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Setting boundaries is the ultimate form of self care. It allows us to define our personal space, both physically and emotionally, maintain wellness and good mental health, and participate in healthy, thriving relationships with others.
That being said, setting boundaries is easier said than done. It involves a lot of saying “no” to others, which can make us feel quite uncomfortable and selfish. The truth is, setting boundaries is anything but selfish, and when done in a healthy, mature way, can be beneficial to everyone involved.
In this article, let’s go over what boundaries are, why they’re important, and how to set them with family members, friends, significant others, and people at work.
Boundaries help establish your identity as an individual with unique emotional and physical needs. You can use them to communicate how you’d like to be treated and what you do and don’t view as acceptable behavior from the people around you.
Rather than a “no trespassing” sign meant to keep people out, boundaries are what connect people and allow them to participate in each other’s lives in a healthy and mutually beneficial way.
What Are Examples of Setting Boundaries?
Each of us has our own unique boundaries, and they can look different based on the type of relationship they pertain to.
For example, setting boundaries with difficult elderly parents might look like you saying “I won’t be able to stop by the grocery store every time you think of something you need, but if you add items to a list, I’ll be happy to make the trip twice a week.”
Setting boundaries in the workplace, on the other hand, might look like saying “I’d be happy to take on that report, but to do my best work I need two weeks to work on it.”
Why Set Boundaries?
Boundaries exist on a scale from rigid to loose, with healthy boundaries falling somewhere in between. If your boundaries are too rigid, you may never allow yourself to get close to people. If they’re too loose, you may start to blur the line between your needs and the needs of others.
For many of us, how rigid or loose our boundaries are depends on the circumstances and the relationship in question. For example, you may have very rigid boundaries at work and keep others at a distance, while having very loose boundaries at home and feeling completely dependent on your family members’ schedules, needs, and preferences.
Neither situation is good for your sense of self and your wellbeing. At work, you should be able to interact with your colleagues, share your thoughts and opinions, and ask for help. When your boundaries are too rigid, you miss out on the opportunity to establish meaningful relationships with coworkers, feel a sense of belonging, and gain the sense of pride that comes from accomplishing something as a team.
At home, you should be able to contribute to a happy and thriving household, while taking care of yourself and spending your time and energy in a way that supports your values and goals. When your boundaries are too loose, you spend too much time catering to the needs and desires of other people, to a point where you start to neglect your own.
Ideally, the boundaries in both types of relationships should be as close to healthy as possible. Having healthy boundaries means being able to participate actively in a mutually beneficial relationship while honoring your individuality, your values, and needs.
What Happens When You Start Setting Boundaries?
When you set boundaries, you let the other person know what your expectations from your relationship are, and what you can both do to help it thrive. At the same time, you let them know that you’re open to hearing about their expectations, as well, and are committed to doing your part.
In the short run, setting boundaries can help alleviate stress, anxiety, emotional and physical fatigue, and prevent feelings of resentment towards others. In the long run, having healthy boundaries will help you regain a sense of autonomy, maintain a healthy level of self-esteem, take care of your mental and physical health, and participate in meaningful and long-lasting relationships with others.
Now that we understand the benefits of setting boundaries, let’s take a look at how exactly to do it, and how your approach might differ depending on what kind of relationship you’re in.
Setting boundaries with family members can be challenging, since being part of a family comes with a certain level of responsibility, an obligation to take care of each other, and respect for your elders.
Families are all unique, and how you go about setting boundaries with yours will depend largely on your family’s culture, but generally speaking, the key is to communicate your needs as clearly as possible. Never assume that, because you have shared experiences with your family members, they should already know and understand what you expect from the relationship.
The other key thing to remember is to communicate your needs without worrying that you’ll hurt your family members’ feelings. Family matters can be quite complex, and it can be tempting to tiptoe around the issue to avoid causing pain. However, that only leads to boundaries that aren’t clearly understood and ultimately not followed.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to establish the consequences of crossing boundaries. Make sure it’s something you’re ready to follow through on if it ever comes to that (for example, don’t tell your parents they’re not welcome in your home if they keep criticizing your parenting style unless you truly mean it). When you don’t follow through on consequences, you let your family know that your boundaries are not really that important and can be crossed without doing any harm.
Setting Boundaries With Parents
Setting boundaries with parents is especially important—while it’s normal to spend our childhood years under their constant guidance, there comes a point when we have to declare our autonomy and operate as our own individuals. This might mean that our opinions and values differ from those of our parents, and that’s okay.
Tips for setting boundaries with parents:
- Let go of any guilt about having to set boundaries with your parents—it’s perfectly normal.
- Communicate your needs clearly and establish consequences that you’re ready to follow through on.
- Help your parents understand that setting boundaries is for your mutual benefit.
- Don’t be afraid to re-state your boundaries if needed.
Tips for setting boundaries with in-laws:
- Be respectful and compassionate.
- Invite your in-laws to communicate their own expectations or concerns to demonstrate that setting boundaries is a two-way street.
- Show appreciation for their understanding and cooperation.
Setting Boundaries With Kids
Setting boundaries with children, especially when they’re young, is absolutely crucial. This is your opportunity to teach them what boundaries are and to normalize the concept of setting boundaries with the people in their lives. This skill will help them in every social situation they face as they grow older, from playing with other kids at recess to interacting with their teachers to going on their first date and beyond.
Tips for setting boundaries with young children:
- Start by explaining what boundaries are and why they’re important.
- Point out examples of someone setting boundaries in books and television shows.
- Start with boundaries that are easy to understand (for example, asking your kids to not interrupt you when you’re on the phone unless it’s an emergency).
- Set consequences for crossed boundaries, making sure to always follow through on them.
- Encourage your children to communicate their own boundaries to you.
Tips for setting boundaries with adult children:
- Communicate your boundaries clearly.
- Avoid sounding like you’re reprimanding them—setting boundaries with your adult children is not the same thing as parenting them.
- Don’t worry about how your children will deal with the boundaries—they are adults, after all. Having boundaries that are too flexible and inconsistent, or not following through with your established consequences, will only enable your children to continue in their habits (for example, if you don’t want your adult children to be financially dependent on you, stop giving them money, even if you’re worried about how they’ll get by).
Setting Boundaries With Extended Family
Setting boundaries with toxic family members who aren’t part of your immediate family can be challenging in its own way. Since you don’t see each other as often, your relationship with them might not be very deep, and you might not feel comfortable talking to them about serious matters. Even then, setting boundaries with extended family members must be done.
Tips for setting boundaries with extended family:
- Communicate your boundaries as soon as they’ve been crossed—you don’t know when the next time you’ll see them will be and you don’t want them to spend months thinking their behavior was acceptable.
- Remain calm and try to keep the conversation casual—they’ll look to you for cues on how to respond to your request.
- Don’t feel like you need to provide a detailed explanation about why you feel the way you feel—you’re entitled to your boundaries, and your family should understand this.
Setting boundaries in dating relationships or with close friends is particularly important. Unlike familial relationships, the relationships you choose can end at any point if one of the parties is unhappy (this happens in families too, but not nearly as often).
To avoid this, people often go to great lengths to keep the other person content, staying in agreement with them, and making sure their feelings don’t get hurt. So much so, that they lose themselves in the relationship and forget their own values and needs.
Though this may keep the relationship together for a while, it can be detrimental to it in the long run. The person giving themselves up for the sake of the relationship will ultimately feel resentful, angry, disappointed, and underappreciated.
To keep this from happening, each party in a romantic relationship or close friendship needs to communicate their boundaries and respect those of the other person.
Setting Boundaries With a Significant Other
Setting boundaries in marriage or in a dating relationship should be part of regular open communication. Since the lives of a romantic couple are so intertwined, it’s important to discuss each other’s needs and expectations as they pertain to each aspect of the relationship.
These may include things like:
- How much time you spend together and apart
- Your preferred forms and frequency of communication
- What it means to respect each other’s privacy
- What it means to respect each other’s personal space and belongings
- How you deal with finances
- How you deal with adverse events
- What constitutes a breach of trust
Tips for setting boundaries with a significant other:
- Never accuse your partner or come off as argumentative when communicating your boundaries.
- Use “I” statements, instead of statements focused on the other person. For example, saying “I would like to spend one night a week doing something special with you” is much better than saying “You never take me on dates anymore or spend any quality time with me.”
- Remember that setting boundaries should never be rooted in a need to control. Your goal should be to help the relationship thrive, not change or manipulate your partner.
Setting Boundaries With Friends
There are many different levels of friendship, and friends can run into a challenge if their expectations of the friendship don’t align. For example, you may see your friend as a casual acquaintance, while your friend sees you as someone they can call every day to discuss their personal issues.
This is why setting boundaries with friends is crucial for a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship. As the friendship evolves, the boundaries might change, but when you establish a culture of transparency and open communication right from the start, you can easily come back to the conversation around boundaries and update each other on your needs and expectations.
Tips for setting boundaries with friends:
- Never assume your friend knows what you expect from the friendship.
- Communicate small boundaries right from the start (for example, don’t hesitate to say you’re not available to hang out because you’re taking a self-care day).
- Remember that feeling overburdened doesn’t make you a bad friend—you’re allowed to say “I’m not the best person to help you with this, but why don’t you try A, B, or C instead?”
- Don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel that your friendship is becoming one-sided—you can’t continue being a good friend to them if you’re feeling resentful.
Setting boundaries with people at work can help reduce stress, prevent burnout, lead to more job satisfaction, and even increase your chances of getting a promotion.
When you set boundaries in your job, you show the people around you that your time and talent are valuable, you prioritize work-life balance, you are acutely aware of how you manage your time, and you know your own limits. These are all signs of a well-rounded, competent employee who might even do well in a leadership role.
On the other hand, someone who doesn’t set boundaries at work might constantly say “yes” to projects they have neither the time nor the skills to complete, feel stressed, regularly miss deadlines, resent their job and their coworkers, and ultimately try to find a job elsewhere.
Setting Boundaries With Your Boss
Setting boundaries with your boss might seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. All it means is that you’re motivated to do an excellent job in your role and have the self-awareness to communicate to your boss what you need in order to achieve that goal.
Tips for setting boundaries with your boss:
- Be transparent with your boss about what you are currently working on and how much capacity you have to take on something new. If you’re assigned a new project and you don’t think you have the time to do it, ask “What can you take off my plate so that I can get this done?”
- Part of your boss’ job is to support you and help you do your best work, so don’t be afraid to communicate your needs or concerns.
- Don’t hesitate to ask for time off—your vacation, sick days, and mental health days help you recover and recharge.
Setting Boundaries With Coworkers
Setting boundaries with coworkers may be a little more involved than setting boundaries with your boss. This is because you likely spend more time interacting with them and often discuss topics not related to work. If there’s anything you’re not comfortable talking about or doing, it’s up to you to let them know.
Tips for setting boundaries with employees and coworkers:
- Remember that other than your direct manager, no one has the authority to assign you new work. While it’s nice to help each other out, you’re also allowed to say “no.”
- You don’t have to answer your phone or emails outside of work hours. The more you do it, the more people will expect you to be available at all hours of the day.
- When having conversations with your coworkers not related to work, don’t hesitate to say “I prefer not to share that information.” You don’t owe anyone an explanation, either.
Set the Boundaries That Work for You
Setting boundaries with difficult people is never black and white, but with practice, these tips will help you start making positive changes in your life that will lead to healthier relationships and a happier you!
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