The food, drink and pills you take in through your mouth determine more than anything else how healthy your body is. Likewise the beliefs, expectations and responsibilities you take in through your relationships mostly determine the health of your heart, mind and soul.

Your happiness depends even more upon your soul diet than your physical diet, and the key to health is setting healthy boundaries. When problem situations occur, your boundaries are the promises you make to yourself and others.

For example, with a child in the home, a healthy boundary might look like this: “Whenever you throw a fit like that or say you hate one of us in this family, I will give you what your behavior says you need: I will put you into time-out for fifteen minutes, and I’ll repeat this for fifteen more minutes as often as you need until you sincerely apologize." (With teenagers, it helps more to put their electronic devices into time-out.) You teach a good lesson when you take away the privilege they are abusing.

With a spouse, healthy boundaries may sound like this: “The next time you buy something expensive like this that you don’t need without my approval, I’m going to get the money back for us by selling some thing things you don’t need without your approval.” Or, “If you ever cheat on me (or hit me) again, I will leave this house until you make a good start in counseling to straighten yourself out.”

To see where you need to set more appr90priate boundaries f9r y9urseof, consider any situation that keeps happening with another person or grouyp, and keeps making you upset or disappointed. . . . Here are some suggestions for setting healthy boundaries that will in the long run produce healthy relationships, personality and lifestyle.

  1. Draw a boundary for yourself whenever you sense a need to protect your physical or mental health, or the welfare of folks you care about. This would include when among other issues any of the following are threatened or damaged:
  • health and safety
  • personal property or finances
  • respect for one’s gender, sexuality or body image
  • self-esteem or public reputation
  • time and energy budget.
  1. Remind yourself and others that the purpose for setting your boundaries is to show that you respect and care about all the parties involved. Your boundaries should promote the welfare of all people affected by the situation at hand, so they help protect anyone from becoming exhausted, insulted, overindulged or overprotected.
  1. Make no promise you aren’t prepared to keep. No idle threats or promises—otherwise you’re showing you don’t respect yourself, and you inspire others to do the same. So if you say you’ll stop talking, you have to be willing to take the high road of silence, and get out of harm’s way, by letting the other person have the last nasty word.
  1. Avoid double standards. Don’t expect others to treat you any different than you treat them, or than you treat yourself. And don’t treat one child or parent with a very different tone, response, purpose or principle than you would use with another in the same situation. Boundaries don’t protect people when they consistently favor one person over the other (email me for an old column I wrote on double standards in marriage).
  1. Honor your promises, except when you can see a better way to fulfill the fair and beneficial purposes defined in 1. and 2. above. Be careful not to change your response just because someone gets their feelings hurt, or acts like they feel insulted. Your objectives don’t change, just your ways of reaching them.
  1. Healthy, effective boundaries dictate your behavior, not someone else’s. This most important rule for setting boundaries is also the most commonly broken. You can issue a command if you want, but it usually doesn’t help as much as it hurts.

For example, saying “You will not talk to me like that!” doesn’t work as well as, “If you talk to me like that again, I’ll stop talking with you for a good while, and stop trying so hard to make you happy.” Better still, go positive: “When you assure me you are sorry and won’t speak to me like that again, I will resume talking about what you want from me.” With teenagers and adults, making demands on them hurts you by inspiring them to rebel and prove the point, “You don’t control me.”

This last point is the biggest key to healthy boundaries: shifting your focus onto your own behaviors, and away from the other person's. You are now showing you can control your own behavior, not theirs. This ends the power struggles, and greatly reduces your frustration from focusing on what you can't change and were never designed to change – your loved one's behavior.

People setting new boundaries often find that they have more trouble than they expected to have when they try to honor their new promises. That is an indication that they need to get for themselves more guidance and support. It does not indicate a need to get more support for the loved one. So you may need to change your lifestyle--get yourself some counseling, or keep in closer touch with your supportive friends and family.

You can and should change the way you defend your boundaries when they get violated over and over again, and whenever people are consistently being disrespected. Also, when your behavior legitimately injures, insults or exhausts someone involved, including yourself, change the response you have promised to make.

Only change your boundary if you believe any healthy person in that situation would likely feel harmed or disrespected by your response, and when an objective observer would likely agree with your judgment. Remember that some injuries and hurt feelings are legitimate and unavoidable. When the other party has in effect asked for them, they actually need these hurt feelings, to teach and motivate them to make better decisions.

Finally, remember that your boundaries define who you are. They also determine how much you will take away the responsibility (and learning opportunity) from other people who are having problems. Don’t set boundaries that define you as a chump, a loser, a wimp, a bully or a fool, or as someone who is helping to create such a person. Be a winner whose boundaries show others that you respect and care about them, and about yourself.


Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt