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How to Set Healthy Boundaries

Setting boundaries doesn’t come easily or naturally to a lot of people, but you can learn to set healthy boundaries.  I’m going to share ten tips that I find helpful.

Boundaries are limits that we set to protect our time, energy, and physical and emotional wellbeing. Boundaries are a way to tell others what we expect and how we want to be treated.

Boundaries also differentiate one person from another. When we don’t have boundaries, we’re likely to become enmeshed with others. We lose our sense of self. We become people-pleasers and focused on meeting other people’s expectations rather than being ourselves. And if you’re enmeshed, you may not recognize that you have the right to make your own choices or set boundaries.

Examples of Boundaries

  • Mark tells his parents that he won’t bring his young children to their house unless they put a fence around their pool.
  • A roommate agreement (the concept isn’t as ridiculous as it seemed on The Big Bang Theory) that identifies expectations about cleaning, food, and noise.
  • Telling your boss that you can’t work late tonight.
  • Having a personal policy of not loaning money to family members.
  • Asking a friend not to text you late at night.
  • Not going to family functions because your uncle drinks too much and makes sexual comments that make you uncomfortable.

Now, let’s take a look at how to set boundaries and some best practices to help you set boundaries more easily.

10 tips for Setting Boundaries

1. Clearly identify your boundary. Get really clear with yourself about what the boundary is that you need to set. Do you need your mother to stop calling all together or can she call you under certain circumstances? If you aren’t clear, you won’t be able to communicate your expectations. A wishy-washy boundary is not effective. Spend time figuring out what you need before taking action.

2. Understand why you need the boundary. This is your motivation for setting the boundary. If you don’t have a compelling reason, why are you going to follow through with setting a boundary that’s out of your comfort zone?

3. Be straight forward. Don’t be cryptic or purposefully vague thinking you’re going to spare someone’s feelings or avoid a conflict. The kindest and most successful approach is to be direct. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

4. Don’t apologize or give long explanations. This kind of behavior undermines your authority and gives the impression that you’re doing something wrong that requires an apology or justification.

5. Use a calm and polite tone. Keep your own anger in check. Don’t try to set boundaries in the middle of an argument. You want your message to be heard. Yelling, sarcasm, or a condescending tone all put others on the defensive and distract from the real issues.

6. Start with tighter boundaries.  It’s always easier to loosen up tight boundaries than it is to tighten loose boundaries. I see so many people making this mistake. When you meet a new friend or start a new job, naturally you want to make a good impression, be agreeable, and fit in. As a result, you’re likely to over-extend yourself, agree to commitments or viewpoints that don’t sit well with you.

People-pleasing results in loose or weak boundaries that are hard to tighten up later. For example, you set a clear expectation with your ex that you don’t want her coming into your home when she returns the children. From this firm boundary, it’s easy to later invite her in if you feel it’s appropriate. It’s much harder to later tell her she can’t come in when initially you’d given her free access to your home.

7. Address boundary violations early. Small problems are always easier to manage. Don’t wait until someone’s violated your boundary a dozen times before you speak up. It’s not fair to assume that others know your boundaries until you’ve explained them. Nor is it fair to “change the rules” and abruptly tell your cousin that you’re not going to help pay her rent after you’ve done it with a smile on your face for the past three months.

8. Don’t make it personal. Setting a boundary isn’t a personal attack. Gina generously agreed to drive her coworker Maggie home while Maggie’s car is in the shop. Gina likes to leave promptly, so she’s grown resentful that she’s waiting 10-15 minutes after shift as Maggie chats and socializes. After three days of this she snaps: “Maggie you’re really inconsiderate. Can’t you see I’m waiting for you? You’re so ungrateful! Just take the bus home!” Notice the difference when Gina uses an “I statement” and leaves the personal attack out. “Maggie, I need to get home straight after work. I’m happy to give you a ride, but I can’t wait more than five minutes for you. So, if you need more time, I won’t be able to drive you home.”

9. Use a support system. Starting to set boundaries is tough! It can bring up a lot of questions, uncomfortable feelings, and self-doubt. Having a support system is invaluable whenever you’re doing something challenging. Friends, family members, a therapist, or a 12-step group can provide the support that makes setting boundaries easier.

10. Trust your intuition. Be sure to slow down and tune into yourself. Pay attention to what you’re feeling. What is your gut telling you? If it feels wrong, make a change. Following these ten steps will help guide you toward setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. And remember that healthy boundaries are not only good for you, but they’re good for everyone.

10 steps to setting healthy boundaries

©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.

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Sharon Martin is a psychotherapist, writer, speaker, and media contributor on emotional health and relationships. She specializes in helping people uncover their inherent worth and learn to accept themselves -- imperfections and all! Sharon writes a popular blog called Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Navigating the Codependency Maze.

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