Relationships can be stressful. People who are close to you may make you feel uneasy, sad, or downright offended by the things they say and the behaviors they exhibit. We all know that the only person we can change is ourselves, but how does this work when a person needs to change? When their behavior is no longer acceptable; or worse, putting us or our loved ones in danger? We cannot change others, but we can set healthy boundaries.
This page will give a basic overview of what healthy boundaries are, how we can set them, and why they’re important. Setting boundaries is not an easy process, especially if you are trying to set boundaries with a narcissist, a sociopath, or a generally manipulative person who does not respect boundaries. For more personalized help on setting healthy boundaries, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are markers in which one thing ends and another begins. Boundaries can be physical, like a boundary that denotes where one property ends and another begins. They can also be intangible. People set healthy boundaries to define where acceptable behaviors end and unacceptable behaviors begin.
Think of yourself as a person with a circle drawn around your personal space. To enter your personal space, a person has to behave a certain way. Once the person crosses boundaries, you do not have to allow them access to your person or your personal space.
These lines aren’t always clear, so you need to communicate your boundaries to others in order to define who gets to enter your personal space.
Examples of Healthy Boundaries
Some boundaries are clear, while others aren’t until they are communicated.
- Shelly is pregnant and doesn’t want people exhaling smoke around her. Her father, however, smokes cigarettes. Shelly sets a boundary with her father by saying that he is not allowed to smoke in the house.
- Jim knows that he cannot be the warm, charismatic boss he wants to be until he has had his coffee and completed his morning routine. For this reason, he tells his team that they cannot enter his office until 10 a.m. If they do, they cannot expect that he will be the warm, calm person they like in a boss.
- It’s not frustrating for Jenny when she hears her sister comment on her weight gain – it’s triggering. Jenny knows that she has to set a boundary, even though her sister might take the communication personally. She lets her sister know that if her sister begins commenting on her weight gain, Jenny will either hang up the phone or leave the room.
- Dave values self-improvement but notices his girlfriend does not value the same. Worse, she constantly asks him to skip the gym, scale back on classes, and spend more time at home. Dave feels that he is not being the best version of himself around his girlfriend, so he sets a boundary regarding his schedule. If he does not see her valuing self-improvement in the next year, he will leave the relationship.
- Lin knows that her mother is toxic – her mother has said mean things to Lin her whole life. She feels empathetic toward her mother, but it’s not Lin’s responsibility to undo the hurt caused by her mother while still allowing that hurt to happen. She tells her mother that if she continues to say mean things, Lin will end their relationship.
Boundaries vs. Ultimatums
Setting boundaries can feel shameful, especially for people-pleasers or those who grew up with boundary-crossing family members. At first glance, a boundary can even feel like an ultimatum. But there is a crucial difference between boundaries and ultimatums that you should understand before setting boundaries for yourself.
Boundaries are about what you will tolerate. Ultimatums are about controlling the behaviors of another person. If you want to set a boundary regarding yelling, you can set that boundary. The person can yell at whoever else they want, but they know that yelling in front of you is not acceptable.
Think of a boundary like a rule regarding shoes in the house. Some people tolerate shoes in their house. Other people require the guests take off their shoes before entering. The person who sets a “shoes off” boundary is not trying to tell guests that they are never allowed to wear shoes again. Just not in their house! It completely depends on the nature of the person and what they want to tolerate in their space.
Four Steps to Setting Healthy Boundaries
Setting boundaries is not always easy – that’s why they’re so important to set! The following four steps will put you on your way toward happier, calmer relationships with those closest to you.
Determine Your Boundaries.
Take time to intentionally identify your boundaries. What behaviors are acceptable for some may not be acceptable for others. How do you want people to treat you? When do they “cross the line?”
Before you identify specific behavior, identify how you want the people in your life to make you feel. Supported? Loved? Cared for? Safe? Write down these goal feelings as you identify the behaviors that get you there.
This practice may require you to sit down with a piece of paper and actually draw a line. On one side of the line are behaviors that you tolerate and accept: compliments, support, kindness toward your partner, etc. On the other side of the line are behaviors that you do not tolerate: racism, rude comments, yelling, etc. These behaviors are determined by you and you alone. A therapist or friend can help you identify these boundaries and the behaviors that make you feel safe vs. unsafe or supported vs. unsupported.
Practice Setting Them With People You Trust.
Even though you identify behaviors that are unacceptable, sharing this with boundary-crossing people can be intimidating. Before you set hard boundaries, practice! Talk to someone who you trust. They would never display this behavior, which means they are likely to validate your boundaries even as you express them. Be clear in your intentions for practicing, but be firm just like you would with someone who doesn’t trust to respect those boundaries.
Here’s an example of how you can practice boundary-setting with a friend that you trust:
“I’ve been thinking about my boundaries and the behaviors I want to tolerate in my space. I’m going to start enforcing a no-yelling policy. If someone yells around me after I set this boundary, I’m simply going to leave the room or hang up the phone. How does that sound?”
Clearly Communicate Your Boundaries.
Once you feel comfortable stating your boundaries, communicate them to the people who need to hear them. Ask them to sit down with you, without distractions, so that you can share this information. It may be new to them. They might not realize that certain behaviors make you upset. This is the best-case scenario – they will hear what you have to say and make a conscious effort to stop the behavior and make you feel the way you want to feel in your relationship.
Not all boundaries will be respected immediately. If a person objects to your boundary, stay strong. Let them know how you feel when this boundary is crossed, and let them know that this is a boundary moving forward. You can only change yourself. You can set the boundary, and now that you have, the ball is in the other person’s court to respect it. If they can’t respect it, they will have to deal with the consequences.
If a person believes they can cross your boundaries without consequence, they will. By failing to reinforce your boundaries, you give people reason to believe that your boundaries don’t have to be respected. Once a person tries to cross your boundary, reinforce the boundary and act accordingly. If you set a boundary and let a family member know they cannot call you names, for example, remind the person of that boundary. Then, take the time to leave the room or hang up the phone when the name-calling begins.
Reassess As Needed.
Boundaries are flexible. You determine what you allow in your space and what is unacceptable. A person, for example, can decide that shoes are allowed in the house during the drier months but require that they are removed during the rainy season. Boundaries are more likely to be respected when they are reinforced and remain consistent, but they can be changed after a period of time if you decide that the boundary is not right for you.
At the end of the day, healthy boundaries can help you create a space suited for your well-being. They are like a muscle – something to be strengthened through practice and flexed to be your best self!
Don’t Be Ashamed of Setting Healthy Boundaries!
If you feel hesitant about setting boundaries, know that you are not alone. This Reddit post discusses how setting boundaries can feel shameful for someone with CPTSD. The user says:
“I still feel guilty and ashamed for getting 10 and a 1/2 hours of sleep and actually sticking to a schedule that honors that. I’m afraid to tell people that it’s the sleeping schedule I prefer because I’m afraid of being shamed and ridiculed for it.
I remember telling a group of the toxic friends that the abusive family hung out with. They all laughed at me and made jokes about it for the rest of the night.
I find myself now forcing myself to stay awake sometimes even when I’m tired because I’m afraid of being teased for “being a baby” and wanting to sleep early.”
Commenters let the OP know that they should not feel shameful for setting a boundary, saying things like:
- “First of all, they are not friends if they treat you like that. I hope you will be able to distance yourself from them in the future.”
- “CPTSD sufferers are statistically chronic people pleasers (fawning) because our self worth is tied to other’s opinions of us so setting boundaries can be a challenge.”
- “Not sleep specifically, but I’ve been shamed and guilted for setting boundaries around my needs and self-care. It hurts and I’m mostly at a point of being angry at people who’ve done it or try to do it to me. We don’t owe others our mental or physical health.”
- “It is mostly immature people who would shame you for that. The older you get the more respect for your health and energy you have. Young people don’t understand that you can make this choice.”
Communities like this subreddit can validate your boundaries, although you alone should identify what those boundaries are.
Quotes about Setting Healthy Boundaries
- “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” -Annie Lamott
- “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.”- Brene Brown
- “Power for me is ‘no.’ That’s when you know your worth, when you know your value. And that’s power for me.” – Taraji P. Henson
- “When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself.”- Paul Coelho
- “In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between them, there are doors.” -William Blake
- “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”- Brené Brown
- “Lack of boundaries invites lack of respect.” – Unknown
- “No one will listen to us until we listen to ourselves.” -Marianne Williamson
- “If you have trouble saying no, you’re not alone. Many people find it difficult to stand up for themselves and their beliefs. Saying no is a powerful way to maintain your integrity and protect your boundaries.” – Dr. Wayne Dyer
- “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.” -Dr. Henry Cloud