Setting boundaries can be challenging, but it’s an essential part of self-respect. To set boundaries effectively, you must recognize your needs and assert them. Ideally, you should assert yourself in a way that’s clear, concise, and unapologetic. Learning and practicing this essential skill can improve your self-esteem and the quality of your relationships.
Why Setting Boundaries Is Important
Boundaries outline the primary foundation for how you want other people to treat you. They ensure a sense of mutual respect and limit the likelihood of people manipulating or taking advantage of you. Boundaries also honor your own need for self-care and personal integrity. We all have limits in our relationships, and ignoring those limits can lead to feelings of resentment.
People with healthy boundaries tend to have a high awareness of their needs. They also value their identity, and they don’t compromise themselves for other people.
Although it’s an important skill, many people don’t actually know how to set boundaries. It isn’t exactly taught in school, and parents who struggle with boundaries may not know how to teach them to their children. That said, no matter your circumstances, you can learn how to identify and implement healthy boundaries.
1. List Your Most Important Priorities
What’s non-negotiable to you? What are your hard limits, the rules you refuse to bend? Those are your most important priorities, and that’s where you can start your focus. Boundaries come in many shapes and forms, and they include physical, emotional, moral, and financial limits.
Take some time and consider writing down these limits. Self-awareness is the first step towards change. Think about past times where you maintained certain limits. How did it feel to respect yourself in that way? Now reflect on some times where you backtracked or compromised your needs? How did you feel then? These questions will help you learn how to set boundaries.
2. Pay Attention to Your Intuition
Do you know that nagging voice in the back of your head that’s telling you something isn’t a good idea? Why not consider listening to it next time? Chances are, it’s guiding you in the right direction!
Research shows that our intuitions help us process unconscious information to make better and faster decisions.1 In other words, if the thought of babysitting your neighbor’s child fills you with dread, pay attention to that feeling. Subsequently, if a job offer doesn’t feel “right,” it might not be the right job for you!
Of course, we occasionally need to do things we don’t want to do. But if you routinely accept invitations or over-extend yourself past your limits, you aren’t listening to your intuition, which means you might not be respecting your own boundaries.
3. Assume Responsibility for Your Needs
No matter how much you love your friends and family, it’s still your job to take care of yourself. Always have an alternative plan to avoid entirely depending on others to make you happy.
Learning to take responsibility for your life means:
- Avoiding blaming other people for your emotions
- Accepting adverse or difficult circumstances as a regular part of growth
- Taking ownership over your actions and how they affect others
- Making decisions that serve your best interest
When you start being responsible for yourself and your needs, you release having intense expectations for how other people should behave. You also avoid being a victim of your circumstances, and this mindset can help simplify your boundaries.2
4. Practice Saying No
No is a complete sentence. That truth may seem inconceivable, particularly if you hold onto biases that “no” makes you a mean person or bad friend. But saying “no” to other people often means saying “yes” to yourself, and why shouldn’t you matter?
If giving a plain no feels too uncomfortable, you can try one of these variants:
- “I wish I could but…”
- “Unfortunately, that won’t work for me.”
- Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m going to have to turn it down.”
- “I can’t do it this time.”
Try to avoid lying about why you’re saying no. Although a white lie may seem harmless, it’s easy to forget what you said or get caught in your own deception. If someone finds out you lied to them, they will probably feel more betrayed and hurt than if you had just told them the truth.
5. Use I-Statements
I-statements help you communicate your needs and feelings without attacking the other person.3 They can be extremely effective in boundary work. That said, many times, we rush to you-statements (you hurt my feelings! You never want to go anywhere. You don’t care about my job!) when we feel angry or hurt. You-statements come across as accusatory, and they often result in the other person becoming defensive or withdrawn. This push-pull pattern only tends to perpetuate resentment.
I-statements should be clear, but you should be mindful of your tone and word choice. The goal isn’t to induce guilt or shame. Instead, it’s about asserting your needs and coming to a reasonable solution with someone else.
Proper I-statements sound like:
- I felt ___ when you ____.
- I would really prefer…
- I hope to…
- Moving forward, I need to…
6. Avoid Excessive Apologizing
Remember that firm boundaries don’t require anyone else’s approval. Moreover, apologizing doesn’t necessarily change how the other person might feel about you!4
Compare these two boundaries:
- I’m sorry, something just came up, and I won’t be able to attend the meeting. I’m hoping I can join next time!
- I’m really sorry, I won’t be able to attend the meeting. I’ve been so swamped. I know this meeting was important to you, and I was really hoping I could make it. I know we need to get some things prepared, and I feel so bad that I’m canceling on you at the last moment. Your time is so precious, and I hate disrespecting it.
Notice the difference? In the first example, you’re offering a direct boundary with a simple apology for any inconvenience it may cause. But in the second statement, the boundary becomes muddled by guilt and fear. You’re practically begging for the other person to validate that it’s okay you set the boundary.
7. Be Consistent With Implementing Your Boundaries
Your boundaries won’t carry much weight if you don’t enforce them. If people know you’ll give in to what they want, they might just ignore your requests altogether. Consistency means following through with your boundaries, even if you don’t want to do it at that moment.
For example, let’s say your coworker routinely procrastinates doing her tasks at work. You feel annoyed when she asks for help, and you tell her you’re too busy. But a few days later, when it’s time to finish a group project, you inevitably pick up her slack.
She might apologize and avoid making the same mistake. Or, because she knew she could rely on you, the pattern may repeat itself. That’s why implementation is everything. If you say you’re going to do something, you must do it.
8. Expect the Discomfort
Unfortunately, setting boundaries doesn’t always feel good. In fact, it can feel incredibly awkward or even painful. You might feel guilty asking for what you need, even if the other person seems receptive.Additionally, some people might not respect your boundaries. This pushback can feel disheartening, especially if you aren’t expecting it. Remember that this doesn’t mean you need to back down. Discomfort can sometimes be a part of the growth process.
When setting boundaries, it isn’t your responsibility to make other people happy. It’s certainly a nice bonus, but if that’s your main focus, you aren’t actually setting an actual boundary- you’re placating or trying to compromise with other people.
9. Continuously Remind Yourself of the Benefits
Setting boundaries can feel like a significant adjustment if you’re used to pleasing others or rejecting your own needs. At times, you may question if it’s even worth it, especially if someone doesn’t respect your boundary.
It may be helpful to remind yourself of a mantra to remind yourself of the benefits such as:
- My boundaries allow me to love myself
- Boundaries protect me from resentment
- I am allowed to have limits
- I am grateful to give myself what I need
- My boundaries give me healthier relationships
If you continue to struggle, reflect on the people you know who have strong boundaries. What do you admire about them? Can they inspire you during this vulnerable time?
10. Seek Professional Support
Sometimes, self-help strategies aren’t enough. Therapy can help you understand the barriers that make boundaries challenging. Your therapist can work with you on skills related to self-empowerment and assertiveness training. They can also teach you healthy coping skills to manage the emotional discomfort associated with setting limits.
Some common barriers include:
- Having a history of trauma
- Being in an abusive relationship
- Struggling with a mental health condition like depression or anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- Growing up in a household with overly rigid boundaries or no boundaries at all
Examples of Healthy Boundaries
Healthy boundaries are clear and fairly reasonable. They honor your needs, and they help you create relationships that feel satisfying and meaningful.5 Think of boundaries like a front door to a home. You can open or shut this door whenever you need. Sometimes, you might leave it unlocked- at night, you might padlock it for your safety. Some people know to knock on the door, others ring the bell, and some are allowed to walk right in.
Sara, 30, Asks Her Boss to Stop Calling Her on the Weekends
Like most working professionals, Sara wanted to please her boss. She didn’t want to make waves in the workplace or be seen as lazy. And so, she willingly accepted calls and answered emails after-hours, despite her building resentment.
After an argument with her husband, Sara decides to tell her boss that she needs the weekends to spend time with her family. She asks him only to contact her for emergencies. He is a bit startled by her request, but he obliges.
After just a few weeks, Sara starts feeling lighter at work. She looks forward to her weekends, but she feels more refreshed at the office because she’s had some time to unwind. Additionally, she no longer feels as annoyed with her boss.
Rick, 45, Tells His Brother He Won’t Enable His Drinking Anymore
Rick has spent the past decade watching his brother, Steve, get drunk, lose control, and place himself in hazardous situations. Rick has tried to support Steve in getting help, but every attempt feels futile. Steve makes some attempts to stop drinking, but they feel half-hearted and never last for very long.
Rick tells Steve that he will no longer spend time with him while he’s under the influence. He also lets him know that he will no longer send him money or lie to others about his drinking.
Steve becomes angry and defensive and makes another promise to get sober. Rick hopes for the best, but no longer attaches his happiness to his brother’s decisions. As a result, Rick starts focusing more on his needs. He begins to recognize his own struggles with codependency and realizes that it’s important for him to practice self-care and reach out for support.
Jane, 50 Tells Her Daughter That She Can’t Babysit Every day
When Jane found out her daughter, Lindsey, was pregnant, she felt elated. She was so excited to become a grandmother! Unfortunately, Lindsey and her boyfriend broke up during the pregnancy, leaving Lindsey scrambling to find a better-paying job. Once the baby was born, she expected Jane to naturally step in as a free babysitter during the week.
Jane loves her granddaughter, but she can’t commit to spending 30-40 hours a week of full-time caretaking. She tells Lindsey that she can help babysit for 10 hours a week and asks Lindsey to choose the days and hours that work best for her schedule.
This boundary allows Jane to enjoy time with her granddaughter without feeling overworked. It also improves the relationship she shares with her daughter, Lindsey, because she no longer feels like she’s just the babysitter.
Final Thoughts on Setting Boundaries
Setting and implementing boundaries can be difficult, but it’s worth it. You owe it to yourself (and your loved ones!) to respect your needs. If you continue to struggle with this skill, consider reaching out to a trusted friend or working with a therapist. Seeking support can make a tremendous difference in how you feel.
Setting Healthy Boundaries Infographics