When you think of the word “boundary,” what comes to mind? You might think of the local river that separates your city from the next town over, the doorstep that separates your classroom from the hallway, or the big red STOP sign posted at each crosswalk.
In short, boundaries signal limits, where one thing stops and another thing begins.
In a relationship, boundaries serve the same function. They help each person figure out one person’s limits—the line between “yes” and “no,” “okay” and “not okay.” We use boundaries to express what we’re comfortable with, and how we’d like others to treat us. Boundaries can be applied to any kind of relationship—with friends, family members, significant others, or anyone else in your life.
We can set boundaries for our:
- Personal space
- Emotions and thoughts
- Items and possessions
- Time and energy
- Culture, religion, and ethics
Healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries
Before getting into how to set boundaries, we’ll start with some guidelines to differentiate healthy and unhealthy boundaries.
Healthy boundaries help to protect your physical and emotional space. They allow you to practice self-respect, and to develop high self-esteem.
Healthy boundaries might sound like:
I would love to attend your party, but I have to study for an important test on Monday.
Please don’t borrow my clothes without asking first.
I don’t feel ready to talk about that topic.
Unhealthy boundaries seek to control, manipulate, and/or harm others.
Here are some examples of toxic and unhealthy boundaries:
You’re not allowed to talk to other guys/girls, because I get jealous.
You need to give me your phone password, because I want to be able to see who you’re texting at all times.
We need to get physical, because we’re in a relationship now.
If you don’t set healthy boundaries, you’ll likely be swayed by how others tell you should think, act, and feel. You might also prioritize others’ needs over your own, and spend your time and energy doing what others want you to do over what you deep down want to do. Over time, this leads to feeling lost and unfulfilled. Set healthy boundaries to avoid a personal identity crisis.
How to define your boundaries
You can’t set good boundaries if you’re unsure of where you stand. Take some time to sit down, using a pen and paper or your Notes app, to identify your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits.
Consider these points:
- What would you happily accept?
- What are you willing to tolerate?
- What causes you discomfort?
- What makes you feel stressed out?
These are the feelings that help us identify what our limits are.
Understand your rights
When you’re asked to consider your human rights, what comes to mind? Many of us immediately think to our fundamental rights; these include the right to life and liberty, the right to work and education, and the right to a fair trial and due process of law. These are your economic and political rights.
In addition to those, you also have social rights. These include:
- The right to be exactly who you wish to be
- The right not to give into peer pressure
- The right to be treated with respect
- The right to treat your needs as equally important as others
- The right to be accepting of your mistakes and failures
Tune into your feelings
As you’re testing your boundaries, keep an eye out for two red flags that indicate that you’re letting go of your boundaries:
- Discomfort. This feeling usually comes about when someone acts in a way that violates your boundary. Your discomfort might manifest in the form of sweating, rapid heart rate, or tightness in some part of your body.
- Resentment. This feeling usually comes about when you feel taken advantage of, unappreciated. Perhaps you’re pushing yourself beyond your own limits because you feel guilty (and want to be a good daughter or friend), or someone else is imposing their expectations, views, or values on us.
Think of these feelings on a scale from 1 to 10. If you’re feeling a 6 or higher, start asking yourself:
What’s causing this discomfort or resentment?
What is it about this interaction that is bothering me?
What is it about the person’s expectation that this is bothering me?
Clarify your values
If you’re having a hard time figuring out your boundaries, spend some time to get clear on your values. Our values serve as guiding principles for our behavior. Understanding your values will help you make better decisions when you’re under a lot of pressure.
For instance, let’s say that you’ve defined academic success as your top value. That means, when you’re faced between the decision of studying for your math exam or hanging out with your friends, the choice is simple.
Set your boundaries
Practice setting your boundaries. Remember: it’s your right to change your mind about your boundaries at any time. Your boundaries are yours to define, set, and enforce.
Here are some examples of personal boundaries:
I need some ‘alone time’ in the evenings.
I want to spend time with my family on Sunday mornings.
I like social media, but I also don’t want my life to revolve around my phone.
I’m okay with dating casually, but I’m not ready to be in a relationship.
I’m cool with following each other on social media, but not with sharing passwords.
How to honor your boundaries
Boundaries are all about shining a light on your feelings and values, and honoring them. When you honor your boundaries, you’re putting your needs and goals first.
Practice self-awareness, especially around high-stakes situations.
If you notice that you aren’t enforcing your boundaries, reflect on these questions:
- What has changed?
- Am I giving into fear, guilt, and/or self-doubt?
- Am I giving top priority to my needs, or am I prioritizing the other person’s needs?
- What is the situation eliciting that’s making me resentful or stressed?
- What am I going to do about the situation? What do I have control over?
Talk about your boundaries, especially after they’ve been crossed.
Your friends and family won’t know your boundaries unless you communicate them. Communication is key in any healthy relationship, and boundaries are an important part of the ongoing conversation between you and others.
Tip: If someone does or says something, talk to them about how it makes you feel. Use “I” statements.
What’s the difference between “you” and “I” statements?
Let’s compare “you” and “I” statements:
You always take forever to respond to my texts.
I feel disconnected when I only hear from you every now and then.
You’re always playing computer games. Your games are the most important thing in the world.
I feel hurt when you didn’t respond to my messages all weekend.
You’re such a slob. You never clean out the cat’s litter box.
I feel hurt and confused when you don’t clean out the litter box, because I thought I had communicated how important it was that we keep a clean home.
“You” statements can come off as blaming or accusatory. They tend to put the receiver on the defense.
On the other hand, “I” statements force us to take responsibility for what we’re thinking and feeling. We can still be assertive while lowering the chance for misunderstanding or miscommunication.
It’s important to choose the right words to express your feelings. The right words can be the difference between being heard and being ignored.
Finally, remember that boundaries are not set in stone, and can change over time. You might be okay with something at the beginning of a relationship, but realize that you’re actually not cool with it later down the line. On the other hand, you might not be receptive to something at the beginning of a relationship, then realize that it’s not a big deal as time goes on. What’s important is that you continue communicating what you are and aren’t okay with.