10 Strategies to Protect Your Boundaries

In boxing, right before the fight starts, the referee motions the fighters to the center of the ring and gives last minute instructions to them, including the warning: “Protect yourselves at all times.” This is wise advice for anyone, not just professional boxers.

Think about it: police wear SWAT vests, and football players use helmets and shoulder pads to protect themselves from injury. As laypersons, we must look after our own needs and protect ourselves from the hurtful words and behaviors of others. Instead of SWAT vests or shoulder pads, we use boundaries to emotionally and mentally safeguard ourselves and the people we care for.

Here are ten battle-tested strategies to better enforce your boundaries:

  1. Expect both external and internal opposition.
  2. Meet regularly with safe, supportive friends.
  3. “Bookend” to protect yourself.
  4. Refuse to argue with your critics.
  5. Don’t take criticisms personally.
  6. Leave toxic, accusatory people as soon as possible.
  7. Make it a habit to say no at least once a day until you become comfortable setting boundaries.
  8. Use the “Secret Three-Word Formula” instead of giving in to others.
  9. Say the full Serenity Prayer when under stress.
  10. Forgive yourself and others.

Strategy 1: Expect both external and internal opposition.

When you follow through on your boundary limits, you’ll almost always encounter confrontation, criticism, and conflict. As you create and implement boundaries, think through who will be offended. Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” deals with this reality. One line reads:

Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

External opposition will be the most obvious. You have chosen to take a stand, so don’t be surprised when you face resistance. Expect to be treated negatively and hit by zinging words or looks from people who don’t like your boundaries.

They may try to shame, blame, slander, punish, or avoid you. Or, they may simply disregard and bulldoze over your boundaries.

Poet E. E. Cummings writes about this kind of external opposition:

In a world which is doing its best,
night and day,
to make you everybody else—
means to fight the hardest battle
which any human being can fight;
and never stop fighting.

I recently had firsthand experience with external opposition from a friend with whom I played golf every Monday morning.

I woke up with a terrible cold and a high temperature on the morning of our game. Having gone through pneumonia twice in the past five years, I didn’t want to risk my cold getting more serious.

I called and cancelled, explaining my health issues. His response startled me—he did everything he could to talk me into playing. He joked, shamed, and rationalized, trying to get me to join him.

To stand firm on my “no” boundary, I had to battle both his outward pressure and my internal stress (which was created by the worry that I had been a wimp in letting a sniffle stop my golf game).

This story reveals that you can also anticipate internal resistance from your own thinking, emotions, and self-talk. Be prepared to deal with inner feelings of guilt, fear, anger, regret, and even depression as you set and hold on to your boundaries.

For example, let’s say that you have an overbearing mother who insists you come for dinner every Thursday night. You finally tell her that you only have time to come over one night a month. She immediately shoots that hurting, dagger stare that says, “After all I’ve done for you, how could you treat me this way?”

Her words start your internal opposition. You begin saying to yourself, “Yes, I guess I am a selfish, self-centered, ungrateful son who only comes to dinner with his mother once a month.” Then your emotions seesaw between guilt for disappointing your mother, and resentment for having her dictate another area of your life.

Strategy 2: Meet regularly with safe, supportive friends.

In The Friendless American Male, a book that came out over thirty years ago, author David W. Smith revealed that the vast majority of American men do not have a single male friend whom they can call to discuss serious personal problems. Since then, that alarming truth has been validated by dozens of studies.

If you are a male reader, does The Friendless American Male describe you? Can you say, “I think I can call at least one friend at 2:00 a.m., and I wouldn’t have to apologize for asking for any type of help, whether it’s something practical, prayer, or just to be there for me during my time of need”?

A good friend listens and validates concerns; helps to process raw feelings of anger, fear, and frustration; adds a balanced perspective; and gives guidance. An anonymous writer noted, “If you have even one close friend in life, you are most blessed.” Consider this statement from the Bible:

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.

Do you have one or two special friends with whom you can share anything, anytime, and anywhere? If not, think about cultivating some relationships to see if one or two might end up being a safe, trustworthy, and uplifting counselor.

Strategy 3: “Bookend” to protect yourself.

“Bookending” is contacting someone before and after you go into a potentially stressful situation. I use this technique often and have found it to be extremely helpful, especially when confronting boundary issues. Before you go into a potentially stressful situation, call a friend to explain your concerns and ask for her prayers. Then, as soon as you leave, call that person again and share what happened—the positives and negatives.

While the Bible encourages us to rely on God for help, it also urges us to lean on others for helpful support:

Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.

Those in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups use this “bookending” strategy frequently and with great success. How about trying it yourself?

Strategy 4: Refuse to argue with your critics.

Remain calm and firm as you describe your boundaries. If you say something like, “I’ve decided to not take phone calls, emails, or texts over mealtimes because I need to set aside that time for my family,” expect that some people will be hurt, even offended, by your mealtime limits.

The reality is that there will always be someone who doesn’t agree with the reasons for your boundaries. It’s a waste of time to go into lengthy justifications for your decisions. The Bible explains, “Do not speak to fools, for they will scorn your prudent words.” Even if you offer a gentle, reasonable explanation, some folks will be upset or even trample on your boundaries. Therefore, it’s often easiest to simply state your new limits and trust that God will protect you.

Strategy 5: Don’t take criticisms personally.

One of life’s tough realities is that whenever anyone attempts to be successful at something, there will always be critics. Come up with a new product, service, program, or boundary and you will inevitably clash with a few naysayers.

Keep in mind that 90 percent of the time your critics’ adverse comments represent their own problems, not yours. Antagonistic responses often come from someone who is threatened, jealous, or fearful of the effects of your newly set limits.

When someone makes negative comments about your new boundary, ask yourself, “What’s going on in this person’s work or family life? What’s his motive for attacking me? What does he stand to gain if I don’t enforce this new boundary?” This thought exercise will change your perspective and help you realize that not all criticism is a result of your actions.

Strategy 6: Leave toxic, accusatory people as soon as possible.

Those who stay in a hostile environment will often cave in and agree with their accusers. Or, they will start beating themselves for being so “pig-headed” in making such “awful” perimeters. Remaining in the presence of negative, cutting people can inflict painful emotional wounds on you. You will become a human punching bag, with others beating you with their words.

Consider the Bible’s wisdom from Proverbs: “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared.

What can you do in these circumstances? Either leave the room or ask the hurtful person to leave.

Strategy 7: Make it a habit to say no at least once a day until you become comfortable setting boundaries.

Think of the last time you resumed exercising after a lengthy rest. You probably used some muscles that hadn’t been active for a long time—remember how sore you were for the next few days? The same thing happens when you’ve not been accustomed to setting and maintaining boundaries. It can be painful when you begin to exercise your long-dormant “no” boundary muscles, so begin with fairly safe areas:

  • Say no to eating when you’re not hungry.
  • Say no to a request to attend a social event you don’t want to attend.
  • Say no to a friend who wants you to run an errand with him when what you really want is to stay home and play with your kids or watch a TV show.
  • Say no to your inner voice that nags, “Before you go home, you’ve got to finish all your work and return every phone call right now.”

Strategy 8: Use the “secret Three-Word Formula” instead of giving in to others.

When confronted with a boundary issue, counter it by using the phrase: “Love to, can’t.” Your conversation might go like this, filling in the details as needed:

I’d love to [do what you’re asking] . . . Sorry, I can’t [because I have another commitment].

Don’t waste time defending your decision—forgo any explanations. This will save you the turmoil of having to justify your actions, yield to others’ expectations, or shame yourself for your decision.

Concentrate on using the Formula to protect yourself from being pressured into undesirable stresses. These could include things like social, family, work, or church commitments. They also could include new, unwanted tasks or responsibilities.

Strategy 9: Say the full Serenity Prayer when under stress.

Perhaps best known for its use in 12-step programs, the Serenity Prayer is a valuable spiritual tool for anyone, not just for recovering alcoholics and other addicts.

Most people are only aware of the traditional, shorter version that includes just the first few words of this famous prayer (attributed to Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr). Its complete version is even more helpful, and I highly recommend using it. I, and countless others, have used this powerful prayer to gain stability and guidance in turbulent times:

God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference; living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that you will make all things right if I surrender to your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with you in the next. Amen.

Strategy 10: Forgive yourself and others.

It’s easy to let your life be weighed down by your own or others’ harmful words or actions. If you’ve failed to set adequate boundaries and you and others have suffered, admit it to God. He graciously offers complete forgiveness no matter how badly you’ve botched up.

If others have hurt you in any way, forgive them, but don’t trust that they won’t repeat their offenses. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way again. Learn from people’s patterns and from your own pain, then choose to move ahead.

Sometimes, forgiving and moving ahead are exceedingly hard—while forgiveness starts with a decision to try to forgive, it frequently takes a long time to process wounds, sometimes months or even years.

For instance, if you’ve been emotionally, physically, or sexually abused, it will take significant time to process your injuries and forgive others so that you can heal, rebuild, and forge ahead. As you undergo the process of healing, you’ll find it easier to let go and move on.

Note: This is an excerpt from my book Boundary Setting: A Practical Guide. To learn more, please click here.

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Hi, I'm Jim. I've been through the emotional wringer. I've been a successful pastor and leader and a loving father, but I've also been suicidally depressed. I'll teach you the techniques I used to heal myself, and give you the tools to reclaim your life and move forward!

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