In this article, I discuss how focusing on the boundary-setting benefits to your self-esteem and mood can help you to be consistent at this activity.
In my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, I often have clients who have challenges in setting boundaries in social interactions and relationships. The most common difficulties involve managing the stress involved in letting others know when they have crossed a boundary and the fact that the stress involved does not appear to be worth enduring based on the limited benefits. That is, clients commonly report that on most occasions the party toward whom they have set boundaries does not respond positively to their boundary-setting attempts.
The stress involved in setting boundaries and the lack of positive results which appear to occur when doing so leads many people to give up on setting boundaries. After all, what is the point of going through the stress of setting boundaries if doing so produces the desired results so infrequently?
In the following sections, I will discuss reasons you should set boundaries based on consistent positive results which do occur as a consequence. These results focus less on the external reaction of the other party and more on the internal benefits to your self-esteem and mood.
The positive internal results of setting boundaries
Setting boundaries has positive effects on your self-esteem and mood because it is an assertive act which indicates that you respect yourself. If you act in a manner indicative of respect for yourself, your attitude toward yourself will tend to be consistent with this action.
The reason for this positive effect of setting boundaries is that we like our actions and attitudes to be consistent with each other. In turn, inconsistency between our actions and attitudes produces an unpleasant state called cognitive dissonance which we reduce by restoring attitude-behaviour consistency.
Thus if you consistently act in a manner indicative of respect for yourself, to avoid cognitive dissonance your attitude toward yourself will necessarily be one of self-respect. And because we tend to experience better moods when we respect ourselves, setting boundaries therefore brings with it the additional benefit of positive effects on your mood.
Using cost-benefit analysis to be consistent at setting boundaries
As with many behaviours, you can become more consistent at setting boundaries if you do a cost-benefit analysis. First let’s consider the costs of setting boundaries. They are largely the short-term costs of time, effort and stress involved in bringing the matter which bothers you to the attention of the other party.
Although these short-term costs can be lowered by the method you choose to set boundaries, you will still likely incur some costs in terms of time, effort and stress. Therefore, it only makes sense to incur these costs if you are likely to accrue greater benefits as a result of setting boundaries.
Let’s examine whether this is the case. If you consider only the potential boundary-setting benefit of getting the other party to change their behaviour by becoming more respectful toward you, the fact that this does not occur very often may lead you logically to believe that setting boundaries consistently does not make much sense from a cost-benefit analysis. However, if you add the benefits to your self-esteem and mood which you will accrue from setting boundaries regardless of the response of the other party, setting boundaries consistently makes sense from a cost-benefit analysis.
Another way to justify setting boundaries consistently from a cost-benefit analysis is to consider the effects of not setting boundaries. In this case, you gain the benefit of avoiding the short-term time, effort and stress involved in setting the boundary with the other party. However, this benefit is outweighed by the larger negative impact on your self-esteem and mood as a result of your not having behaved in a manner indicative of respecting yourself.
This result is inevitable based on the cognitive dissonance principles I mentioned previously. That is, if you behave in a manner indicating that you do not respect yourself by failing to set boundaries, your attitude toward yourself will also be negative in order to be consistent with your actions. Doing so allows you to avoid the unpleasant state of cognitive dissonance. The result is that not setting boundaries will lead you to suffer from low self-esteem which is typically accompanied by negative mood states—depression being the most notable of these.
Other benefits you can derive from setting boundaries consistently
Focusing on the internal benefits to your self-esteem and mood will give you the motivation to set boundaries consistently. Doing so will also allow you to accrue additional benefits which come from setting boundaries.
One such benefit is that the other party will have received the message that they have crossed your boundaries. Receiving such a message may lead them to change their behaviour so that they will be more likely to behave respectfully toward you. As I mentioned, this benefit occurs less often than the guaranteed boundary-setting boosts to your self-esteem and mood. However, it still is a benefit worth pursuing because it can mark a significant positive turning point in your relationship with the other party.
Even if your boundary-setting efforts do not achieve the desired change in behaviour from the other party, your efforts will have helped you to obtain good information which you can use to guide your subsequent interactions with them. For example, you may decide in response to the lack of behavioural change that you will distance yourself from the other party by decreasing the frequency of your interactions with them.
Sometimes such distancing will lead the other party to reconsider their initial decision not to respond positively to your request for behavioural change through setting boundaries. This is especially likely to occur if they value their relationship with you.
When the other party does not respond favourably to your distancing behaviours, you still will have received valuable information which you can use to guide your subsequent behaviours toward them. This would likely entail your significantly reducing the time you spend with them or possibly eliminating interactions with them. Doing so is a reasonable course of action to take toward someone who has made it clear that they will not treat you with the respect you deserve.
In short, by setting boundaries you are telling others that you are worthy of respect. More importantly, you are saying the same thing to yourself.
May you remind yourself of the internal benefits of setting boundaries,