6 minutes read time.
Dr. David H. Demmer, Senior Clinical Psychologist
Boundaries can be physical, emotional or financial (to name a few), and they’re important to preserving your well-being and protecting you from burnout.
If you have a hard time saying no to others or making a simple decision, it may be a sign that you need to set some boundaries.
It’s important to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries, and how to set boundaries with different people in your life.
Boundaries. They’re an important part of self-care. They’re downright essential to maintaining your emotional, physical and mental well-being.
But setting boundaries? That can be an intimidating experience, especially if you – or the people you’re setting them with – aren’t used to it.
Not to worry. We’ve got everything you need to know about different types of boundaries, their benefits, and how to set them.
According to the University of Kentucky, ‘The easiest way to think about a boundary is a property line’. In other words, boundaries aren’t huge walls to keep everyone out. But you do get to decide who gets to come onto your ‘property’.
While it takes practice, setting boundaries is actually good for you – and others.
It helps prevent burnout and protects your emotional capacity.
It helps you feel better about yourself. Sure, you may feel short-term anxiety or guilt when setting boundaries for the first time. (More on that in a bit.) But in the long run, setting and maintaining boundaries can boost your self-esteem. It’s a way of reminding yourself (and others) that your time and wellness matter.
Setting boundaries helps preserve your independence – your freedom to make decisions for yourself, even if they don’t align with someone else’s expectations.
Finally, boundaries encourage healthier, more positive relationships with others. If they respect your boundaries, they respect you.
There are different types of boundaries you can have, though where you set them is up to you. Some of the most common include:
These are meant to protect your personal space – and your control over your own body. Physical boundaries can include how much touch (and what kinds) you’re comfortable with. For example, if you don’t want to hug others, you can ask to shake hands or wave instead.
Physical boundaries are just as important with a partner or spouse. You may choose to set boundaries around your sex life – what you are and aren’t comfortable with, for example.
No one is entitled to access the inner workings of your mind without permission. Emotional boundaries allow you to decide how much of yourself, your personal beliefs, feelings, vulnerabilities and thoughts you want to share (and with whom).
Most of us have that one friend or relative who’s always trying to get you to spot them a loan or give them money. Setting boundaries around finances and belongings can protect you from being taken advantage of.
Some people assume they’re entitled to unlimited access to you. (Spoiler: they’re not.) You may need to set boundaries around your time, as well as your physical and emotional availability, in order to protect yourself from burnout.
It’s not always immediately clear when you need to set healthy boundaries. But there are some tell-tale signs to watch for:
Do you have a hard time saying no to others?
Do you feel like you’re always making yourself ‘smaller’ to accommodate others? Or having to put their needs and preferences ahead of yours?
Do you constantly worry about what others think of you?
Is it hard to make relatively simple decisions?
Do you regularly feel tired or drained for no clear reason?
Above all, listen to your body. It has ways of signalling when someone is crossing a boundary, even one you didn’t realise you needed. A rapid heartbeat, a clenched fist or jaw, tense muscles – these can all be indicators that something isn’t right.
Not all boundaries are good. Healthy boundaries should protect you from having unfair burdens put on you – without putting unfair burdens on others. It’s important to set the right kind of boundaries.
Designed to help you navigate (not avoid) relationships
Firm enough to protect your well-being, flexible enough to adapt to different situations
Focused on what is right for you, rather than dictating what someone else should or shouldn’t do
In short, healthy boundaries are about maintaining your agency, not seizing control over someone else’s.
So loosely defined (or non-existent) that it’s easy for others to take advantage of you, whether they mean to or not.
So rigidly defined that they serve to keep people out. As the University of Kentucky notes, it’s ‘like living in a locked-up castle surrounded by a moat’.
Regardless of the relationship, there are a few steps you can follow to establish and maintain healthy boundaries.
Try to have the conversation when you’re feeling calm. If someone violates an unspoken boundary, you may want to give yourself a chance to cool down first – unless, of course, someone is actively harming you, in which case the time to act is now.
Don’t beat around the bush. Be direct – and firm, if necessary. Less is more when it comes to setting boundaries. Don’t over-explain. You don’t have to justify your boundaries to the other person.
Focus on what you need, rather than what the other person is (or isn’t) doing. For example, instead of saying, ‘You need to stop calling me at work all the time’, try something like: ‘I need to be able to focus at work, so I’m going to limit personal calls to emergencies only’.
Setting boundaries can be intimidating, especially when it’s with a loved one or a boss at work. It’s never a bad idea to rehearse what you want to say beforehand.
Polite but firm enforcement is vital to good boundary-setting.
You are not responsible for how others feel about the boundaries you set.
That last point is important enough that it’s worth saying again: You are not responsible for how others feel about your boundaries.
You don’t stop being an individual the moment you enter a romantic relationship. Boundaries with partners or spouses can include:
Setting aside one night a week for each person to do their own thing
Agreeing to ground rules for handling conflict, such as no shouting at each other
Deciding how much time you spend with in-laws
Setting boundaries with the people who raised you can be tough, especially if they haven't come to terms with the fact that you’re a fully grown adult now. But healthy boundaries are important to protect your independence and your relationship with them.
Boundaries with parents can include:
Calling or texting before ‘just dropping by’
Waiting to be asked before offering advice on personal issues such as your health, relationship status or job
Establishing boundaries with your supervisors and co-workers can feel like a minefield, but it’s important to communicate clearly to maintain a healthy work environment. Boundaries at work may include:
Oversharing – for example, if you’re not comfortable discussing politics, religion or aspects of your personal life with your co-workers
Availability – for example, how much or little you’re willing to check email or take calls outside work hours
We don’t always think about setting boundaries with our friends, but it can be essential to maintaining a strong connection. These boundaries may include:
How much time you spend together
What kinds of things you help each other with – for example, whether or not you’re comfortable loaning money to friends
What types of personal things you share with each other
Setting boundaries isn’t always easy. But it’s an important part of navigating relationships. Remember: those who truly respect you will also respect your boundaries.