Our personal boundaries aren’t as obvious as a fence or a giant “no trespassing” sign, unfortunately. They’re more like invisible bubbles.
Even though personal boundaries can be challenging to navigate, setting and communicating them is essential for our health, well-being, and even our safety.
“Boundaries give a sense of agency over one’s physical space, body, and feelings,” says Jenn Kennedy, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “We all have limits, and boundaries communicate that line.”
We can set boundaries for our
- personal space
- emotions and thoughts
- stuff or possessions
- time and energy
- culture, religion, and ethics
Setting boundaries for yourself and honoring the boundaries of others isn’t a textbook science, but you can learn ways to take charge of your life. Whether you want to set clearer rules with your family or assert your space when it comes to strangers, here’s how to get started.
The word “boundary” can be a bit misleading. It conveys the idea of keeping yourself separate. But boundaries are actually connecting points since they provide healthy rules for navigating relationships, intimate or professional.
1. Boundaries improve our relationships and self-esteem
“Boundaries protect relationships from becoming unsafe. In that way, they actually bring us closer together than farther apart, and are therefore necessary in any relationship,” says Melissa Coats, a licensed professional counselor.
Having boundaries allows you to make yourself a priority, whether that’s in self-care, career aspirations, or within relationships.
2. Boundaries can be flexible
Don’t draw your boundaries in permanent ink. It’s good to think about them occasionally and reassess.
“When boundaries are too rigid or inflexible, problems can occur,” says Maysie Tift, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
You don’t want to isolate yourself, avoid closeness altogether, or give up all your time to others. Creating boundaries that are too bendy is often common for women.
Tift highlights the possibility that taking “an overly sacrificing approach to relationships creates imbalance or exploitation.”
3. Boundaries allow us to conserve our emotional energy
“Your self-esteem and identity can be impacted, and you build resentment toward others because of an inability to advocate for yourself,” explains Justin Baksh, a licensed mental health counselor.
You don’t need to have the same boundaries or comfort level for everyone. Boundaries that let us have a different radius depending on the situation or person can also help you maintain enough energy to care for yourself.
Understand that just because you may be happy to lend a hand to your best friend on moving day doesn’t mean you also have to do the heavy emotional lifting when someone texts about their latest drama.
4. Boundaries give us space to grow and be vulnerable
We all deal with complex feelings when life happens. By setting boundaries and then breaking them, when the time is right, you’re showing your vulnerability.
This could be as simple as talking openly to friends and family. When we display our vulnerability to someone, we let them know that they’re welcome to open up to us sometime when they need to.
But vulnerability and oversharing are different. Shared vulnerability brings people closer together over time. Oversharing, on the other hand, can use drama to manipulate, hold another person emotionally hostage, or force the relationship in one direction.
TMI red flags
- posting personal rants and attacks on social media
- no filter or regard to who gets a download of daily dramas
- sharing personal details with new people in hopes of hurrying the friendship along
- dominated, one-sided conversations
- expecting on-call emotional therapy from friends and family
Learning this difference is also a critical part of setting and communicating boundaries. The occasional overshare isn’t a crime. We’re all likely guilty of a little harmless TMI now and then. But if you suspect you’re doing it regularly, you could be trampling other people’s boundaries.
We can’t just search on Etsy for a set of hand-knit boundaries to make our own. Boundaries are a deeply personal choice and vary from one person to the next, and we shape them throughout our lives.
Our boundaries are shaped by
- our heritage or culture
- the region we live in or come from
- whether we’re introverted, extroverted, or somewhere in between
- our life experiences
- our family dynamics
“We have all come from unique families of origin,” Kennedy explains. “We each make different meaning of situations. And we may change our own boundaries over the years as we mature and our perspective shifts. One standard cannot hold for all. Rather, each person needs to find that level of comfort within themselves.”
You can investigate and define your boundaries with self-reflection.
1. What are your rights?
“It is important in setting boundaries to identify your basic human rights,” says Judith Belmont, mental health author and licensed psychotherapist. She offers the following examples.
- I have a right to say no without feeling guilty.
- I have a right to be treated with respect.
- I have a right to make my needs as important as others.
- I have a right to be accepting of my mistakes and failures.
- I have a right not to meet others’ unreasonable expectations of me.
Once you identify your rights and choose to believe in them, you’ll find honoring them easier. When you honor them, you’ll stop spending energy pacifying or pleasing others who dishonor them.
2. What does your gut tell you?
Your instincts can help you determine when someone is violating your boundaries or when you need to set one up.
“Check in with your body (heart rate, sweating, tightness in chest, stomach, throat) to tell you what you can handle and where the boundary should be drawn,” Kennedy says.
Maybe you clench your fists when your roommate borrows your new coat, for example. Or you tighten your jaw when your relatives ask about your dating life.
3. What are your values?
Your boundaries also relate to your moral philosophy, Baksh says. He recommends identifying 10 important values. Then narrow that list to five, or even three.
“Reflect on how often those three are challenged, tread upon, or poked in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable,” he says. “This lets you know if you have strong and healthy boundaries or not.”
Have you ever felt out of place or exhausted because of someone else? Someone might’ve just crossed your boundary without knowing what it was.
Here’s how to draw your lines with confidence.
1. Be assertive
“If someone sets boundaries with assertiveness, it feels firm but kind to others,” Kennedy says. “If they push in to aggressive, it feels harsh and punishing to others. Assertive language is clear and nonnegotiable, without blaming or threatening the recipient.”
You can be assertive by using “I statements.”
How to use I statements I feel ____ when _____ because ____________________________.
What I need is ______________________________________________.
Belmont says, “I statements show confidence and good boundary setting by expressing thoughts, feelings, and opinions without worrying what others are thinking.”
|Effective communication||Ineffective communication|
|I feel violated when you read my journal because I value privacy. What I need is a space that I know is private to record my thoughts.||Keep your hands off my journal!|
|I feel overwhelmed when every minute of our vacation is planned. What I need is some time just to relax and see what happens.||You’re making this vacation exhausting, and I don’t want to do all the things you’ve planned.|
2. Learn to say no
Even though it can be daunting to say, “No” is a complete sentence.
We might be hesitant to say no without offering more info, but it’s not necessary, adds Steven Reigns, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Sometimes assertiveness isn’t needed for boundary setting as much as personal tolerance for being uncomfortable.”
You can say no without an explanation and without providing any emotional labor to the person you’re saying it to.
If someone asks for your number or to dance, you can absolutely just say no. If a co-worker asks you to cover their shift, you can also say no, without offering any excuse.
3. Safeguard your spaces
You can also set boundaries for your stuff, physical and emotional spaces, and your time and energy without necessarily announcing it, too.
The features on your tech devices offer some ways of doing this.
Savvy boundary safeguards
- Put private items in a locked drawer or box.
- Use a password-protected digital journal instead of a paper one.
- Schedule nonnegotiable alone time or time when you’re just doing your own thing.
- Use passwords, codes, or other security features on devices and tech accounts.
- Set a cut-off time for answering emails or texts.
- Use the “out of office” responder on email accounts when on vacation.
- Send verification of your time off days in advance.
- Temporarily delete email and messaging apps when you don’t want to be contacted.
- Use the Do Not Disturb feature on your phone and other devices.
- Make a promise to yourself not to respond to work messages or calls sent to personal accounts.
New research shows we should take time to tune out. One study reports that just the expectation that we should be available to answer work email during nonwork time frames can decrease our well-being and create conflict in our relationships. So set boundaries for work-life balance whenever you can.
Our tech spaces are also an increasing area of boundary-crossing concern in romantic partnerships. Technology has quickly paved the way for an invasion of privacy and control.
More than half of respondents in a recent survey reported that communication technology was used in their intimate relationships as a means to monitor or manipulate.
As an adult, you have the right to secure your personal tech and accounts and keep your messages private. Communicating boundaries with new partners about our digital devices is a habit we must all start developing.
4. Get assistance or support
Defining and asserting your boundaries can get even trickier if you or a loved one lives with mental illness, depression, anxiety, or a history of trauma.
“For example, a sexual assault survivor may have the boundary that they like to be asked before being touched,” Coats says. “Or an adult child of a person with narcissist or borderline tendencies may need to say ‘no’ more often to their parent to protect their own feelings.”
If you’re experiencing challenges with setting or asserting boundaries, or if someone is causing you difficulty by crossing them, never hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional.
Having a traffic light to guide us in assessing boundaries would be helpful; however, we can tap into other ways of being mindful and not overstepping. It all comes down to communication and being aware of other people’s space.
Here are three beginner rules to follow.
1. Watch for cues
“Noting social cues is a great way to determine another’s boundaries,” Reigns says. “When talking with someone and they step back when you step forward, you’re being given information about their comfort level with closeness.”
Possible hints someone might want more space:
- avoiding eye contact
- turning away or sideways
- backing up
- limited conversation response
- excessive nodding or “uh-huh”-ing
- voice suddenly becomes higher-pitched
- nervous gestures like laughing, talking fast, or talking with hands
- folding arms or stiffening posture
2. Be inclusive of neurodiverse behaviors
Cues will be a little different for everyone. Also keep in mind that some people may use certain gestures all the time, may not provide cues, may have different cues, or may not pick up on the subtleties of your cues.
“Neurodiverse” is a newer term used to describe people who live with autism, are on the spectrum, or who have other developmental disabilities. Their social cues may be different from the norm, such as poor eye contact or difficulty starting a conversation.
Never underestimate the power of asking. You can inquire if a hug is OK or if you can ask a personal question.
We can really think of setting boundaries as fortifying our relationships with others rather than building walls to keep people out. But boundaries do another important thing for us.
They can clue us in to behavior that might be harmful. Think about the front door to your home or apartment. If someone breaks it down, you know there’s a problem.
“Oftentimes, we push our instincts aside because we are convinced they are unreasonable, or we have been taught not to trust them,” Coats says. “But if something feels consistently uncomfortable or unsafe, it is a red flag that abuse may be a problem.”
If someone is repeatedly pushing or violating your boundaries, listen to your gut.
And to avoid being the one doing the boundary busting, Coats says, “Ask people in your life to be honest with you about if you are pushing any boundaries. This may feel scary, but it will most likely be met with appreciation and will mark you as a safe person to set boundaries with.”
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.