7 Steps To Setting Healthy Boundaries

Sept. 8, 2021

You know that feeling you get when a friend comes over and after a while all you can think about is the homework and laundry you need to get done, and the enjoyment of spending time with a friend slowly turns to stress and irritation?  That discomfort is an important sign that it’s time to set a boundary.  Boundaries are the rules we set for ourselves and others that govern how much of our time, feelings, bodies and material goods we give to others, and under what circumstances.  We make decisions about when and how to set boundaries are based on a complex set of variables that we are not even consciously aware of.  These variables include sense of safety,  length of the relationship, cultural norms, power differentials, gender, trauma history and family culture.  Given all of factors involved, you can imagine how often boundary conflicts arise between two people.  But here are some simple steps that can help you understand and set boundaries.

1. Fine-tune your emotional radar.  We hold feelings in our body.  When you start paying attention to the subtle cues your body sends you it will help draw your awareness to feelings that we often overlook until we’ve reached a boiling point.  Try to approach this from a place of mindful curiosity- scan your body from head to toe and just notice any sensations you are experiencing.  That knot in your stomach, tension in your neck or fidgety feeling could be signs that you are feeling anxious or frustrated.  One you know what you are feeling you can start to pinpoint the why.

2. Figure out the why.  Once you know what you are feeling, try to take a mental step back to observe the situation you are in.   What were you doing when you started feeling anxious?  What thoughts are going through your mind?  Using our example from before, the thoughts might sound like: “Lindsey has been over here for two hours and it doesn’t look like she’s leaving anytime soon.  I have so much work I have to get done, and now I’m going to have to stay up until 3am working on homework.”

3. Identify the boundary. We often discount the boundary we’d like to set so quickly that we aren’t even aware that there is one.  Focus on what you feel you need in the moment.  Maybe it’s time to finish your homework, or for someone to stand further away to respect your space bubble, or to have your clothes returned after someone borrows them. 

4.  Explore your doubts. What’s stopping you from setting this boundary?  It can help to actually imagine the scenario of setting a boundary and what you expect the outcome to be.  Do you imagine your friend’s feelings getting hurt?  Or are you worried about being perceived as selfish?  Is it a boundary with someone in a position of power that makes it more difficult to set boundaries?  There are myriad reasons why we hesitate when setting a boundary and it’s important to have a clear understanding as to why.

5. Check your body language. Consider how the anxiety or frustration that comes with not setting a boundary impacts your relationship.  When we do not communicate our needs and boundaries clearly our paraverbal and nonverbal cues do the talking for us.  The incongruence between what you are saying and how you are saying it can come across as passive aggressive. This is often more damaging to a relationship than telling someone that now just isn’t a good time to talk.

6. Remember your feelings are valid. Everyone has the right to set boundaries, even when those boundaries conflict with someone else’s needs.  Expressing your boundaries calmly, respectfully, and with consideration of the feelings of others will nurture relationships.  It allows the people around you to demonstrate their care and respect.  And if they don’t?  Then that tells you a lot about that person’s respect for you.

7. Say it clearly, stick to it. Be specific, be consistent, don’t apologize, and try to stay consistent.  Here are some examples:

  • “I’m feeling overwhelmed and can’t be the person you vent to right now.  I’ll check back in with you tomorrow to see how you’re doing”
  • “I don’t feel ready to talk about this.  I will let you know when I am.”
  • “I don’t have time right now, but we can talk in an hour when I’m done with my homework”
  • "I love spending time with you, but I also need time to myself.  Let’s make plans for later this weekend.”
  • “You can borrow my dress, but I need it back by Sunday and please wash it first.”
  • “I love hanging out with you, but I can’t always afford to go out to eat. Let's have a picnic next time”
  • "I noticed a dent in my car after you borrowed it- let's talk about how you can get it fixed”
  • “You are standing too close to me, I need you to take a step back”

These kinds of conversations can feel uncomfortable at first, especially if you aren’t used to it.  But once you do, you will find that your relationships with others feel less emotionally draining.  Standing firm in your belief about the validity of your needs, and having a clear understanding of those needs will enable you to navigate potentially stressful situations with greater ease.