Setting Boundaries: How to Put Your Needs First

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“That is my toy. And you can’t have it!” a frustrated child screams at her brother. “Now, now, it’s nice to share,” scolds the child’s mother. And so begins the training to suppress your needs, wants, and desires.

From the time you are young, well-intending parents, teachers, and other caretakers, mold you into socially acceptable beings. In many ways this is a positive thing, but part of that training also teaches you to ignore your own needs and desires. And if you are good students of life in society, you become good at suppressing your needs.

Yet, everyone has needs. Those of you who are extra sensitive in nature have become accustomed to continually denying your own needs in order to be nice and accommodating people pleasers.

Needs Expressed as Aggression

However, needs will come to the surface at some point—they are, after all, needs. For those of you who haven’t properly learned how to effectively and consistently express your needs and desires to others, the buildup of not having them met sometimes comes out as aggression.

You know what it’s like. It’s Saturday morning and you finally get to sleep in. It’s been a rough week and you could use a little extra rest. But your kids have other plans. They wake up at 5 a.m. and start arguing and fighting. The trend continues throughout the day and when at one o’clock they refuse to settle down for a nap, you explode. “That’s it! I’ve had it! You two stay in your room until tomorrow morning!” Then you slam the door and both kids start sobbing. You feel terrible for yelling, but are at a loss for what to do.

Ignoring your needs will often lead to outbursts because of the buildup. But if you have the tools to be assertive before you feel anger welling up inside of you, you can save yourself and your loved ones a lot of pain.

The following are a few tools you can practice to strengthen your assertiveness muscles.

1. Recognize Your Needs

Suppressing your needs doesn’t make you a saint; it makes you a doormat. Think about the people you know who are always giving, but never receiving. They usually play the role of martyr. You have heard, if not in real life, on TV, the stereotypical mother who tries to make her children feel guilty, “Oh, after all I’ve done for you, you still don’t call me.”

When you play the role of the victim or martyr, you give away your power to others. Recognize your needs and take care of yourself first. No one else is responsible for your needs. When you’re hungry, eat. When you’re thirsty, drink. When you need a hug, ask.

Dr. David Simon, co-founder of the Chopra Center, used to teach about self-reliance. I’m paraphrasing but he would say something like, “When you’re a baby, you make a peep and people run around trying to meet your needs. Now that you’re an adult, you try the same tactic. But you’re not that cute anymore.”

2. Communicate Your Needs with Honesty

This takes a lot of guts. Remember the training you endured as a child? You were taught not to honestly communicate your needs. Did you ever have a parent or grandparent tell you to wear a coat when you told them you were not cold but they made you do it anyway? Or were you ever forced to eat when you weren’t hungry? What does that teach you? Don’t listen to your needs. I know what’s best for you.

Societal conditioning taught you that even if you communicate your needs, no one is going to listen anyway. Now you have to overcome that, and it’s going to take practice. If you’ve gained the reputation as a pushover or someone who gives up your needs for those of others, your family and friends will push back in the beginning.

Start with simple phrases like, “I’m going to bed now. I’m tired.” Or, “I would like to go get healthy food versus eating at a fast food place this time.” If you find you’re getting frustrated, it’s usually because you’re ignoring a need. Check in with yourself and figure out which one it is and communicate it.

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3. Set Boundaries with Your Family, Friends, and Colleagues

People who have a difficult time being assertive usually have weak boundaries. What are boundaries? They are delineations where one person ends and you begin. Think of boundaries as fences around a house. If your neighbor sent her dog to go to the bathroom inside of your fence, you would be upset because any area inside the fence is your property. The same goes for your personal being. If a family member is constantly asking for your money, time, or emotional support without giving back, that person is crossing boundaries.

You get to set your own boundaries; you are not a mean person for doing so. Setting boundaries shows that you respect yourself. Once you do this, others will see that and respect you more. For example, let’s suppose a friend calls you every day to complain about her marriage. It takes up your time, brings you down, and the friend doesn’t seem to have any desire to change her situation. Now that you’ve learned about boundary setting, you’re going to limit conversations with her to twice per month and then let her know. She will probably be upset, but that’s not your problem. You will stick to your boundaries to fulfill your needs of happiness and wholeness—and hopefully you’ll find more supportive friends who don’t always complain.

4. Follow Through with Your Boundaries and Healthy Communication

The most important part about assertiveness and boundary setting is sticking to them. People will still try to push your buttons and get you to change your mind. But if you’re authentic with yourself and your needs, you must stick to your boundaries. You will lose credibility if you give in. When a person tries to get you to change back to your old ways, firmly state your boundary.

Let’s take some examples from above. You need your sleep on a Saturday so you say to your kids, “Mom needs her rest on Saturday morning. If you guys are quiet, play nicely, and let mommy sleep, we’ll make pancakes at 10 a.m. I’ll set this alarm here in your room so you know when to wake me up.” Or if the friend who was calling daily continues to call, you can say firmly, “I enjoy our friendship, but I need time for myself and other friends. Maybe you could check out a marriage counselor if you need professional advice. I’d be happy to hear about it when we talk next Sunday.”

If this is a struggle for you, don’t despair. With practice, you’ll get better at it and best of all, you’ll feel your personal power coming back. You won’t feel those senses of frustration and anger anymore. You’ll feel—and be—empowered.  


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