Boundaries are limits a person sets based on what they consider acceptable, comfortable, and appropriate. Boundaries communicate people’s needs and expectations from others.
Boundaries help people maintain and navigate relationships. Like fences or borders, healthy boundaries define what is acceptable for a person and give them safety and control over their life.
They may look different for each person, as everyone has different needs and comfort levels. One’s situation, type of relationship, and social context shape how a person sets boundaries.
This article explores boundaries, why they are essential, and how a person can set them in different types of relationships, like work and romantic relationships.
Boundaries are limits or guidelines a person sets within their relationships that define what is safe, acceptable, and reasonable ways other people can behave around them. It also identifies how they will respond when a person crosses a line.
They can set boundaries with everyone they relate to, including their:
- romantic partner
- workmates or colleagues
A person with healthy boundaries:
- communicates their needs and wants
- values their own opinions
- does not compromise on their values
- can say no to others and accepts other people’s limits
Boundaries are also affected by the environment, social context, and culture.
Having unhealthy boundaries can cause people to lose their sense of identity and make them feel unsafe and vulnerable as their needs are left unmet. This can lead to unstable and dysfunctional relationships.
Some signs that a person needs to build healthy boundaries include:
- being dependent on other people’s opinions
- difficulty saying “no” to others’ requests
- fear of getting rejected
- accepting disrespect or abuse
- becoming overinvolved in other people’s problems
- oversharing information
- trouble accepting “no” from others
- compromising one’s opinions or values for others
- keeping others at a distance and avoiding intimacy
Feeling responsible for other people’s happiness, feeling powerless, and having a weak sense of self also mean that a person’s boundaries are unhealthy.
Here are some tips from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) on setting boundaries.
1. Practice self-awareness
Processing and acknowledging what is essential for a person’s well-being can help them identify which parts of their life require boundaries.
A person must know what makes them feel safe and comfortable.
2. Name your limits
Knowing what a person needs or wants physically and emotionally can help set the appropriate boundaries to accomplish them.
Writing them down or making a “boundary circle” can clarify where a person wants to draw the line between themselves and others.
In a boundary circle, people can list everything they need to feel supported, safe, and stress-free. They can then list anything that conflicts with these outside the circle. This can include things that:
- cause annoyance, discomfort, or pain
- creates guilt because it goes against a person’s beliefs or values
- pushes a person to their limit
- makes a person feel vulnerable
3. Set them early
It is easier to set boundaries early in a relationship, so people know each other’s limits and expectations. This also avoids frustrations, confusion, and hurt along the way.
4. Express them
It is crucial to communicate one’s boundaries and share them with the people one has relationships with. Being assertive yet respectful when stating and implementing them is also essential.
Using “I” statements can help people communicate their feelings and opinions, what they find uncomfortable, and what they need to feel safe and secure.
5. Be comfortable staying ‘no’
Setting boundaries involves learning to say no and being comfortable not explaining one’s decision.
6. Be consistent in upholding your boundaries
Setting boundaries takes time and repetition. Other people may not always know or understand what another person needs.
Communicating boundaries and reminding other people about these decisions can help reinforce them and develop respect and trust within one’s relationships.
7. Start small
A person who finds it difficult to set boundaries can build them up slowly. One can also offer alternatives they are comfortable with instead of outrightly saying no.
8. Get support
If a person finds it difficult to set and implement boundaries, they can reach out to someone they trust or a mental health professional to help them create and establish their boundaries.
Establishing boundaries is vital to ensure a healthy romantic relationship. It also prevents couples from being codependent or enmeshed with each other.
Learn more about codependent relationships.
This can cause a diminished sense of self and an inability to fully experience and value their own thoughts, needs, and feelings in the relationship.
Setting boundaries in a romantic relationship requires clear communication about each other’s needs and expectations.
This may involve:
- determining how much time they want to spend together and how much time they need to spend apart
- asking permission before initiating intimate or sexual contact
- determining one’s comfort level on physical boundaries, including public displays of affection
- having conversations about privacy, like access to each other’s devices
- when and what topics to discuss
- discussing expectations on sexual activity
Not having clear boundaries at work can deteriorate a person’s healthy lifestyle behaviors and lead to emotional exhaustion.
A 2018 study also found that the expectation to always be available during nonwork hours affects a worker’s health and relationship satisfaction.
However, setting boundaries can be more difficult now that many workplaces have shifted to remote work.
Some helpful ways to set up workplace boundaries include:
- Set clear boundaries between work and home: This may involve setting precise work hours, specifying availability to answer emails and calls, and avoiding checking one’s phone or computer when with family and friends. Setting alerts in instant messaging to inform others that one is at work is also a kind of boundary-setting.
- Take breaks: This may be as simple as taking solo lunch breaks or scheduling longer time-offs with family.
- Know your limit: Knowing how much work one can take on can prevent situations of overwhelm and work overload. When possible, a person should delegate tasks.
It is equally important to establish boundaries with parents. Children need to know that they have a right to privacy and autonomy, and they also need to respect their parent’s privacy and comfort level.
While difficult, it is okay for children to tell their parents what they find uncomfortable and reach a compromise on what works for both parties without them feeling pressured or disrespected.
This can include discussing limits on the following behaviors:
- unexpected calls and visits
- discussions about beliefs, political ideologies, unsolicited advice, and personal decisions
- use of personal and household items
- expressing affection
- setting up age-appropriate autonomy and responsibility
Learn more about mommy issues here.
According to Mental Health America (MHA), people can set boundaries with family members using the following methods:
- Taking a break: Spending time away from family members can help people to identify stressors and things to adjust in the relationship.
- Journaling: Writing can be a good way to process emotions and identify negative patterns.
- Using “I” statements: A person should try to focus on how their parent’s actions make them feel, instead of the other person being wrong.
- Sharing with others: Friends and peer support groups can be great ways to find support and discuss family issues.
It is also important to set limitations on friendships. Life events like transitioning to adulthood, getting married, or having a child can cause a shift in a person’s priorities and focus.
Below are some ways a person can set boundaries with friends:
- Establish time alone or time with other friends.
- Express when a friend’s jokes or actions become inappropriate.
- Say no to invitations.
- Say when a person feels disrespected, unheard, or ignored.
- Only help when able instead of helping due to pressure or fear of rejection.
- Set when someone can expect a response instead of ghosting them.
- Prioritize self-care, especially when a person cannot mentally care for their friend.
- Avoid gossiping about friends with others.
To have successful relationships, it is crucial to set boundaries and be respectful of other people’s boundaries.
It can be as simple as asking, “Are you comfortable with ____?” or, “Is it okay for me to ____?”
A person can also look for hints in the other person’s body language or words. If the person seems pressured or unsure, then it is likely that they are not comfortable with what is happening.
Signs that a person is uncomfortable include:
- tensing up
- looking away or avoiding eye contact
- crossing arms
- saying “no” or “I don’t know”
- limited response during conversations
Professional coaches, psychologists, and therapists can help people who would like to work on setting boundaries. They can provide tools and techniques to establish and maintain healthier relationships with friends, family, and others.
A professional may work with a person to:
- help them understand the barriers that prevent them from making boundaries
- provide coping skills to manage stress and discomfort by setting limits
- provide assertiveness training to help a person communicate their needs and wants in a clear and respectful way
- give communication strategies
There are many online directories where people can find a professional coach or therapist in their area, such as:
Setting boundaries in relationships can help a person feel more in control, respected, and secure. It can also prevent unhealthy and toxic relationships as well as abuse.
When setting boundaries, a person should consider their comfort level, what they are willing to tolerate, and what they need from the other person.
Boundaries and how to set them may differ depending on the type of relationship, such as with a friend, romantic partner, or family member.
It is also essential to be respectful of other people’s boundaries. People who want to set boundaries but aren’t sure how to may benefit from professional support. Coaches and therapists can provide tools and techniques to help a person establish and maintain healthier relationships.