“How old were you when you learned to set boundaries?
And who taught you how?”
When I posted these questions to my Facebook page, I was stunned by both the content and the quantity of answers. Here’s a sampling of the dozens of responses:
“Is it bad that this question made me laugh … boundaries?!?”
“I wasn’t taught boundaries; I was taught secrecy.”
“Well, I’m your dad’s age and still learning.”
“Nobody did, and I sill don’t have any or even know what they should be. I’d have no clue how to set them if I had them.”
“A counselor taught me in my 30s. Didn’t get good at setting them til in my 40s.”
“I was 36. It was a cold day in January 2002, and I had a run-in with a family member. Someone later gave me the book Boundaries. I hadn’t been raised to know that setting boundaries was okay.”
“I’ll let you know when it happens.”
As in so many areas of life, I’d assumed that I was the only person left on the planet who was struggling to learn the who-what-why-when-where-and-how of boundary-setting.
But it turns out that many women did not learn to set boundaries during our formative years. Most cited a counselor, spiritual mentor, or recovery group as their introduction to boundaries, often during mid-life.
Learning to set clear boundaries can be especially challenging for Highly Sensitive Persons, because we’ve typically spent our whole lives shape-shifting to fit in to a thick-skinned world.
Here’s my current working definition of a boundary: where my responsibility ends and the other person’s begins
And here are five FAQs for HSPs about boundary-setting:
1. How do I set strong boundaries without hurting people?
A primary reason HSPs struggle with setting boundaries is that we are hyper-vigilant about not hurting others, but allowing someone to feel pain isn’t the same as hurting them.
As you verbalize your boundaries and act on them, you can be careful and intentional with your words, your tone of voice, and your actions. But you cannot control how others interpret them or react to them.
Use your God-given voice with confidence and candor. Then trust Him to handle other people.
Their reactions are not your responsibility. Your obedience to God’s guidance is your responsibility.
2. Why should I speak up when I already know people are going to ignore me or shut me down?
I get it. So many things can go wrong when we set a boundary. The other person may:
- get mad
- twist your words
- start rumors
- mock you to your face
- mock you behind your back
- label you
- dismiss you
- ignore you
All of these are the exact opposite of what you are aiming for when you speak up. It’s tempting to quietly decide, “I’ll speak up when I’m sure it’s going to work. Otherwise, I’m staying silent.”
Except here’s the thing: Even the most well-articulated boundary cannot guarantee the results you are hoping for.
This is why setting boundaries has nothing to do with predicting or controlling the behavior of other people. Instead, setting boundaries is all about deciding beforehand what you will do, communicating it in a clear and timely manner, and then following through.
Yes, the immediate consequences can be awkward, uncomfortable, or even painful. But with time and practice, you will start seeing long-term positive changes. You’ll see changes in the way other people interact with you, but more importantly, you’ll see changes in yourself.
This is the most important reason to speak up, even when you already know some people are going to ignore you or shut you down:
You speak up because you want to be the kind of person who speaks up—regardless of how others do or don’t respond.
3. How can I set boundaries without feeling like an inconvenience to others?
Years ago, I was telling a counselor—in excruciating detail—how hard I was working to avoid inconveniencing anyone in my life. When she finally interrupted me to ask, “Why?” I had no response. I’d never thought to ask why! Then she said, “Inconvenience is normal.”
Well, that was news for this HSP! Because of our perceptivity and our bad habit of Fawning, we are often adept at anticipating when someone might be inconvenienced, and we do our best to prevent it. While this seems generous, it can set you up for feeling like you’ve let people down when they experience the inevitable inconveniences of life.
Trying to avoid ever being one of those “inevitable inconveniences” is not a worthy relational goal. Instead of fretting about what you do not want to be, focus on what you do want to be: honest, clear, and forthcoming.
Sure, some people may get all bent out of shape when you speak up because your needs and wants may well inconvenience them in some way. As they huff and puff and roll their eyes, remind yourself:
Inconvenience is normal.
4. How can I set boundaries with complainers?
I am all for having candid conversations and engaging in problem-solving, but I would rather hear nails screech on a chalkboard than hear someone complain.
People’s complaints can quickly accumulate to HSP-overstimulation, so it’s easy to cave in to whiners. “What do you want? Here! Now be quiet!”
Unfortunately, this typically creates a reinforcement error. They’ve learned that all they need to do to get what they want is to complain long enough or loudly enough.
Instead of capitulating to belly-achers, we must develop a set of go-to responses.
When my children were little, my response was, “Complaining kids are tired kids, and tired kids go to bed.” When they heard me, they knew exactly what I would do if they kept complaining. Whenever a student tells me, “But Mrs. G., that’s not fair!” my stock response is, “I believe the phrase you’re searching for is, ‘I’m so disappointed right now!’”
(And while you’re building that list of complaint-responses, be sure to include yourself!)
5. How do I set boundaries with people who sound incredibly confident? Whatever I say seems so feeble in comparison!
Because of my HSP need for deep processing, I rarely make spontaneous absolute statements. I’m used to feeling and sounding tentative until I’ve really thought something through. Then—and only then—am I comfortable asserting a strong belief, opinion, or statement of fact.
Not everyone works this way, though. It turns out, some people are very comfortable asserting many things loudly, without any research or reflection.
Years ago, because one student confidently declared a class project was “a complete waste of time and brain cells,” I considered it a complete disaster. But when I compiled the class evaluations, I discovered everyone in the class except the lone dissenter gave the project high reviews. I almost axed the project from my future lesson plans, all because one student sounded so sure.
Certainty is no guarantee of accuracy.
The more you speak up, the more confident you’ll become, and you might be surprised to learn how many people already think you sound sure of yourself.
4 Vital Truths
If boundary-setting feels impossible to learn at this stage of life, here are 4 truths to keep in mind as you read the blog post:
- You’re not alone. — Many women, especially HSP women, were never taught how to set boundaries.
- It’s not too late. — As much as you may wish you’d learned boundary-setting way back when, you can begin today.
- It’s not your fault. — You’re not to blame for what you weren’t taught. You are responsible for learning now.
- Yes, you can. — With Godly guidance and Spirit-led practice, you can become a better boundary-setter.
How about you:
“How old were you when you learned to set boundaries?
And who taught you how?”
(Adapted from Sensitive & Strong: A Guide for Highly Sensitive Persons and Those Who Love Them, by Denise J. Hughes and Cheri Gregory, “Chapter 11: The Problem With Pretending — Using Your Voice to Set Appropriate Boundaries,” pgs. 117-120)