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Honoring Your Limits: “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself” Summarized

✎ Written by: Denisa Cerna

✓ Fact-checked by: Kaija Sander, Ph.D.


“Boundaries will set you free,” says Nedra Glover Tawwab, MSW, LCSW, in her best-selling book Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself.

Yet many of us may struggle to wrap our heads around that notion. We view boundaries as something that brings restriction, conflict, and guilt to our relationships rather than a tool that helps us feel safe in our interactions with others.

In fact, some people may not even realize they need to set firmer boundaries until they experience burnout or their close relationships deteriorate in quality. Others might want to draw some new lines but aren’t sure how to go about doing so, and others yet do know how to communicate their boundaries but don’t make it a practice to honor and uphold them.

Tawwab, a licensed therapist and sought-after relationship expert, is here to set things straight and unpack the complex concept of boundaries in her compassionate and practical guide.


Here is a concise summary of some of the main concepts in Tawwab’s influential book.

What Are Boundaries?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a boundary is “a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something.” And this is precisely how many of us approach the concept of boundaries – we are worried they will limit the extent of our positive interactions with others, bring division, and function as an invisible wall between us.

But Tawwab disagrees: “Boundaries are not walls,” she writes. “A wall keeps people out, while boundaries show people how to exist in a relationship with you.”

When you think about it, a boundary is more like a bridge – one that helps you keep a healthy distance, all the while maintaining a connection with the other side.

Of course, not all boundaries are built the same. Tawwab divides them into three main categories:

  • Porous boundaries: poorly expressed or weak boundaries that may manifest as oversharing, people-pleasing, inability to say no, fear of rejection, dependency on other people’s opinions, and accepting poor treatment.

  • Rigid boundaries: built to create an unhealthy distance that helps you keep everyone out and avoid becoming vulnerable; this often looks like cutting people out after one misstep, holding them to very high expectations and strict rules, and never opening up.

  • Healthy boundaries: created through an awareness of your present capacities and needs and expressed through clear and assertive communication; examples include being clear about your values and intentions, the ability to say no and respect other people’s no, and acknowledging that your own opinions and needs are valid.

Imagine someone invites you to an event you don’t want to attend.

A porous boundary would be to say “yes” and go while feeling socially depleted and resentful. A rigid boundary could manifest as an aggressive “no” that aims to discourage people from asking you in the future. A healthy boundary is a polite and respectful “no” that includes a “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry”.

9 Signs You Need Healthier Boundaries

If you’re unsure about whether you need to set firmer boundaries in your relationships, here are some signs from Tawwab’s book:

  • You seem to always feel overwhelmed (you have more tasks than you can realistically manage in a day and struggle to find a way to carve out more time for yourself)

  • You feel resentful (you’re angry and bitter when people ask you for help or when you make promises to others)

  • You neglect self-care (you don’t make any time for yourself and find it difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle)

  • You avoid interactions with people who might ask for your help so that you don’t have to say “yes” when you want to say “no”

  • You feel that you always help others but rarely get something valuable in return

  • You have unrealistic expectations of yourself and then feel disappointed when you fail to meet them

  • You often feel unheard, used, or invisible

  • You frequently commit to things you don’t want to do

  • You often daydream about drawing a line behind it all and disappearing to live a new life

How to Set Boundaries in 4 Steps

In her book, Tawwab explains how to identify, communicate, and honor your boundaries in an assertive and clear manner. She also dives into dealing with the discomfort we often feel around setting boundaries, including feelings of guilt and fear.

Here is a summary of the process in four steps that encapsulate the main lessons we’ve learned from Tawwab.

Step 1: Identify


  • Grab a piece of paper and ask yourself: in which areas of your life are you in need of more boundaries? This could be anything from your friendships to your work/life balance or your social media usage. List three places or relationships where you’d like to set a new boundary.

  • Many of our boundaries originate in our family units. In order to identify why your boundaries are the way they are, ask yourself: how were boundaries taught in your family? Did your caregivers honor your boundaries? In which way were your boundaries honored or dishonored? What’s your biggest challenge with setting boundaries?

  • It’s helpful to think of boundaries in six categories: physical (personal space and physical touch), sexual (sexual comments, touching, sexual acts), intellectual (the freedom to express your opinion and be met with respect), emotional (interpersonal support, having your emotions validated), material (possessions and money), and time (how you manage your time and allocate it to others). In which categories do you feel your boundaries are not being respected or need to be set more clearly?

Step 2: Communicate

  • Take note of the 4 ways to unsuccessfully communicate a boundary: passive (bottling your emotions and not voicing your needs), aggressive (attacking another person with harsh or demanding behaviors instead of stating your wants), passive-aggressive (acting out your feelings but refusing to communicate them, for example by acting upset and denying something’s wrong) and manipulative (using manipulative techniques such as gaslighting or guilt-tripping to make someone do what you want instead of clearly saying what you want). Think of the last few times you tried to set a boundary. Did you resort to any of these without realizing it?

  • Learn to communicate your boundaries in 2 steps. First, be clear. Try to be as straightforward and precise as possible – don’t use complicated words and don’t mumble. Secondly, state your needs directly. “Don’t just mention what you don’t like,” Tawwab instructs. “Ask for what you need or want.” Remember that there is no need to apologize for stating boundaries.

Examples of clear communication:

  • “Thank you for the invitation, but I already have other plans.”

  • “I don’t feel comfortable talking about person X in this way. I want us to be pleasant toward her.”

  • “I don’t like it when you talk to me like this. Please stop.”

Step 3: Deal with discomfort

  • Recognize that guilt is a part of the boundary-setting process. You can’t magically wish it away; it is an uncomfortable feeling that is likely rooted in past experiences when we were dismissed or punished for having needs or manipulated into complying with demands that made us uncomfortable. “Guilt isn’t a limitation to setting boundaries,” Tawwab says. “It’s a feeling. And like all feelings, guilt will come and go. Try not to treat your guilt like the worst thing ever. Instead, embrace it as part of a complicated process.”

  • Don’t let your fear prevent you from doing what you want to do. While you don’t know how a certain person will react to your attempt to set a new boundary, you do know that repeating the same patterns is detrimental to your well-being. The only way out is through. It might be helpful to ask yourself: in what areas of their life does this person respect boundaries and rules? By recognizing they are, indeed, capable of honoring limits, you may feel more encouraged to set yours.

  • When dealing with discomfort around the idea of setting boundaries, remember: a) Setting boundaries is a sign of a healthy relationship b) Other people have boundaries that you respect c) If boundaries ruin a relationship, it likely means the relationship was too unhealthy to last anyway

Step 4: Honor your boundaries

  • The final step is to uphold your boundaries in the face of pushback. Pushback can manifest in various different ways, for example: limit testing (trying to see whether your boundaries are flexible), ignoring (feigning misunderstanding or faulty memory), questioning (acting surprised and attempting to rationalize one’s behavior as unproblematic) or defensiveness (accusing you of attacking them or turning the request around).

  • To honor your boundaries, remember to: a) Restate or refresh your limits (“I told you I wasn’t comfortable with X. Please respect that”) b) Issue a healthy ultimatum (“If you aren’t ready to leave on time, I’ll walk ahead without you” or “If you keep talking about X topic, I’ll leave the room”) c) Reduce your interactions with that specific person (“I don’t feel comfortable in this dynamic due to X and would like us to speak less frequently”) d) Let go of the relationship

Conclusion

Establishing and upholding boundaries seems daunting, especially if you’re used to having your needs invalidated or if you frequently suppress your feelings to avoid conflict.

But as Tawwab writes, “I’d rather deal with the discomfort [of setting boundaries] in the short term than resentment and frustration in the long term.” Expressing your needs in clear terms is hard, but bottling everything deep down for months or years is even harder.

And if you ever feel scared or guilty when you’re about to establish a boundary, remember Tawwab’s words: “Setting limits won’t disrupt a healthy relationship.”


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About the author:

Denisa Cerna is a non-fiction and fiction writer who's passionate about psychology, mental health, and personal development. She's always on a quest to develop a better insight into the workings of the human mind, be it via reading psychology books or combing through research papers.


About the reviewer:

Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.


 

References:

Cambridge Dictionary. Boundary. dictionary.cambridge.org. 2024.



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