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The Big Mistake People Make When Trying To Set Boundaries, From A Therapist

Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer By Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
This Is Why You Suck At Setting Boundaries, From A Therapist

Setting boundaries with others doesn't always come easy, especially if you're dealing with a particularly difficult or toxic person. But these are the situations where communicating boundaries is all the more important.

And according to licensed marriage and family therapist Rachel Zar, LMFT, CST, there's one mistake people make when setting boundaries that's all too common.

First, let's really define what boundaries are.

You probably already have an idea of what boundaries are, but here's a more nuanced definition: Licensed marriage and family therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, describes boundaries as something that happens when you can sense yourself, what you want, and what you need—and access your voice to speak up for yourself.

"We all have 'limits,' and we all experience violations of our limits. Most of the time, people are not trying to violate your limits—they just aren't aware of what they are," Earnshaw writes, adding that sometimes, this happens when we aren't clear with others—or ourselves—about our needs.

Without boundaries, though, relationships can become fraught with words left unsaid, resentment, or worse.

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The common mistake we make when setting boundaries.

When we spoke with Zar about how to deal with toxic family members, she made an excellent point about boundaries and what we think they sound like versus what they actually need to sound like in order to be effective.

"It's become something of a buzzword, this idea of boundaries, and I think sometimes it's confusing in terms of what it actually means," Zar tells mbg. "We think that setting a boundary sounds like, 'Hey, Mom, don't call me while I'm at work.' But what it actually sounds like is, 'If you call me during the workday, I won't pick up.'"

The difference? The second example is coming from an empowered place. It's not a question, it's not asking permission, and you're not relying on the other person to honor your boundary. You're clearing telling them: If this is how you're going to behave, this is how I'm going to respond.

"It's about what your action is going to be instead of relying on someone else to do an action that's within your boundary," Zar explains. "It puts you in the driver's seat. It puts you in control."

The takeaway.

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The bottom line is, setting boundaries is more about what you'll do in a certain situation if your boundary isn't being met rather than just what the other person does. Don't forget this key rule of thumb the next time you have to set a boundary—which is sure to happen, whether within your family, friendships, or even at work. While it may not come naturally at first, the more you flex your ability to speak up for yourself and hold your boundaries, the easier it will become.

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