• Liz Beiderman

Breakup or Shakeup? The 4 C’s of Effective Boundary Setting

Updated: Aug 19, 2020



Do you struggle to set boundaries in your relationships? Read on for common signs that your current boundaries may need a rejig, plus 4 tips for setting them effectively!


One hand passing a black cutout of a heart to another, in an image intended to illustrate how relationships are strengthened by effect boundary-setting.

Are there certain people in your life who seem to be mentally and emotionally exhausting to interact with? Perhaps you’re thinking of someone who constantly demands more of your time and attention than you’re able to give, tries to dictate how you live your life or who you spend your time with, or treats you more like a 24-hour crisis line than a friend.

We inevitably seem to reach a breaking point with these types of individuals, at which point we’re not sure what comes next. Is it time to cut and run, or is it possible that the relationship simply has a boundary problem?


Do I Need To Set Better Boundaries?

We may understand conceptually that boundaries are important in maintaining healthy relationships, but boundaries not always easy to define, let alone set effectively. Nevertheless, there are certain qualities that can signify to us that whatever dynamic we’ve got going right now isn’t healthy or sustainable.

Some signs that your relationship may need firmer boundaries can include:

  • Feeling unable to say “no,” even when the request seems excessive or imposing.

  • Feeling trapped in a relationship or indebted to the person in some way.

  • Feeling the need to constantly tiptoe over someone else’s emotions.

  • Feeling as though nothing about your life is truly your own.

  • Experiencing anxiety over the thought of interacting with the person.

  • Feeling like most of your choices are tentative and can be overridden at any time.

  • Feeling the need to justify every major life decision or constantly ask permission.

If some of those signs sound familiar and you think that boundary-setting may be in order, there are a few key points to keep in mind that can help you set them more effectively. I want to preface this by stressing that boundaries are ultimately put into place NOT to push away the people we care about, but rather to set the terms under which we can have a healthier relationship with them.


This is about asserting our needs and autonomy, not about retaliation or neglect. In fact, if you get the sense that setting boundaries cannot be done without neglecting the needs of the person or people involved, this is a sign of a codependent relationship, and only further underscores the need for firmer and more clearly defined boundaries.

In order to begin setting healthy boundaries, we first need to recognize that nobody else’s wellbeing can depend on whether or not we give them unrestricted access to ourselves. This is going to be crucial in ensuring that we’re able to not only set our boundaries, but maintain them.

With this in mind, how do we go about setting boundaries effectively?


A young woman checks her phone while sitting with a tense posture and one hand clenched into a fist. The image is being used to illustrate ineffective boundary-setting that has led to excessive text messaging.

How Do I Start Setting Boundaries?

Before we begin, we need to determine where we want that line to be drawn in the first place. What’s the specific behaviour that you want to change? Do you want your partner to stop blowing up your phone with text messages and expecting an instant reply? Does your colleague need to know that your work cell is for work calls, not to vent about their spouse? Define the boundary that you want to set.

Once you have a boundary in mind and want to set it effectively, you can proceed keeping the 4 C’s of boundary-setting in mind: Communication, Clarity, Conviction, and Consistency.


Communication

This may sound like a given, but given the prevalence of ghosting culture, I feel compelled to highlight it anyway: Once you define the boundaries you want to set, it’s important to actually communicate them to the people they apply to. If you want your partner to stop rapid fire texting you at work, they need to know that they won't be getting an instant reply moving forward.

As tempting as it can be to simply stop responding to the messages and brush off their complaints when you get home, failing to explicitly establish a new boundary in an effort to avoid confrontation only serves to prolong the issue and create more unnecessary conflict. Your partner, friend, family member, colleague, etc., won’t get the message and will only grow more frustrated and confused.

Clarity

Clarity is crucial when you’re communicating your boundaries. People need to be clear on your terms if they’re going to respect them, because how do you stop crossing a line that wasn’t clearly drawn to begin with?

Here’s an example to highlight the importance of clarity: Imagine that you own and operate your own grocery store, and when communicating your store hours, the sign simply reads: “Open until closing.”

What are your potential customers supposed to make of that? Just pick a time and day, show up, and hope for the best? Probably not. Your sign will need to include the specific days and times that you operate. If you open at 8am, customers who show up at 7am can come back later or wait for an hour. If you close at 9pm, customers who show up after that can come back tomorrow or see if anywhere else is still open.

Moving forward, people who want to shop at your store will know exactly what days and hours you’re open, and can plan accordingly. If they happen to be early morning or late night shoppers, they’re always free to go elsewhere. You are under no obligation to make exceptions for people who feel entitled to enter your store whenever they want.

Conviction

We need to be confident and self-assured when setting boundaries, especially with the people in our lives who’ve taken it as a given that they can cross them anytime. The repeat violators are the ones counting on us to back down under the slightest bit of pressure, which is why it’s so important to set your boundaries with conviction.

One important piece to understand is that boundaries are not a betrayal. If the person or people we’re setting them with see them as one, it speaks more to the codependent nature of the relationship than anything else. Enabling that codependency doesn’t do them or us any favours.

Setting boundaries is no more a betrayal than turning away the customer who shows up to your store at 9:30pm when you’re cashing out. If that customer is emotionally dependent on being able to enter your store whenever the urge strikes, that’s something that they need to address. It isn't something you can fix for them.

We can absolutely be patient and compassionate when we set our boundaries, but we also need to be firm. Changing the status quo is never easy, and a new boundary can be a tough pill to swallow for some, but we still have every right to set them. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is entitled to violate your boundaries. They are yours to set and live by.

Consistency

Once you decide to set a boundary, crossing it needs to be addressed every time that occurs. Think of it this way: If you’re trying to housebreak a puppy, pooping on your carpet needs to be a no-no every time it happens, not just sometimes. I don’t care how good your puppy is at giving you those adorable pleading eyes - we can’t keep doling out treats for bad behaviour and expect it to change.

When people in our lives repeatedly try to violate our boundaries, we in turn need to double down on them until they get the message. They need to know that these attempts are a waste of time. If we fail to do this, we’re basically communicating that the line is moveable and they can still cross it if the conditions are just right. We’re not saying “stop,” we’re saying, “try again later.”


Two people holding hands, signifying a strong relationship built on trust, good communication, and healthy boundaries.

What Happens When I Set Boundaries?

While you can usually expect at least some push-back when you initially communicate and start enforcing your boundaries, with time and consistency one of two things will start to happen.

People who value your companionship and are willing to respect your boundaries will begin to adapt their behaviour and grow accustomed to the new status quo. They may also feel more confident to set boundaries of their own, which can further strengthen your relationship.

People whose “affection” for you was predicated on their ability to cross the line with you whenever they wanted may begin to phase out of your life, some quietly and some rather loudly and dramatically. The flashier exits may or may not be preceded by accusations, guilt trips, and attempts to manipulate you into backing down.

In some instances, particularly with family, a refusal to accept and respect your boundaries can lead to diminished interactions or full on cut ties. This is probably the biggest downer out of the possible outcomes, but in some rare instances it ends up being the only way forward.


While setting boundaries isn’t always easy, communicating our needs and expectations is essential if we want to nurture our relationships and foster better understanding and trust with those closest to us. Remember that the goal here is stronger relationships, not broken ones. You can invite someone to be part of your life in a way that respects your boundaries, but you can’t change them if they’re hellbent on maintaining a dysfunctional dynamic with you.

Hopefully these tips can help guide you through the boundary-setting process, and remember that, as with most things in life, it gets easier with practice!

Are you looking to set healthier boundaries in your relationships? Contact me for a free consultation to discuss how therapy can help!

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