Therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab on the Life-Changing Practice of Setting Boundaries
Think about the last time you felt anxious. Irritated. Overwhelmed. Angry. Now pinpoint the reason. Stumped? Chances are you were facing a boundary issue.
Therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab sees this constantly in her practice. “When I began my work as a therapist, I thought I would be helping people with anxiety and relationship problems—and I did that,” says Tawwab, “but what I noticed was what I was really helping them with was learning to be assertive and how to set boundaries.”
Through her practice and incredibly insightful Instagram account, Tawwab helps people implement guidelines so they “can feel good in life.” Her work can help anyone at any stage, but given that we live in a polarized climate, and the holidays are approaching, the need for clear direction on self-preservation seems especially dire right now—which is why we called Tawwab. Her advice is as simple as it is life changing. It’s also a reality check, because as much of this work is about setting expectations with others, it’s also about setting them with our own selves.
“We will always be powerless if we’re trying to exert our power over other people,” says Tawwab. “But we will be powerful if we do it with ourselves.”
1. Why can it be such a challenge to set boundaries? What gets in our way?
The biggest thing is that we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We feel guilty about wanting something that is different from the people that we care about. In many cases, other people are asserting their boundaries. They’re maybe doing things that might not be the best for us, and then we feel upset, frustrated, agitated by these things and we sit and we wonder: What can I do to tell them what I really want without hurting their feelings? How do I do this without feeling bad?
It is really hard to set a boundary when you are focused on not hurting another person, or when you’re focused on how they’ll feel about it or how you’ll have to repair their feelings around your boundary. We really can’t do that. So many of us know what the boundary is, but we are so afraid to execute it because we are fearful of how the people in our lives will respond.
2. What are the benefits of practicing healthy boundaries?
We feel more confident. We feel clearer about our relationships. We feel more mentally protected in our space. Without boundaries we’re often left wondering where things are with people. We wonder: How do I say this? How do I please them? How can I make this situation peaceful? With boundaries we are affirming ourselves. It feels peaceful because we are doing something to really honor ourselves versus allowing other people to do all of this stuff and then we react with resentment, passive aggressiveness, frustration, anxiety, or anger. We carry around a lot of things that can be remedied by setting expectations with people.
3. What is an example of setting healthy boundaries?
I was asked this question the other day: ‘What can I do about people referring to me as thin in a derogatory way?’ That is a beautiful opportunity to set some boundaries about what a person can or cannot say about your body. We can say, ‘I really don’t like you commenting on anything about my appearance. I really don’t like you saying anything about my weight. The way that you present it sounds offensive to me. It hurts me, please don’t do that anymore.’ Those are boundaries.
Often, instead of doing that, we start to get really irritated or annoyed by having to interact with the person making the comment and eventually it causes issues with the person in the relationship—and it’s all because we don’t want to, or we don’t feel comfortable with, setting the boundaries around how others speak to you.
4. Sometimes it can be hard to know that boundaries are needed, especially if we’re too overwhelmed, tired, depleted. What are clues to look for that tell us we need to create boundaries?
Being overwhelmed and burnout are complete boundary issues. We are burned-out typically because we are doing too much, not delegating enough, and not saying ‘no’ enough. Being overwhelmed is the same sort of thing. Feeling out of sorts with yourself or feeling disconnected from yourself are ways we need to consider that perhaps there is something you’re not giving time to. So often, that thing is yourself; that you need to be a little more self-indulgent. Self-care is one of those things that has gotten a bad rap, that it’s selfish and you’re taking time away from other people. But I don’t know a single thing that can exist without self-preservation.
With boundaries, sometimes we don’t know until after the fact. We can go into a situation and afterwards were like, what happened there? But when you feel that, always consider your boundaries. When I’m often frustrated, I often put it on myself. I think: What two things can I do to prevent this from the future? Where can I adjust?
Another way to know you’re having a boundary issue is to tune into your feelings and your energy when you’re in a certain space or with certain people. Are you noticing a pattern of frustration, for instance, every time you see your brother-in-law? This may be an indicator that you need some boundaries in your relationship with that person.
5. As we enter the holiday season during a challenging year, and right after a contentious election, many of us may be facing some hard scenarios with people—albeit even remotely—where our boundaries are challenged. Amidst conflicting opinions and ideas, what do we need to know to help us through right now?
One conversation with a person typically doesn’t convince them to change their values. The conversations around COVID and politics, do we need to have them at the dinner table? Or are those conversations that we need to save for another time?
I know so many people are anxious over thinking, I’m going to see this uncle and he doesn’t believe in COVID, or I’m going to see this person and they won’t respect my boundaries around the election. But in our homes, we control our boundaries. And as we go into other folks’ homes, we have to determine if we want to respect their boundaries.
If you are hosting or not hosting, that is your prerogative. In your home, you can create the culture around topics to be discussed. That is what people forget. We invite people into our home and think, my gosh, this person comes over and they do this. You have ownership over your space. And no matter who that person is, you can redirect them or even gently ask them ‘today is a holiday and I’d really appreciate it if we stay away from these topics. And if we are going to talk about these things, that we’ll respect one another—so no yelling, no name calling, no dismissing another’s opinion or cutting each other off.’
It’s about creating some rules around those hot button conversations, if you must speak about them, that can be really helpful.
6. And for anytime of the year, what is a tool that we can use when dealing with boundary issues with people?
Often with boundaries we tend to put the boundaries on the other person—I need to tell this person to do this—when really many of our most helpful boundaries are those that we take ownership of. It’s not always how do I get this person to stop, but it could be rather the amount of time you spend with that person or the things you say to them when they make certain statements.
If you’re feeling really uncomfortable about someone saying a particular thing to you, say something back. When my daughter was 2-year-old, her favorite saying was, ‘I don’t like that.’ I thought that was very powerful. It was super simple. It didn’t give any direction about what to do, but she was very clear that this is not something that she wanted to continue. We can say that to people.
7. Any other things to remember?
Setting boundaries is hard, so you don’t want to complicate it by saying a long, complicated statement to someone. It could be as simple as, ‘I need you to help me prepare dinner’ or ‘I need you to ask me how I’m doing instead of me always asking you.’ You can say those things in a very short and concise way. You don’t have to have a conversation that is long and lengthy. That complicates things, especially when you are a beginner in setting boundaries. You need to say the easiest thing possible. Say whatever it is in the moment. Speak calmly. Don’t yell or scream. Start to speak up in a gentle way and make requests of people.
I do a Q&A on my Instagram stories on Monday and people will send me these beautifully packaged questions, such as: ‘My friend continues to ask me to borrow money. How do I tell them I don’t want to loan them the money?’ I often say: You already have the words. You just said it. ‘I don’t want to loan them the money.’ We think there’s something other than that that we have to say. But it’s important to remember: You already have the words you just need to give yourself the freedom and the space to use that language.
It is so hard to advocate for ourselves because so often we’re taught that being assertive and asking for what we want is mean and hurtful. And it’s actually the exact thing we need training around to be healthier people.
Nedra Glover Tawwab is a licensed therapist and sought-after relationship expert. She has practiced relationship therapy for 14 years and is the founder and owner of the group therapy practice, Kaleidoscope Counseling. Every day she helps people create healthy relationships by teaching them how to implement boundaries. Her philosophy is that a lack of boundaries and assertiveness underlie most relationship issues, and her gift is helping people create healthy relationships with themselves and others.
This interview was featured in the November 22, 2020 edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.