If you want to live your happiest, healthiest life, you need to be able to clearly define what you need from other people, how you expect them to treat you, and what behaviors you will (and will not) tolerate—and that means setting boundaries.
But for many people, boundaries can prove challenging. How do you know when you need to set a boundary? What kind of boundaries do you need to set? And how can you set boundaries in a way that supports your health and well-being—and then follow through on maintaining those boundaries?
Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about how to set and maintain healthy boundaries.
What are boundaries?
First things first, before we jump into how to set and maintain healthy boundaries, let’s quickly cover what, exactly, boundaries are. “Boundaries are the parameters or rules we set for how we allow others to treat us,” says Paula Flidermauz, MHC-LP, a therapist at New York-based practice Empower Your Mind Therapy.
Boundaries give other people a framework for how to interact with us; it lets them know what’s OK, what’s not OK, and how they can navigate the relationship in a way that feels respectful of our needs.
It’s also important to recognize what boundaries are not—and that’s a rejection or a way to jeopardize relationships with others. “Setting boundaries does not mean we are rejecting others or keeping them out of our lives,” says Ottawa-based clinical psychologist Dr. Meaghan Gallagher. “Communicating our boundaries is an important way to teach the important people in our lives about what we need—and they actually protect our relationships.”
Why is setting healthy boundaries so important?
“Setting healthy boundaries allows us to make and have time for ourselves and to take care of our own needs,” says Fildermauz. For example, if we have clear boundaries around how much we’re willing to do for other people, it ensures that we have the time and energy to take care of what we need to do for ourselves.
In addition to protecting your time, having healthy boundaries can also support your mental health.
“Maintaining boundaries is important for our mental health because it ensures that we are respecting our own needs, limits, and our available resources,” says Gallagher. “We are the only ones who have full access to our own internal experiences so it’s important that we stay in tune with what’s working, what’s not, and what we need.”
Finally, when you have clear, healthy boundaries, it allows you to navigate life in a way that feels true to you—and that can help you feel better about yourself and your life.
“Setting healthy boundaries allows us to live our lives in alignment with our personal needs and our values,” says Flidermauz. “They allow us to live authentically and with peace of mind.”
What are the different types of boundaries?
“There are several different types of boundaries—and all are important,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook.
Healthy boundaries you may want to set include “physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, intellectual boundaries, sexual boundaries, time boundaries, boundaries around material possessions, or financial boundaries,” says Fildermauz.
So, for example, one of your physical boundaries may be that you don’t allow strangers to hug you or shake your hand. An emotional boundary might be that you don’t tolerate name-calling. And a financial boundary might be that you don’t loan anyone more than $100.
Another important thing to note? “Boundaries are not the same in every context,” says Flidermauz.
So, for example, you may have a boundary around material possessions that you don’t let anyone else wear your clothing—except your daughter, who you’re happy to share your wardrobe with. Or you might be fine with your friends asking you personal questions, but not feel comfortable with work colleagues doing the same thing.
The point is, different boundaries apply to different people in different contexts—so know that it’s ok if your boundaries change based on the person or situation.
How to know when it’s time to set a boundary
Clearly, boundaries are important. But how do you know when it’s time to set one? “A helpful way to think about boundaries is by identifying your own personal values, needs, and limitations and then noticing if there are ever times when you don’t honor them in exchange for pleasing another person or gaining approval,” says licensed clinical social worker Alexandra Haselback, who has a private practice, Seachange Therapy, in NYC.
Another time to think about setting a boundary is if “you’re noticing a twinge of resentment, feeling like you’re unseen…or that a relationship is feeling out of balance,” says Gallagher.
Or in other words, if you feel like something is off—and your interactions with a particular person just aren’t sitting well with you? Chances are, you need to set a boundary.
“Trust your gut instinct,” says Gallagher. “If something isn’t feeling right to you, take some time to reflect on what you need and make the time to communicate that to others.”
How to set healthy boundaries
There are a few steps you’ll want to take when setting healthy boundaries. And the first? Defining what that looks like for you.
When defining your own boundaries, ask yourself, “What do you like or dislike?,” says Flidermauz. “What are you not willing to tolerate, and what are the compromises you’re willing to make within that?”
Once you know what your boundaries are for yourself, it’s time to share them with others.
“Effective boundaries are clear, are grounded in our own experience, and provide a call to action or a direct ask,” says Gallagher. “Be clear about what you feel, what isn’t feeling right to you, and what you would like to see moving forward.”
So, an example of an effective boundary might be, “I feel uncomfortable when you come into my room without knocking. It makes me feel like I don’t have any privacy. Moving forward, I need you to knock before you enter my room—and if I don’t answer, please don’t come in.”
If you want your boundary setting to be effective, it’s also important to broach the subject at the right time.
“Approach the person you want to share your boundary with during a calm time,” says Cook.
So, for example, instead of trying to set a boundary in the middle of a heated argument with your partner, wait until you’ve both had time to cool off. Not only will you be in a better position to share, but your partner will be in a better place to listen—which can make for a much more productive conversation.
What to do if people don’t respect your boundaries
In a perfect world, everyone would respect every boundary that you set. But that doesn’t always happen. If you find yourself in a situation where someone is ignoring or disrespecting your boundaries, you’ll have to figure out the best way forward. Similar to how your boundaries may change based on the situation and person you’re dealing with, how you choose to react to a boundary violation can also depend on the person and situation.
For example, if a colleague violates a financial boundary and steals money from you, you may choose to immediately end the relationship (and potentially pursue legal action). On the flip side, if your sister ignores a material possession boundary and borrows a pair of shoes without asking, you may choose to remind her that she needs to ask permission before borrowing your things—and then let the situation go.
If you’re not sure how to navigate someone ignoring or disrespecting your boundaries, taking a step back from the situation can give you the time and space you need to figure out the best move for you. “Taking space is a good way to assert your boundaries,” says Flidermauz.
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