In this article, I discuss ways to make boundary-setting easier and effective.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

In my last article, I discussed the importance of setting boundaries to achieve long-term positive effects on mood and self-esteem. In this article, I provide strategies on how to make it easier to deal with the ‘short-term pain’ which often accompanies setting boundaries. These strategies will also help to make your boundary-setting effective.

Prepare what you want to say

Preparing what you want to say in your boundary-setting conversation will make it much easier for you. Not having to think on the spot about what you want to say will reduce your stress whereas having to think about what to say on the spot will increase it.

If your boundary-setting conversation will be face-to-face, I recommend rehearsing your main points until you have them memorized. If the discussion will be over the phone, I recommend having your ‘script’ with you. In the next section, I will discuss other modes of communicating your points which are less stressful than face-to-face or phone conversations.

Choose the easiest communication mode

Many people avoid setting boundaries because they assume it involves a face-to-face confrontation in which they will be subjected to negative comments. Boundaries can actually be set using a variety of modes of communication. When I need to set boundaries, I choose the mode of communication based on the same principles I use for selecting tools for household tasks—ease and effectiveness.

On many occasions, that involves setting boundaries in writing. This category includes mailed letters, emails and text messages.  If you enjoy writing as I do, then setting boundaries in writing is an option you should consider. Doing so is typically easier than setting boundaries face-to-face or by phone in that you can take your time to think through your points and communicate them without the stress of the other party being present. Setting boundaries in writing also is usually more effective because your points are communicated after being calmly and carefully thought and because your entire case is delivered without the interruptions which often occur in face-to-face or phone conversations.

There may be some instances in which face-to-face or phone communication is necessary for setting boundaries, but if you keep these cases to a minimum in favour of written communication your willingness to set boundaries consistently should increase significantly.

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Focus on process, not outcome

When setting boundaries, do not focus on the outcome—that is, whether the person with whom you are setting boundaries gives you a good or a bad response. Instead, focus on process rather than outcome. That is, define your success in boundary-setting only by whether you do your job of communicating your points effectively. Then ‘let the chips fall where they may’ in terms of the quality of response you receive.  Focusing on the process of boundary-setting rather than the outcome will reduce your stress and make it easier to communicate your points.

Prepare for how to handle negative responses

Being prepared for how to handle negative responses which may come to your boundary-setting efforts will help you to lower your stress and be more effective in communicating your points. In addition, if you anticipate particular negative responses it will help you to prepare how to respond to these effectively.

For example, you may anticipate critical responses to your boundary-setting efforts such as, “You’re being selfish” or “You’re not a good friend”.  Practicing using self-talk to challenge the validity of these comments with evidence will make it easier for you to remain calm if they actually occur. For example, you could practice telling yourself, “They might think I’m selfish and that I am not being a good friend, but I am actually behaving reasonably by standing up for my rights.”

Prepare for how to exit the boundary-setting discussion quickly and effectively

Preparing for how to handle negative responses can also entail how to exit the conversation quickly and effectively. Many times the other party will try to carry on the discussion long after you’ve expressed your boundary-setting points. This can involve their directing repeated negative comments at you along with other attempts to get you to change your position.

In addition to using the self-talk strategies I just mentioned, it is important in these situations to have a prepared exit strategy—that is, one or two short statements to make it clear to the other party that you are not changing your position and do not want to continue the discussion further. For example, you could state, “I am sorry you feel that way but I don’t agree with you and will not be changing my mind. I don’t want to discuss this matter anymore”

Using the strategies discussed in this article should make your boundary-setting easier and more effective. As with most skills, practicing them will yield the best results. You may find it helpful to work with a psychologist to guide you in the use of these strategies. As a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, I help my clients set boundaries by implementing these strategies—particularly clients in self-esteem counselling and depression counselling.

May your boundary-setting be as easy and effective as possible,

Dr. Pat