Figuring out (and asking for) what we need or want can be uniquely challenging, especially for women: We’re socially and culturally conditioned to place our desires beneath those of others. Whether it’s with family members, friends, or colleagues, we don’t want to impose, hurt feelings, or incur displeasure, no matter how uncomfortable or unhealthy a situation is.
Unfortunately, the cumulative impact of failing to delineate and demarcate our boundaries can have a detrimental impact on our well-being, says relationship expert and therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab, LCSW, author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace. “There are so many cases of anxiety, depression, and relationship issues that are influenced by a lack of boundaries,” she says.
After several years of working as a clinician, Tawwab began noticing an alarming but revealing pattern in her practice: An inability to identify and set self-protective boundaries was underlying innumerable cases of mental health issues and substance abuse. “This holiday-related anxiety that has you in bed for two weeks before Thanksgiving is really the inability to tell your mother that you don’t want to come home for Thanksgiving, right? It’s anxiety,” Tawwab explains. “How do we help you establish those boundaries that will lessen the anxiety?”
Tawwab, whose book is the quintessential guide on how to set limits, points out that while boundaries are not universal—as she explains, “They are unique to an individual, their experiences, what they want and need in life”—the process for asserting them has three core components.
1. Take a self-inventory.
First, you have to identify the origins of your persistently unpleasant feelings as they relate to one specific relationship. Specifically, you may need boundaries if you notice “that after speaking to a particular person, we have a headache or feel anxious,” Tawwab says. The feeling of being burned out—with too many domestic tasks, excess professional responsibilities, and uneven parenting demands—is also also a telltale sign we have to “shift” and erect a boundary.
Ask yourself questions to suss out what’s ailing you. Tawwab suggests the following questions as a starting point:
- What boundaries do I need to set to achieve the goal of having a better work-life balance? What do I need to start doing at 4 p.m. if I want to leave work at 5 p.m.?
- What boundaries do I need to set to achieve the goal of having less-stressful relationships?
- Do I feel that my partner is not helping with domestic tasks? Specifically, do I need help with laundry? Do I need help with cooking?
Once you spot the source of your trouble, you can move on to the next step of naming and articulating your need.
“There are so many cases of anxiety, depression, and relationship issues that are influenced by a lack of boundaries.”
2. Clearly and directly set your limits.
Defining and instituting limits can be hard, especially if it chafes against cultural imperatives or deeply ingrained beliefs about how we should be behave vis-à-vis employers or family members. “To change culture, we have to change our habits. We have to change our mindsets,” Tawwab says. “Otherwise, our children will be in relationships with us by force and not by love.”
“I hear from people all the time, ‘I can’t say that to my mom,’ because there are some parents who have instilled fear in us around being able to speak boundaries. But you still can. It may not always be respected. It may not be liked,” Tawwab explains, but it may positively change your relationship. It can help build a connection based on desire, rather than obligation—and transform generational imperatives and patterns.
With compassion, clarity, and specificity, ask for what you need. For example, you might say, “Mom, I love you and respect you, but it works best for me and our relationship if we talk once a week on the weekend, rather than several times during the weekday.” Or if your spouse needs to take on more household duties, you might say, “I need more help with cooking on Mondays and Wednesdays; can you take over those nights?” Tawwab proposes.
3. Acknowledge (and release) the guilt.
Tawwab says it’s important to keep in mind that feelings of guilt and unease may follow the act of asserting your limits. “You can’t do something new or different from what people expect and expect it not to be painful or expect that there will be no consequence,” she emphasizes. But, Tawwab promises, the more you practice it, the easier it will get. “Once you get better at implementing boundaries, your guilt will subside,” she says, and you’ll step into a better version of you and your life.