Boundaries are not borders or dividers. They are list of things that are okay and not okay.
As a counselor, I see many introverts make their way into my office because they’re struggling to set healthy boundaries. This doesn’t mean they’ve failed in some way, because, let’s be honest, most of us have never been taught how to pull this off — and it’s not easy. I can often help them by showing them a few simple things.
To be clear, both introverts and extroverts can have trouble setting boundaries, so it’s certainly not just an introvert issue. Yet in my experience, introverts and extroverts struggle with it for different reasons. There are typically two main roadblocks for us “quiet ones”:
- Many introverts are prone to want to take care of others — especially highly sensitive introverts — due to their highly developed sense of empathy. For more on this, see my article The Science Behind Why We Absorb Other’s Emotions (and How to Deal).
- Introverts, many of whom are compassionate people who like to please and help others, see boundaries as walls rather than healthy limits.
Over the course of our sessions, I help my introverted clients see that boundaries are not borders or dividers. They are guidelines, rules, or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe, and mentally healthy ways for other people to behave toward them — and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.
In simple terms, our personal boundaries are a list of things that are okay and not okay.
Again, to be very clear, not every introvert struggles with setting boundaries. But in general, because of their empathy, introspection, and compassion, introverts tend to see boundaries as something that gets in the way of a relationship. They may see saying no as lacking compassion, and setting boundaries may even feel wrong.
In reality, boundaries are the foundation of an empathetic, compassionate relationship. As Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong, “Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
A Case Example: My Introverted Client
Sometimes introverts come to me upset or angry about a friend or loved one who isn’t living up to their expectations. One young woman, an introvert, was trying desperately to help her depressed friend. She kept coming to me with feelings of resentment and anger because “no matter what I do, she isn’t getting better.”
This woman was so empathetic that she was giving everything she had to try to pull her friend out of depression. When we looked deeper, we realized that she was expecting her friend to get better because of her input. She expected to be able to heal her friend, and when her friend wasn’t healed, she took it as a personal affront.
Rather than setting boundaries about when she would be there for her friend and when she would take time for herself, she was judging her friend’s ability to get better and putting more and more energy, time, and effort into making her friend live up to her expectations.
The more we talked, the more she realized that this wasn’t empathetic or compassionate at all. In fact, it was very destructive for both her and her friend.
The Life-Changing Power of Setting Boundaries
Again, Brené Brown, in The Gifts of Imperfection, states it wonderfully: “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”
My client started setting boundaries with her friend. Although she still lovingly supported her, she no longer tried to fix the problem; instead, she took time for herself and allowed herself to go out with other friends. As a result, she was able to be more present and compassionate with her friend who was suffering, and her own stress diminished.
This is the life-changing power of setting boundaries.
3 Steps to Better Boundaries
Do you struggle to set healthy boundaries? Here are three things I tell my clients that should help you too:
1. Decide what is okay and what is not okay in your life.
Look at your values. Who are you? What do you value? Your boundaries are about YOU, so take the time to decide what you really need from others in your life. For example, as an introvert, you probably value alone time — and your boundaries should reflect this.
Take a look at your life, and focus, specifically, on your emotions. Are there times when you feel anger or rage? Is there someone you’re always complaining about? Does a relationship make you feel threatened, suffocated, or taken advantage of? Emotions are little flags, waving in the sky to get our attention and show us that something isn’t quite right in our lives. They are valuable clues about boundaries you may need to set.
2. Communicate your boundaries to others.
For introverts, who value the inner journey more than the outer one, this can be a difficult step, especially if you’re doing it for the first time. So, here are some tips:
- Boundaries sound like this: “If you… (for example, don’t pay rent on time again) “then I….” (for example, will ask you to move out). Keep it short and simple.
- When you begin to set boundaries, you may feel ashamed or afraid. Don’t lose heart — these feelings are normal! Keep going.
- You will set boundaries when you are ready and not a minute sooner.
- You are allowed to say, for example, “Don’t vent your anger on me, I won’t have it,” or “I won’t let you disrespect me. If you cannot respect me, then stay away.” If others behave with disrespect, you have the right to tell them so, to ask them to stop, and to avoid them in the future of they choose to continue.
- Nobody can demand to know your mind or your business. What you share with others about matters that concern you is determined by what feels right to you — not what they want.
- Nobody has the right to tell you what to think, feel, or do. You have the right to your own thoughts, feelings, values, and beliefs.
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3. Stick to your guns.
When you make your boundaries clear, others may feel hurt, angry, or disappointed. They may lash out at you and try to get you to change your mind — especially if the boundary had been weak or leaky for a long time. But this is not your problem. You cannot simultaneously set a limit with someone and also take care of their feelings.
Most importantly, if you allow people to ignore your boundaries, you will become angry, resentful, and unhappy. Sure, you may not feel that way right away, the first time someone crosses a boundary; you may think, “I can put up with this” or “just this once.” But if you let them get away with it, they will think it’s a behavior that’s okay with you, and they will do it again. So remember:
- You don’t have to be “nice” to people who are not nice to you.
- You have a need and a right to love and respect — and to stand up for yourself.
- You have a right to be who you are and to live your own life harmlessly, even if others don’t like it.
- You don’t have to feel guilty for not behaving as others might want you to, or for not giving others what they expect of you.
- You have a right to your imperfections and shortcomings. Never feel guilty for being imperfect!
- You are completely acceptable just as you are right at this moment, with whatever sensations, thoughts, and feelings you’re experiencing.
Setting boundaries, especially for introverts, can feel wrong. But in the end, not only will you feel less stressed, resentful, and angry, but you will be a better friend, a better communicator, and a more compassionate person.
You might like:
- The Science Behind Why We Absorb Other Emotion’s (and How to Deal)
- 15 Signs You’re an Introvert With High-Functioning Anxiety
- 8 Confessions of an Introvert Living in a World Made for Extroverts
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