How do I communicate boundaries is one of the most common questions I hear in my trauma counseling practice.
And it’s one of the most important things to master in the process of trauma recovery.
But communicating boundaries isn’t something we’re taught in most schools. And who among us had parents who taught good boundary communication? Which leaves most of us at the mercy of the people in our lives.
Sometimes with dire consequences for our physical and mental health.
When do you set a boundary?
When one of your securities is being impacted in a negative way it’s time to set a boundary with anyone you want to keep around.
Boundaries protect your securities:
We all have a part in the way others treat us. You already teach people how to treat you, whether you’re aware of it or not. Your behaviors and responses train them subconsciously.
Communicating clear respectful boundaries helps teach them a more mindful way.
Why you should NOT set boundaries
I get it. It’s stressful to think about an emotionally taxing conversation like that. You’re afraid of rejection, sure you’ll fumble what you’re trying to say.
Or what if they make fun of you?
It’s much easier to avoid difficult conversations. Especially for people with trauma. We tend to remain in a constant state of fight/flight hypervigilance, so the idea of adding yet another stressor can put us over the edge.
Better to just bury our feelings, right? Ignore the discomfort? All pain eventually stops. How many long dark nights have I comforted myself in that grim fatalism?
But whoever you are, whatever your story—you deserve to feel safe and respected.
It’s your right to put up boundaries to protect yourself. Especially with people you love, who can hurt you the most. And when you do, there’s a good chance it will lead to a better, closer relationship.
I realize though, that doesn’t help with fumbling your words or forgetting everything you want to say in the moment.
So here’s one easy solution for getting around the emotions of the moment to communicate boundaries clearly: Write them a letter.
How to write a boundary letter to a loved one
When my clients need to set a difficult boundary with someone in their life, I have them write out a letter—even if they plan to have the conversation face to face.
Writing it out helps make sure your message doesn’t get garbled by the emotions stirred up by the conversation. And it helps make sure you include everything you want to say.
Start with bulletpoints:
Which of your securities have been affected
Emotions you felt
Your needs (not wants)
Boundaries & consequences
Then on a fresh page:
Begin the letter with what you want to build toward (closer relationship, deeper empathy, etc)
Explain specific transgressions and how they made you feel
Write out your boundaries and what steps you’ll take if violated
Reiterate the importance of respect and love
Close with an optimistic note about growing together
Then I highly recommend reading the whole thing aloud to make sure it’s clear and firm, but not accusatory or vengeful.
Communicating boundaries in a letter lets the other person sit with your words, and process them in their own way.
It can also put a little distance between you, in case your boundary makes them feel initially defensive. It’s a lot easier to get caught up in emotions in a verbal conversation, when responses feel urgent.
Once they’ve had some time to process, then you can continue the conversation and see if they have questions or feelings.
What if their response to the boundary is negative?
Sometimes people don’t respond well to boundaries. This is an unfortunate truth you must be aware of.
That’s why part of setting boundaries is laying out specific consequences if the boundary is violated.
Sometimes people who care about you will accidentally violate your boundaries. It’s up to you how much of that you’ll tolerate. But when you set specific, appropriate consequences and follow through on them—you can stay in control and manage the situation.
For example, the client whose mother calls when drunk, which triggers a lot of emotional insecurity and bad memories—
Boundary: Please don’t call me when you're drunk.
Consequence: If you do I’ll ask you to call back tomorrow and hang up.
Hey I’ve been there. I know how hard it can be to follow through on the consequences you set. It can be really painful sometimes.
My best friend’s husband used the word “retarded” a lot and I asked him not to use that word around me because it makes me uncomfortable and puts me on edge when we’re hanging out together. It’s dehumanizing. And I know what it feels like to be dehumanized.
He ignored the boundary and kept violating it. When I reminded him, he flat out said he didn’t care.
So I stopped hanging out with them and lost my best friend. It hurt. A lot.
That may happen when you set and hold a boundary. If it does, you’ll have to work through the grief process of losing that person from your life. But you deserve to live within whatever boundaries make you feel secure.
Speaking with a trauma counselor about the grief process can help you turn it into a growth opportunity. And you’ll come out feeling better, happier, safer on the other side.
Want to learn more about communicating boundaries in a letter? Reach out and let’s talk.