Kind of like building a budget, learning how to set boundaries is one of those areas of personal development that’s not exactly Instagrammable. It’s the kind of hard work that takes years of practice and a dedication to self-discovery. And it’s something that intimacy and life coach Jules Webber knows a thing or two about.

“Boundaries are like the fence around a piece of property,” she says, “they show us what we are uniquely responsible for and what we are not.”

For Jules, discovering that line between what we can tackle ourselves versus what we must let go is “the beginning of ownership and self-worth. It leads us to an experience of our true power.” So how exactly do you go about setting those boundaries? Here, she breaks down where to start and how to maintain those lines you’ve drawn when it feels a million times easier to just slip back into your old ways. Get ready for some serious soul searching.

image by kristen kilpatrick

image by kristen kilpatrick

For someone who’s never intentionally set boundaries before, where should we begin?

Boundaries have more to do with who you are at your full potential than with anyone else and what they are doing. I would start with getting clear about what that looks like for you.

What do you look like as a person when you are your happiest? What are you like when you feel safe, loved, and enough? What person do you become when you feel healthy, when you are passionate about what you do, and when you trust yourself? What kind of things does she like? What kind of intimate partnership is she in? What are her friends like? Her career? How does she prefer to take care of herself? How does she speak up for herself?

Knowing yourself, your needs, and your desires is the beginning of healthy boundaries.

What are the best ways to discover where you need to draw boundaries?

Look for the places in your life where you’re experiencing anger, resentment, exhaustion, excessive self-criticism, or over-giving. Pay attention to how you feel in relationships where you don’t think you can be yourself. Ask the question, “What am I doing in life that I don’t want to be doing? What am I not doing that I want to be doing? What’s standing in the way?” These all point to a need for greater clarity around our boundaries.

image by kristen kilpatrick

How can you communicate your boundaries with those around you without making people feel defensive?

Ownership of our feelings is always the best place to start. Remember your boundaries are for you, not the person in front of you.

I like to express my boundaries using statements about how I feel and what I need, in a way that doesn’t make the other person responsible for me. Here’s a template I love:

  1. Communicate your genuine appreciation for that person.
  2. State your need, and your intention to follow through on getting that need met.
  3. Allow the other person space for their own reaction, knowing you are not responsible for their emotions.

Implementing boundaries suddenly can be jarring and a bit disorienting for the other people in your life, especially if you set a different expectation in months or years past. There will be times when people take your boundaries personally. You can offer them reassurance that it isn’t personal if needed, and appreciate their good intentions. Remember that this is not a requirement though; your needs are your own and they deserve to be met. You never have to apologize for that, or be responsible for anyone’s discomfort when you are taking care of yourself.

Are there boundaries you think everyone should have?

Yes, mostly around self-care. Everyone, and I mean everyone, must take responsibility for their own self care if they want to have healthy intimacy. And this doesn’t just mean taking a nice bath on Sundays! It means taking care of your emotions, walking away from what doesn’t feel right, making sure your partner is not the only place where you’re able to process your life, have fun, or feel beautiful.

image by jules webber

What do you do if someone breaks one of your boundaries? Is there a healthy way to react?

The best reactions always begin with a pause. In that pause, take a second to assess what’s yours to own and what’s not. If you have a friend that shared something you told her in confidence with another person, you may need to take a second to allow yourself to feel upset by that before you respond. When you do, communicate that you’re assuming the best, and that you intend to have your boundaries honored in a clear way moving forward.  Try something like this:

“Hi (friend), the other day when I shared about me and my partner’s conflict with you, I did not intend for you to talk about that with anyone else. I feel hurt and disrespected that you shared something that was private to me without my permission. I don’t think you intended to hurt me, but I need to know that this is a boundary you can respect moving forward in our friendship.”

How can you honor someone else’s boundaries when they’ve crossed one of yours? 

Always, always, always respect people, even if they have dishonored your personal boundary. We can distance ourselves from unsafe people and do what is needed to protect and provide for ourselves. Getting reactive and disrespectful of another person’s boundaries when we feel hurt never helps. If that has happened, and it makes sense to, I would do my best to apologize.

Any time a boundary is crossed, do the work to repair trust together. Do it with love and respect. This work can be done with simple conflict resolution, or with a therapist or coach. Either way, both people should be left feeling they can move forward in a healthy and integrated way.

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Phoebe Neuman