting and demoralizing for everyone, not just the person putting themselves out all the time. I've found that having limits and respecting my own needs makes me kinder and more compassionate to others who do the same, since hey, if I get to do it, they get to do it, right?

I've found the metaphor of a homestead in the Brazilian rainforest helpful. If you were trying to clear a patch of land there, the wilderness would always be pressing in on you, no matter where you put your fence. So, you might as well make your clearing big enough to give you enough breathing room, accommodate your garden, etc., because the pressure will be the same as if you are cramped into a small, unproductive space. Some people are like that rainforest--they will always push, it's just who they are, so you need to make sure you are not overrun.
posted by rpfields at 1:34 PM on February 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

To echo Mr. Fig above, if someone pushes you after you decline, it's perfectly reasonable to say, "If you're honestly asking me, then 'no' is an acceptable and complete answer." If someone's not accepting your "no" response to what was ostensibly a request, then their question was actually a demand couched as a request.

And now they're demanding a reason why you're not complying, and that's pretty disrespectful to you and your time overall.
posted by furtive_jackanapes at 3:00 PM on February 5, 2017 [9 favorites]

Harriet Lerner's books often talk about boundaries, particularly with family and intimates.

I struggle with boundaries. In some cases it's easier to say "Let me think about it and get back to you" and use the time to get clear with myself about what I actually want. When I'm clear with myself, it's a lot easier to tell others what I can and can't do.

Some things work in some cases and not so much in others, and it's okay to pick tactics that feel appropriate for your personality. I'd be fine giving a flat "no" to a random stranger on the street who asked me for something, but to my beloved BFF who asked me to come to her birthday party, I'd cushion my "no" somehow. And if they asked me why I couldn't come I'd consider the possibility that they were asking because were willing to adjust the time or place for me, etc.
posted by bunderful at 3:53 PM on February 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

Seconding Harriet Lerner, especially The Dance of Anger. It's way more about boundaries within your closest relationships than it is about anger!
posted by zem at 5:52 PM on February 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you too belong in the category that feels tremendous guilt when saying "no", feels always responsible for other peoples' feelings and feels shame to put themselves first, I would love to hear how you overcame and/or are coping with this compromising attribute.

It has been a long, hard road and I doubt I can do it justice in a single answer on AskMe. I did a lot of therapy, I have had a class on Social Psychology and a class on Negotiation and Conflict Management, plus raised special needs kids, etc etc.

First, people are a product of their social environment. So, letting people be assholes and take advantage of you is not a kindness. It just helps warp them. Enforcing healthy boundaries enhances the lives of all involved parties, not just the person refusing to be a doormat.

Second, a good relationship is symbiotic. If people don't ever give back or are all too willing to bleed you dry, it isn't symbiotic. It is parasitic. I have no obligation to " respect" such expectations.

Third, my negotiating class taught me that negotiations are difficult when there is a very narrow range in which the deal benefits both parties. That helps me have patience for a certain amount of social friction without feeling a need to assume the other party is merely being an ass. It helps me view it as potentially situational. (Though some people are just jackasses and time helps you sort that out.)

Fourth, I look for "the third option" or the win/win scenario. Most people assume there must be a winner and a loser, but good deals benefit both parties. This is why the honeybee was revered as a civilizing symbol in multiple cultures: It benefits the flowers and benefits from them. This is a mental model for business or symbiotic, synergistic relationships instead of for preying upon others.

I also have worked on sorting out the idea of giving what I am comfortable giving and measuring its value by how much others benefit by it, not by how much it "costs" me or how much I suffered. I don't think martyrdom is a good thing to value.

I try to avoid sick systems and architect healthy systems to the best of my ability. A lot of people are happy to go along with a better answer when presented with one. Those who aren't don't need to be close to me.
posted by Michele in California at 7:02 PM on February 5, 2017 [10 favorites]

I absolutely agree with Colfax here.

People become accustomed to your compliance to do what they want and so the initial reaction when you set a boundary can be quite intense, expect anything from increased pressure to passive aggression to unashamed guilt trips.

It's so important that you stick to your guns. I found with family, how best to do that is have at least one person outside of the situation being supportive and reminding you it's okay to look after yourself first. Like a sanity check/boundary cheerleader.

If it gets so bad I can't bear it, I have in the past just backed off having contact with that person, they notice and the result is that they don't really have an option other than to listen and respect what my choices if they want to see me regularly. Although I'm hesitant to recommend this because I use it exclusively for my very manipulative mother. It's more of a last resort than an everyday go to.

Also; it's okay to be explicit. To say I'm not doing X for reason Y. Often it can be difficult for them to argue against someone's reason not to do something when it's for their own well being. And if they do....perhaps you are getting a better indication on how they evaluate your well being vs what you can do for them.
posted by TheGarden at 8:26 PM on February 5, 2017

One strategy I find surprisingly effective is to respond as if the person had offered to do you a favor instead of the other way around. "Can you give me a ride to the airport tomorrow?" "Oh no, that's OK :)"

This is kind of passive aggressive, and requires some nerve at least the first few times you try it, but the reason it works is that it catches the other person off guard and they'll more likely check themselves and drop it than say "no I was asking if YOU would drive ME"
posted by STFUDonnie at 9:05 PM on February 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I found The Guide to Strong Boundaries extremely helpful in thinking through this skill.
posted by squasher at 9:33 PM on February 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

After a lifetime of people-pleasing, I developed the boundary instinct when I had kids. Their welfare was more important to me than my comfort, than other people's opinion of me, etc.

I still don't have the boundary instinct for myself, so what I do is imagine how I'd respond if the situation involved my kids, and I respond accordingly.

So if there is anyone or anything more "important" to you than yourself, someone who you would stand up for or some principle that you wouldn't budge on, then think of how you would respond to a boundary-needing situation if they were involved, and respond that way on your own behalf. It really works.
posted by headnsouth at 5:21 AM on February 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Have you considered reading the book, Stop Walking on Eggshells? Although it's intended to help typical/healthy/normal people live with sick/insane/mental/BPD/NPD people, I found it helped me be assertive with healthy people too. Initially, it's scary doing it, because you've got a history of being overrun by no boundary people and the no boundary people will get upset. Their upset at a boundary can't cause you upset because you're trying to maintain your sanity. After you've established a boundary, the healthy people continue to respect you.
posted by dlwr300 at 6:25 AM on February 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've found that a good amount of my own personal stability nowadays comes from addressing my own desire for self-love and self-acceptance. Like, really putting that first. Examining it, taking stock in it, and letting that come very-much first. Yes. Much of my instability and readiness to pass over my own boundaries came from needing to be validated externally. I'm a sensitive person and very emotive, and I found myself really valuing how others treated me, when they did 'an especially good job of it.' Usually that meant them being openly grateful towards me being my loving self towards them, thus training me in that direction.

The way to self-discovery for me was in trying loving-kindness or metta meditation. I don't meditate very very often, but something about visualizing and feeling-through my love for another person, and then trying to turn that inwards, helped me to recognize that there was definitely at least some kind of disparity there, and that made a weird amount of sense to me. I needed to care for myself more, and if I couldn't accept and be at peace with how I was right then, I'd have to examine why that was before I was able to continue forwards. I'd let myself get real grounded, so I knew I was no longer off-kilter because of that.

And now, it's an ongoing process, but a lot of the time when I realize I'm getting pulled off-track in my thoughts about how I deal with others, I can say - and really feel out - me, loving myself first, confronting anything that puts anything else in the way of it being first. Then you can come from that place, and it's a little bit easier to act out of coherency and positive self-treatment. Acting in absentia towards your own life displaces you... and gets you nowhere quickly. So—. Let yourself love yourself. First.
posted by a good beginning at 8:35 AM on February 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: disappointing others was a terrifying thought, and made me fear that no one would love me anymore/abandon me

Frankly some people will abandon you or not "love" (it never was) you anymore.

Part of what you need to do is to increase your own sense that you will be ok if you loose some "friends" who are only your friend when they want something from you. Doing things like traveling by yourself can be helpful.

Think of the process as making space for new and wonderful people in your life. Switch to a mindset of that when you say "yes", you are offering a gift that you truly want to give.
posted by yohko at 10:05 AM on February 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

For me, the most important thing to learn that a boundary is something only affects your behavior, not anyone else's. For the most part, a boundary can be set without the other person having any idea that you have decided to Set A Boundary. In other words, you don't need anyone's permission or agreement to set a boundary for yourself.

For example, sometimes when I'm visiting my mom, she'll start yelling at my kids or my brother (who lives there too). When it gets to a level that I won't tolerate anymore, I get up and walk out of the room. If it's bad enough, I pack up and go home. I don't tell her why or ask her to change her ways. Since I've started doing this, she's stopped a lot of that yelling when I'm around. I think this has worked better than anything else I've tried (and I've tried a lot!) because if I had started saying she had to change her behavior or else I would leave, then the focus would be on convincing me that she wasn't yelling or something like, "well if he didn't . . ." to blame it on someone else.

I guess another way to think about it is that a boundary is an action that you will take in a certain situation. And it's good to think about that stuff ahead of time - if A does X then I will do Y. It's that last part that's most important - what will you do? Not anyone else, just you because you are the only one whose behavior you can control.
posted by dawkins_7 at 12:26 PM on February 6, 2017 [9 favorites]

Nthing emilyw - it's so much easier to deal with (and befriend!) people with strong boundaries, because it takes so much pressure off me if I don't have to worry about them taking on too much, or doing something they don't want to be doing, for my sake. (And/or having to constantly reassure them that I didn't secretly hate/resent/whatever them because I didn't need their help with something - I realize this is not exactly what you asked, but in my experience people with poor boundaries around doing things for others also have poor boundaries in the other direction.)

So really, by having and enforcing your boundaries you are helping me. Boundaries are a great thing! If I'm like "can you come underwater basket weaving on Thursday?" and you really truly hate underwater basket weaving, I'd rather you told me that than agree to come with and be miserable. I definitely don't want you to come with and pretend to be having fun while secretly being miserable, because I'm not an asshole. And I would also stop asking you to do things if I thought I was going to have to tease through whether you really wanted to be there or not, because that's exhausting.

Yes, by having better boundaries you might lose the people who preferred you without them. But you will also meet so many more who prefer you with them.
posted by Xany at 10:23 PM on February 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is a problem I struggled with for a long time, too. I think I always felt a deep fear of being disliked, and after some good self-work I finally unearthed the realization that I thought I myself am not good enough. That can mean a lot of things, but for me it meant that I put other people above myself in nearly every way.

It's actually an issue I've only gotten over within the past two years with a couple sessions with a therapist, and when eventually that cost too much, trying to do my own "therapy" so to speak. I highly recommend this book: The Assertiveness Workbook

It's not something you can just read - you really need to work through it; but the results are real because it gets to the heart of the matter, forcing you to confront yourself and ask why you struggle so much to say no.

After moving beyond this, you would not believe how much happier and fulfilled I am. I actually feel totally in control of my life, my social anxiety evaporated, I took control of my relationships, and overall have had so much less trouble asking for what I want and need in life. Demanding no less, in some cases. It feels damn good.
posted by anon7 at 3:42 PM on February 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

When I was in my teens, I used to have issues saying "no" to people who demanded or guilt-tripped me to get things/favors from me, and also going over the top with favors in general. I really wanted to be liked and have friends. One day my rather cynical but very wise (also teenage!) sister told me:

If you do too much for people you barely know, and bend over backwards to do things for them, all the decent people who don't want to take advantage of you will get creeped out and most will avoid you. The people who want to take advantage of you are likely to remain.

This perspective on things has never failed me. It doesn't apply to emergency situations, of course. Oh, and the same sister (also as a teen, it blows my mind that she was so insightful, being that young) also taught me that favors are not currency:

Attempting to buy friendship with gifts, favors, or adulation is manipulative and dishonest. Doing nice things for people is your own choice, and you should not expect anything in return.

My sister is the smartest person I know.
posted by Tarumba at 8:43 AM on February 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

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