How To Set Boundaries + Why It's So Important, According To Relationship Experts
Therapy speak has officially entered the vernacular around the world, and with it, more and more people are becoming aware of their own boundaries—and subsequently setting them.
Boundaries are an essential part of minding your time and energy and therefore your well-being, but how do you actually set them? Here's what to know, according to relationship experts.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "a line that marks the limits of an area," and in the context of personal boundaries, we can think of them as figurative "lines" that mark our limits. In fact, the expression, "That's where I draw the line," is the perfect example of what we're doing when we're setting boundaries: marking that limit.
"We all have limits, and we all experience violations of our limits," Earnshaw notes, adding that most of the time, people are not trying to violate your limits—they just aren't aware of them. "Sometimes, this is because we are not clear with ourselves or other people about what we want or need."
Examples of healthy boundaries:
- "I am so sorry you are having such a tough time. Right now, I am not in a place to take in all of this information. Do you think we can come back to this conversation later?"
- "I would love to help, but I would be overcommitting myself. Is there another time?"
- "I know we disagree, but I won't let you belittle me like that."
- "When we talk about this, we don't get very far. I think it is a good idea to avoid the conversation right now."
- "I can't give any more money. I would be happy to help in another way."
- "I'm happy to let you borrow my dress. I'll need it back by Friday."
What boundaries aren't
As more people voice their boundaries, it's important to note that boundaries are not a way to control people's behavior. As doctor of clinical psychology Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy recently wrote for mindbodygreen, "Boundaries refer to your 'hell nos,' or the things you are unwilling to accept about how people treat you. Boundaries do not refer to how you can package your dislikes and disapprovals into controlling someone's life."
And as clinical psychologist Kaitlin Harkess, Ph.D., adds, if a boundary doesn't relate back to a value of yours (i.e., compassion or honesty) and is more about how you want someone to conduct themselves, "It's then perhaps less of a boundary and more controlling behavior."
Types of boundaries
- Physical boundaries: Boundaries related to your needs for personal space, your comfort with touch, and physical needs like rest, food, thirst, etc.
- Sexual boundaries: Boundaries related to sex, including consent, sexual needs, and privacy
- Emotional boundaries: Boundaries related to respecting and honoring feelings, emotions, and energy levels
- Material boundaries: Boundaries related to material possessions and money
- Time boundaries: Boundaries related to how much time you have in your schedule (including time for yourself)
- Intellectual boundaries: Boundaries related to thoughts, ideas, and personal opinions
How to set healthy boundaries
Clearly explain what happened & what you're feeling
According to Lark, the first step to setting a boundary is to clearly explain why you're bringing up the issue, in terms of what happened and how it made you feel. "Describe how the situation unfolded in black-and-white terms, trying as best as you can to do that without judgment of the other person. Then, use 'I statements' to express the emotions and feelings you had in that context," she says.
For example, if you're setting a time boundary with a friend who always wants to hang out spontaneously, you could open the conversation by saying, "I really value the time we spend together, but I've been feeling overwhelmed with everything that's on my plate right now."
As another example, if you are setting an intellectual boundary with someone who wants to argue about opposing viewpoints, you could open the conversation with, "I can see we have different thoughts on this topic and that's OK, but I don't feel OK when you make comments about my character."
Communicate the boundary
Once you've stated what happened and why it upset you, then you set the boundary. As Lark explains, this is when you want to be very straightforward about what it is you're asking for, offering a concrete example, if necessary.
To stick with the example of the friend who always wants to hang out that very instant, after you tell them you've been overwhelmed, then the boundary is, "Let's plan our hangouts at least a few days in advance so I can figure out what works best with my schedule."
Or, in the example of that argumentative person, the boundary is, "I don't have a problem talking about our different views, but if the conversation turns personal, I won't entertain it." You could also flat-out say, "I need to avoid this topic going forward."
Reinforce your boundary
Once the person acknowledges that you've set a boundary, Lark says it's a good idea to reinforce it by thanking them for being on board with you and honoring your needs. Let them know you appreciate it—we all like to feel like we're being helpful and supportive, after all, so this will increase the likelihood that the person actually follows through.
However, if they don't follow through, it's important to remember that your boundaries are yours to enforce. You can't always guarantee people will respond well to your boundaries, and it can often be easier to "fold" or give in, but that's when you actually need to double down on the boundary you set and remind the person of what you already discussed.
Cultivate mindfulness & emotional regulation
When setting a boundary—or having any difficult conversation, for that matter–being mindful and keeping your emotions in check will go a long way. Again, you can't always guarantee that the person you're setting a boundary with is going to be receptive, and if they take it the wrong way, defensiveness can ramp up fast.
That's why, Lark says, using mindfulness and emotional regulation skills can help you stay calm and composed on the surface—even if you're fuming on the inside. "That is ultimately how we're going to support people to hear what we're saying," Lark adds.
Have a "24-hour rule"
For those of us who are people-pleasers, or otherwise automatically say "yes" to everything, Lark recommends something she calls the "24-hour rule" for setting boundaries.
When possible, she says, give yourself a full day before committing to anything. This will mostly apply to time boundaries, though it's never a bad idea to give yourself a chance to pause and get clear on what you want to say in any instance.
For example, if your boss asks if you can take on an extra project, before you jump to say yes, you could say, "That sounds like a great opportunity. Let me see how my bandwidth looks over the next week and I'll report back tomorrow."
Why boundaries are important
Our boundaries are all we really have to make sure we're honoring our own needs instead of sacrificing ourselves. Whether it's a boundary you set with yourself to limit screen time or junk food, or a boundary you set with another person when they disrespect you, your boundaries are a reflection of your own self-worth because they reveal what you are (and aren't) willing to tolerate.
As Lark explains, some people have a particularly hard time setting boundaries because their inner defense mechanisms tell them they need to cater to others' needs, sacrifice their own, and ultimately abandon themselves in order to get approval, validation, or love.
Figuring out what your boundaries are, and enforcing them, then, is a slow and steady climb to trusting yourself, listening to your own wants and needs, and knowing your limits.
Plus, Lark says, when you know where your limits are, "It's easier for us to spot those transgressions and put some sort of 'fencing' in place, [and] know what our values are, and how we want to live our lives and invest our time."
How do you set boundaries with someone?
Explain what happened and how it made you feel, then clearly state your boundary. Stay calm and mindful, and reinforce the boundary afterward by thanking them for listening and honoring your needs.
What are 5 healthy boundaries?
Five examples of healthy boundaries include turning down plans because you need to rest, disengaging from a conversation because you were disrespected, telling someone you don't have emotional space for them to vent, carving out more alone time within your relationship, saving money instead of going out to eat with a friend.
How do you start setting boundaries?
To start setting boundaries, you first have to assess your values to figure out what your boundaries actually are. Then, clearly articulate how you felt when your boundary was violated, and what you would like to happen going forward.
What does it mean to set boundaries?
To set a boundary means to understand your own wants, needs, and personal limits and then state those wants, needs, and limits to the people in your life.
Without proper boundaries, we're far more susceptible to neglecting our own limits, people-pleasing, and burning out. But when we know what our boundaries are and, further, express those things to the people in our lives, we become stronger individuals who know how to hold our own ground.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.