Knowing how to set boundaries is one of the most essential yet overlooked social skills.
Boundaries are rooted in clear communication.
As Brene Brown says: “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” The more precise you can express your boundaries, the more likely your boundaries will be respected. While you may need to repeat yourself a few times, don’t feel the need to apologize or explain your boundaries.
Like an invisible fence around the perimeter of a yard, boundaries establish where your space ends, and someone else’s begins. If a dog can recognize and respect that perimeter, then so can everyone in your life.
Here’s precisely how to set boundaries that protect your mental, physical, and emotional well-being from fostering healthy relationships at work, at home, and in social circles.
What Are Healthy Boundaries?
Healthy boundaries are the limits you place around your time, emotions, body, and mental health to stay resilient, solid, and content with who you are. These empowering borders protect you from being used, drained, or manipulated by others.
You can set boundaries around:
- Emotional energy
- Personal space
- Morals and ethics
- Material possessions and finances
- Social media
Boundaries can be set with:
- Romantic relationships
Though they aren’t as blatantly clear as a fence, wall, or “no trespassing” sign, healthy boundaries communicate to others what you will and will not tolerate. In short, boundaries empower you to take charge of your life.
Why Do You Need Boundaries?
Personal boundaries are at the root of a fulfilled, balanced life. Without them, people can quickly lose themselves in their work, relationships, familial obligations, or service to others. They can even wind up being exploited or taken advantage of by people who do not respect them.
These borders help define what you are willing to say “yes” to and what you decide to say “no” to. They give you a sense of agency and sovereignty over your decisions.
Like an internal compass, boundaries can all start with a “gut feeling” that tells you when you have the time or energy to devote to something versus when you need to say “no.”
Good boundaries free you to live life on your terms.
Healthy Boundaries vs. Unhealthy Boundaries
People with solid boundaries tend to have lower levels of stress and higher self-esteem because they prioritize their well-being.
On the other hand, people without boundaries may inadvertently let others take advantage of them.
They may lack self-confidence, a sense of purpose, or a clear identity to guide them through life. Counselor Dr. Dana Nelson writes, “in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger, and burnout.”
People without boundaries can be easily persuaded into things they don’t want to do because they may be acting out of guilt or obligation rather than self-love.
|Signs of Healthy Boundaries||Potential Signs of Unhealthy Boundaries|
|Protect yourself from getting taken advantage of||Vulnerable to being “used” or taken advantage of|
|Own your time||Over-commit your time to others and leave little time for yourself|
|High self-esteem and self-respect||Lower self-esteem and critical inner dialogue|
|Prioritize time for yourself||Give a lot of their time to other people|
|You only take on responsibilities you can handle; you don’t overcommit yourself||Feeling exhausted or burnt out by overwhelming commitments and responsibilities|
|Authentically say “no” if you don’t have the energy or capacity to do something||Have a hard time saying “no”|
|Set limits for others without feeling bad||Feel guilty for expressing boundaries|
|Strong sense of identity and direction||Change yourself to fit in with different people|
|Take care of your own problems and understand that you cannot heal other people’s issues for them||Take on other people’s problems as your own|
|You clearly communicate your needs and wants; you prioritize your self-care||You put other people’s needs and wants before your own|
Suppose you’re tired of living your life for other people or find yourself exhausted by all the commitments you’ve made to others. In that case, it’s time to set some boundaries and reclaim the power of your time, energy, and mental well-being.
5 Effective Ways to Set Healthy Boundaries
Setting boundaries comes down to communication. Communicating your needs and desires is the most vital step toward defining your limitations and living a more liberated existence.
Visualize and Name Your Limits
The first and most important step to defining your boundaries is to make them concrete. Boundaries are often confusing and abstract because they feel invisible in our daily lives.
However, by visualizing your boundaries and writing them down, you can get much more clarity on where you want to draw the line between you and other people.
Set aside some time to reflect on the state of your life. Ask yourself:
- What is causing me unnecessary stress or discomfort?
- What do I look forward to each day versus what do I dread?
- Who or what gives me energy?
- What areas of my life do I feel exhausted by?
- What makes me feel safe, supported, and valued?
Draw a large circle on a blank piece of paper. Inside the circle, write everything that makes you feel safe and stress-free.
- A daily routine
- Words of affirmation from your partner
- Hugs from your loved ones
- Leaving work stress in the office
- Clear communication from your loved ones
- Freedom to decide how you spend your free time
- Saying “no” to energy vampires
- Autonomy over your body
On the outside of the circle, write down anything that causes you discomfort, pain, annoyance, or emotional exhaustion. These are the people or situations pushing the limits of your boundaries.
- Your mom telling you what to do with your life
- Working after-hours on projects instead of prioritizing your self-care
- Worrying about what certain people think about you
- Your cousin asking to borrow money
- Your coworker constantly dumping her relationship problems on you at lunch
- Your roommate eating your food from the fridge
- Your boyfriend/girlfriend controlling who you talk to or hang out with
- Strange people at the bar touching you without asking
- Acquaintances asking deep or intimate questions about your life
This circle represents a visible manifestation of your limits. It’s time to take anything outside the circle and determine how you can define a boundary that will prevent or eliminate those issues in the future.
Openly Communicate Your Boundaries
One of the biggest mistakes people make is setting boundaries in their minds but not openly sharing them with the people in their life. Sometimes people assume that you should know their boundaries. But if they didn’t clearly communicate where they’ve drawn the line, how will you know when you’ve overstepped it?
This can seem daunting and scary, but it can feel like a significant relief once you get it out of the way. As social psychology researcher Brene Brown says, “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” Once you know your boundaries, you have to communicate them.
Take a deep breath, gather your resolve, and assertively express your needs in a kind, direct way. Here’s how:
How to Clearly Communicate Boundaries
|Time Boundary||“I can only stay for an hour” or “If you’re going to be late, please let me know ahead of time.”|
|Energy Boundary||“I don’t have the energy to help you with [their request] right now, but maybe [this resource] can help.”|
|Emotional Dumping||“I understand you’re having a hard time and I want to be there for you, but I don’t have the emotional capacity to listen right now.”|
|Personal Space Boundary||“It makes me feel uncomfortable when you [touch or action]. If you can’t respect my space, I’ll have to leave.”|
|Conversational Boundary||“This is not a topic I’m willing to discuss right now.”|
|Comment Boundary||“I don’t find those types of comments funny.”|
|Mental Boundary||“I understand we see things differently and I respect your opinion, but please don’t force it on me.”|
|Material Boundary||“Please ask me first before borrowing my [possession]” or “I would appreciate it if you didn’t touch my [material thing].”|
|Social Media Boundary||“I don’t feel comfortable with you posting that on Instagram.”|
Fortunately, once someone is aware of your boundaries, most people will respect them and apologize if they accidentally cross the line. Without clear communication, the lines become blurred. You can quickly find yourself crossing into the more dangerous territory of getting burned out, taken advantage of, or even neglecting your own needs.
The more precise and direct you can communicate your boundaries, the easier it will be to uphold them. Boundaries are like the “rules” of a relationship. When they’re displayed for all parties involved, it is much easier to respect them.
Reiterate and Uphold Your Boundaries
Like the invisible perimeter fence around a yard protects a dog from running into the street, boundaries protect you from overextending your mental and emotional well-being.
But the dog has to be trained not to cross that line. They have to understand where their yard begins and ends. It takes time, repetition, and patience.
The same is true of human boundaries. Not everyone will understand or respect your boundaries the first time. It’s essential to stand firm in your decision while kindly reminding them of your needs when necessary.
A dog will get confused if the yard ends at the bushes one day but extends to the sidewalk the next. If someone doesn’t initially respect your boundary, remind them, but stay consistent with your original decision.
Pro Tip: Avoid shifting your boundaries for somebody else’s comfort. If you said, “I don’t feel comfortable with you contacting me about work after hours,” you probably don’t want to send the message that “sometimes it’s OK for you to text me late at night.” While it may be awkward or uncomfortable initially, a person who truly wants to be in your life will respect your decision.
Don’t Be Afraid to Say No
Have you ever met someone who seemed to say “yes” to everything? People afraid to say “no” often end up with an overflowing plate of duties and responsibilities that they can’t seem to keep up with. They tend to forgo their self-care as they frantically try to meet the demands of all the people and things they said “yes” to.
“No” is a powerful word. It sounds strikingly similar in dozens of languages and can be recognized by simple gestures or facial expressions.
Yet so many people in the modern-day have been programmed to feel guilty for their “no’s.” In reality, to say “no” is to draw a line in the sand. It is an expression of courage, self-love, and sovereignty over your daily decisions.
Remember that every “yes” and “no” shapes your reality. You have the power to choose how you will spend your time and energy. If something doesn’t feel right in your gut, you probably shouldn’t do it. The word “no” is essential for healthy boundaries.
If you need help saying “no” more often, check out our 6 Effective Tips to Politely Say No.
Action Tip: Saying “no” doesn’t have to be rude, but it also doesn’t require an apology or an explanation. Notice where in your life you say “I’m sorry, I can’t” or “maybe, let me get back to you” when you just mean “no.” Pay attention to how you can shift these simple conversations to more clearly draw a boundary instead of leaving another person waiting for a clear answer. The clarity of your communication will ultimately benefit all parties involved.
Take Time for Yourself
Amidst our fast-moving world, self-care can feel selfish or even frivolous. But the science of self-care is clear: taking alone time for yourself is linked to more confidence, greater creativity, more emotional intelligence, and more emotional stability in challenging situations. It can even help prevent burnout.
Action Tip: For the next month, set aside a solid 2-hour block of time on your calendar each week specifically for “me time.” Let your close family and friends know that you won’t be available during this time. Whether you’re cooking a healthy meal for yourself, getting outside, taking a rest day, hitting the yoga studio, or lounging on the beach with a good book, creating time for yourself is crucial for healthier boundaries.
But what does self-care have to do with boundaries?
Solitude allows you to reflect on your life and your values. The time you set aside for self-care can help bring more clarity into your relationships with other people, ultimately helping you define your boundaries.
To many, this may seem selfish. Modern society’s tendency toward self-sacrifice and workaholism has led a large majority of people to dismiss their boundaries or sacrifice their well-being to please other people. Ironically, this can often have the opposite effect than they’d like.
Self-care and healthy boundaries are not selfish; they are a form of self-love that leads to deeper relationships and more fulfilling experiences.
As the saying goes: you cannot pour from an empty cup. Healthy boundaries are a way to fill your cup so that you can offer more joy and help to the world.
Bonus: Deal With Difficult People
Whether you’re at work or dealing with a personal relationship, difficult people can make setting boundaries 10x harder. But how do you even begin to deal with them? Through rigorous testing, we found the optimal approach to dealing with difficult people:
How to Deal with Difficult People at Work
Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.
I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.
How to Create Work-Life Boundaries
Research shows that blurred work-life boundaries are linked to emotional exhaustion. This is more relevant than ever amidst the massive shift to remote work-from-home scenarios. But workaholism can manifest in many other ways as well:
For example, John is a high-achieving lawyer who takes great pride in his work. However, he often stays extra late hours in his home office, compulsively checking emails and neglecting quality time with his family. He is regularly stressed and constantly thinking about new clients and cases from the moment he wakes up to when he goes to bed.
John often jokingly describes himself as a “workaholic” but inwardly associates his job with his identity. He doesn’t have any work-life boundaries, and his mental, emotional, and physical health are suffering.
Ways to Set Boundaries as a Workaholic:
- Set precise work hours (such as 9 to 5 with a 1-hour lunch break)
- Follow a morning routine centered around self-care
- Avoid checking your phone while with family and friends
- Tell your coworkers or employees that you are not available during certain times
- Define a space in your home that is only for work (avoid working on your bed or from your couch)
- Delegate tasks or hire new employees to help reduce your stress levels
- Try a new hobby that is unrelated to your work
- Keep separate sets of “work clothes” and “lounge clothes” to allow you to shift between boundaries mentally
- When you close your laptop, mentally allow yourself to “clock out” for the day
Workaholism is a real problem resulting from a lack of boundaries around time and energy.
How to Set Boundaries in a Romantic Relationship
Romantic relationships can be the most challenging area of your life to set boundaries. Despite what the movies tell us, it’s not necessarily healthy to give your whole self to somebody else. And honestly, nobody should expect you to.
Healthy boundaries are vital to healthy relationships. They define who is responsible for what, when you see each other, how you interact, and what each partner needs to feel safe and respected. Perhaps most importantly, relationship boundaries prevent codependency.
Suppose a romantic relationship takes over your life and impedes your work or your relationships with friends and family members. In that case, it may be time to step back and re-evaluate your boundaries.
The 3 most common romantic areas that are lacking in boundaries include:
How Much Time You Spend Together
Suppose you or your significant other tries to spend every waking hour together. In that case, you may be lacking a boundary around your time.
Relationship counselor Garrett Coan advises the “70/30” rule as a general guideline: the happiest, most harmonious marriages spend about 70% of their time together and 30% apart.
This may be more skewed toward 50/50 or 40/60 depending on the stage of your relationship, but the moral of the story is that nobody should take up all of your time. Time with a romantic partner needs to be balanced with time for friends, family, and yourself.
You can gently and lovingly express that you need more time to yourself to bring the best version of yourself into the relationship. This may manifest as a simple boundary like, “Sundays are my days for myself.”
Setting Physical and Sexual Boundaries
Physical boundaries are essential at every stage of a relationship, especially in the heat of a new romance. It is imperative to ask for permission before kissing, hugging, or touching a romantic partner for the first time.
Moreover, there needs to be conversations around how comfortable each person is with things like publicly displaying affection, holding hands, or any other form of physical boundary.
Maintaining autonomy over your body while respecting the physical or emotional boundaries of your sexual partner is crucial to maintaining a healthy connection. This can include consent, privacy, expressing your preferences and desires, and having a mutual understanding of your partner’s physical and emotional needs.
For example, suppose a man sees a woman who has a history of sexual abuse or trauma. In that case, he can respect her sexual boundaries by regularly checking in about her comfort with different types of physical intimacy. Suppose she expresses that a particular experience was triggering for her. In that case, he needs to respect that boundary to maintain her trust.
More commonplace examples for physical boundaries include avoiding overt PDA while at a social gathering or simply asking someone before hugging them.
Respecting Emotional Boundaries
Perhaps the most complex of all, emotional boundaries are the guidelines surrounding how you and your partner express your feelings to each other.
How do you talk to each other? Do you listen intently to your partner’s needs or only focus on yourself? What topics do you avoid discussing? What tones of voice do you use? How do you apologize and resolve the situation when you get into arguments?
Examples of Emotional Boundaries:
- “Let’s not discuss that topic at tonight’s dinner.”
- “It makes me uncomfortable when you bring up [painful topic]. Can we please keep that between us?”
- “I need some time to myself to think about this situation.”
- “I will not tolerate being called names.”
- “I want to support you in this hard time, but I cannot be your emotional dumping ground. Maybe you can reach out to [a therapist, your mom, etc.].”
Pro Tip: For more amazing advice on how to (properly) argue, read on: 9 Conflict Resolution Tips to Win An Argument Like a Jedi
A Note on Emotional Dumping
Unlike venting, emotional dumping is sporadically dumping traumatic feelings, thoughts, and emotions onto a partner or even a stranger. Whether you are the giver or receiver of emotional dumping, it can be a difficult boundary to navigate.
A person trying to release their emotions can express extreme vulnerability. But vulnerability can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, vulnerability is the key to establishing deep romantic connections. But it can also lead to breaches of trust or even over-sharing.
Everyone experiences heavy emotions that they sometimes need to vent, but using your romantic partner as an emotional dumping ground can significantly strain the relationship. After all, significant others are not therapists.
Set this boundary for yourself and your partner by compassionately saying, “I want to be there for you, but I don’t think I can support you in this way.” You can also suggest a third-party professional help with the situation potentially. Remember always to show empathy but demonstrate that you feel uncomfortable being the recipient of such intense oversharing.
How to Set Boundaries With Parents
When it comes to parental boundaries, it’s a whole different ball game. As a child, it can be incredibly confusing to have your caretaker lean on you for support or express inappropriate emotions in front of you. Fortunately, as an adult, you have more freedom and awareness to navigate boundaries with your parents.
Either way, boundaries need to be established. Whether young, adolescent, or adult, children need to know that they have certain privacy from their parents, for example, a boundary around their parents reading their diaries or entering their room while they are changing clothes.
In the reverse scenario, children also need to know their parents’ privacy and comfort level guidelines. Parents who want to set boundaries with their children may tell their kids always to knock before entering their bedroom or to ask before using certain household items.
Young adults may need to set boundaries around their parents’ guidance for suggestions. Parents often have an idea of how they want their child to live their life, and even if it is well-meaning, it can be harmful to your sense of freedom and self-sovereignty. Adults can draw this boundary by expressing to their parents that they prefer not to receive unsolicited advice or judgment about their decisions. They will ask for help when they need it.
How to Set Boundaries With Friends
While friendships are vital to your health and happiness, they can often be taxing when they have no bounds. Needy friends may expect a lot from you and not always give back. If you need to establish more boundaries with your friends, it all begins with the confidence to say “no.”
If you’re a people pleaser, this can be incredibly challenging because you want to make everyone happy. You may have difficulty saying “no” to someone asking for your help or attention, even if you don’t have the energy or time to do it.
There also could be some personal work involved. If you fear rejection or a need for validation, it may be harder to delineate your boundaries. But the friends worth having tend to understand and respect your priorities. Saying “no” is not a massive betrayal or letdown. It’s simply a skill you can practice to help establish more boundaries within friendships.
Ways to Set Boundaries with Friends:
- Set aside time specifically for yourself
- Let your friends know when they can expect a response from you (set this boundary, so people don’t get upset if you don’t respond to their text or call right away)
- Clearly express when you feel overwhelmed, ignored, or unheard.
- If you’re afraid to say “no,” start saying “I’ll get back to you” and think about things before you provide an answer
- Let your friends know that you have personal goals and dreams you are working towards
- Only offer to help friends with things that you genuinely have the capacity for. Otherwise, suggest alternative ways they can get help with the situation.
- Communicate that you are there for them, yet you are also prioritizing yourself at this time in your life.
Pro Tip: Use our 11 expert tips to stop being a people pleaser to feel more confident and authentic in your friendships.
In Summary, 5 Steps to Set Healthy Boundaries
If you want to reclaim your energy, time, and power, setting boundaries is crucial for your growth journey.
While it may seem daunting, setting boundaries doesn’t need to be complicated:
- Define your limits (what supports you versus what detracts from your well-being)
- Openly communicate your boundaries to people in your life
- Remind people if needed (but always stick to your boundaries)
- Don’t be afraid to say “no” to things that don’t serve you
- Take time for yourself
The bounds of your life will shape your growth and relationships with people around you. You only have so much time, energy, and emotional capacity. If you don’t protect your well-being, nobody else will.
Hopefully, by establishing clear boundaries, you can find more freedom to express yourself and live a more joyful life.
If you’re seeking more confidence to layout your boundaries and fulfill your greatest potential, check out our guide on How to Be More Confident: 11 Scientific Strategies For More Confidence.