When you were a kid, adults probably drilled into you that you should “be nice,” share your toys, and put yourself in other people’s shoes. Those are necessary lessons, of course. Humans are prosocial creatures. Our ancestors needed the protection of the clan, so they had to get along and be team players. Individuals who caused strife within the group risked being kicked out, which could be a death sentence.
It pays to be considerate of others, but that message often gets twisted into “don’t rock the boat” and even “other people’s needs are more important than your own.” When getting along is your top priority, you become loathe to assert your own needs. However, in the long term, being too self-sacrificing is detrimental to your relationships and your own mental wellbeing. It’s a slippery slope into allowing other people to make unreasonable demands on your time or say or do things that hurt you (often unintentionally).
Moreover, not being honest about your needs is unfair. Other people never get the chance to reciprocate the consideration you’re offering, and all the while you are stewing in hurt or resentment because you aren’t getting what you want.
Boundaries protect your time and your physical and emotional space. They help ensure that your needs are met. Boundaries can look like:
- Turning down social invitations.
- Saying no to requests from your boss or coworkers that you can’t reasonably fulfill or that are outside your scope.
- Staying true to your values (e.g., shutting down a conversation that has turned sexist or racist).
- Protecting your personal space from other people who are sapping your time, energy, or happiness.
- Enforcing much-needed personal time.
Did you get squeamish just reading that? The truth is, setting boundaries can incredibly uncomfortable, even downright scary. Keeping the peace is the path of least resistance, but it’s not always the right choice. Learning to set healthy boundaries is one of those necessary-but-difficult adulting skills that we all need to practice.
What Does It Mean to Set Healthy Boundaries?
Boundaries communicate how we want others to treat us.
The word makes it sound like they are walls we erect to keep other people at arm’s length, but the intention is actually to foster better relationships. Sometimes it does mean creating distance from someone. Often, though, you’re letting the other person know what they can reasonably expect from you or telling them what would make a given situation agreeable to you.
Boundaries are not “mean.”
Boundaries are honest. They facilitate positive interactions by reducing the likelihood of mixed signals, miscommunication, and disappointment. In fact, setting boundaries is an act of generosity for yourself and others. You could lie, shut down, or cut others out of your life when you’re not getting what you need. Instead, you’re doing the hard work to improve the situation.
As Brene Brown says, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” Boundaries create clarity. It’s kinder to give important people in your life—whether they be friends, romantic partners, relatives, your boss, even your hairdresser or personal trainer— the chance to have an authentic relationship with you. The alternative is letting them labor under the impression that you’re happy when you’re not. Think about how awful it feels to find out that a friend has been secretly upset with you, or your boss thinks you’ve been doing a lousy job, but you had no idea.
Brown uses the term “shared purpose” in the workplace context, but it is relevant to any of your relationships. When you prioritize “being nice” above being honest, people don’t ever really know where they stand with you. Relationships can only be successful and fulfilling when all parties are on the same page.
Boundaries are not selfish.
Other people’s needs are not more important than your own. Setting boundaries simply means putting your needs on par with others’.
This message can be hard to accept. Boundaries can feel selfish, especially if you aren’t used to asserting yourself. Others may act like you’re being selfish when your needs conflict with theirs. There’s nothing inherently selfish about candor. You can care about other people and be loving, helpful, and generous without exceeding your personal boundaries.
Sometimes you do use boundaries to create space to focus on yourself, and that’s not selfish either. Everyone deserves to prioritize their own wellbeing—all the time, but particularly when you’re dealing with illness (acute or chronic), grief, depression, or other issues. Who benefits if you collapse under the weight of trying to do it all?
Boundaries Don’t Mean You Never Compromise
You’re probably not going around setting boundaries in most of your day-to-day interactions. There’s no need. Boundaries are generally reserved for situations in which your time or physical or mental health need a buffer. Even then, nothing precludes you from seeking out mutually beneficial arrangements.
Even people who are great at boundaries don’t get their way all the time. They understand how to prioritize, but they’re willing to put their foot down when it matters.
Signs That You Aren’t Setting Healthy Boundaries
The following are signs that you’re in a situation where you probably need to establish better boundaries:
- Resentment or simmering anger toward someone else
- Consistently low energy/motivation to complete a task or interact with someone
- Feeling disempowered, overwhelmed, or burned out
- Saying “I have to…” or “I should…,” followed by dread, namely in situations where you don’t actually have to do that thing. You probably should pay your bills or call the dentist about your toothache. You don’t have to bake cupcakes for the bake sale or go to your parents’ house for Christmas.
How to Set Boundaries
1. Be honest with yourself.
Step one is asking yourself, “In what situations am I feeling overwhelmed or burned out? Toward whom do I feel resentful? Where do is my energy stretched too thin?”
Next, be totally candid with yourself, without judgment, about why you aren’t already setting better boundaries. You would have already done it if it felt easy. Something is making you avoid rather than confront the situation. Usually it’s that you don’t want the other person to be mad, hurt, or embarrassed, you strongly value being helpful or agreeable, or you fear social or professional repercussions.
2. Get clear on what you want.
In an ideal world, how would the situation be different? You can’t ask for what you want unless you know what that is.
For example, let’s say you have a coworker who repeatedly comes into your cubicle to chat, interrupting your workflow. Possible solutions (boundaries) include:
- Request that they only email or text you during certain periods of the day.
- Put a do not disturb sign on the back of your chair when you’re trying to focus, and ask them to respect that.
- Schedule a standing morning coffee break with them, and ask them to let you work until then.
However, none of these is the right answer if what you really want is to keep your coworker relationships strictly professional, no idle chitchat necessary.
3. Ask for what you need.
Keep it clear and concise so the other person understands exactly what you’re requesting. Again, setting boundaries is not mean, so avoid apologizing or overexplaining. You can convey through your tone of voice and word choice that you feel neither angry nor aggressive.
Melissa Urban of Whole30 fame has a useful green-yellow-red system. Essentially, it means you employ the minimum effective dose needed to establish the boundary. Start by being gentle but direct if it’s your first time communicating the boundary and/or you suspect the other person is not intentionally overstepping. If you have to repeat yourself, or if the other person’s behavior is explicitly harmful, you should feel free to draw an even more explicit line in the sand.
Taking the coworker example, you might start by saying: “I love chatting with you, but I get my most focused work done in the morning. I need to be in the zone from 9 to 12. Will you jot down the things you want to remember to tell me, and we can catch up at lunch?”
If your coworker repeatedly “forgets” not to interrupt you:
- “Remember, I said I need to concentrate in the mornings. Hold that thought until lunchtime.”
- “I need my cubicle to be off-limits in the morning.”
- “I can’t talk now.”
- “Please don’t come into my cubicle just to chat.”
4. Hold firm
After you ask for what you want, there’s often an awkward pause, or sometimes the other person apologizes profusely. You might be tempted to add a concession that suggests maybe the boundary isn’t firm. That’s not clear, which means it’s not kind.
Do: “I have a hard time refocusing when I’m interrupted. When I’m wearing my headphones, that’s my sign I’m not available to chat. Let’s catch up at lunch.”
Don’t: “I have a hard time refocusing when I’m interrupted. When I’m wearing my headphones, that’s my sign I’m not available to chat. I mean, unless it’s really important. Don’t even worry about it.”
What If the Other Person Gets Upset?
They might, and that’s not your problem. You can only control how you communicate, not how the other person reacts.
Don’t expect them to react badly, though. Other people often respond with grace if you communicate your needs in a straightforward, non-blaming manner. Sometimes they will react with hurt, anger, or defensiveness. Your job here is to hold firm and stay in your truth. Don’t apologize or backpedal. “I understand it’s disappointing, but the answer is no. Maybe we could pick up this conversation again in a day or two.”
In healthy relationships, setting boundaries usually works. The recipient might initially respond poorly, and they may sometimes overstep by mistake. Just as setting healthy boundaries feels uncomfortable, being on the receiving end can be difficult too. Most people don’t have a lot of practice in either role. However, good relationship partners ultimately respect your boundaries.
When you keep having to set the same boundaries with someone over and over, or if they respond with extreme negativity, you need to ask yourself whether they are someone you want in your life. An inability to respect boundaries is a sign of a toxic relationship.
Setting Boundaries This Holiday Season
The holiday season can seriously test your boundary-setting skills. Between the increased demands on your time and extended family dynamics, a whole fortress could be in order! Here are some examples, from gentlest to firmest:
When You Want Certain Discussion Topics to Be Off the Table:
- We’d love to see you, but we’re all feeling extremely burned out after this election cycle. We’ll only be able to attend if we can agree not to talk politics at the dinner table. If everyone is amenable to that, let me know, and I’ll start making travel arrangements.
- We’ll come, but we aren’t staying if there’s a repeat of last year. We’re going to have to leave if anyone starts fighting about politics.
- Honestly, I’m feeling skittish about how much animosity there has been lately. I’m going to pass on the holidays this year.
- I know you’re concerned about my health, but it makes me uncomfortable when you bring up my weight. I’m taking care of myself, and I don’t want to discuss my body. Can we please change the subject?
- I only discuss this topic with my doctor. I need you to respect that and not ask me about my weight anymore.
- My body isn’t anyone else’s business, and comments about my weight are hurtful. Please stop.
- No thanks, I’m not drinking right now. I don’t mind if other people are drinking, but I’m doing a personal experiment. I hope nobody tries to pressure me.
- I’m not drinking right now, and I’d like everyone to respect that. Thanks.
- Nobody else is affected if I don’t drink. Let’s please drop it and have a pleasant evening.
Safety, Personal Comfort Regarding COVID Measures
- Thank you so much for the invitation, but with everything being so crazy right now, we’re going to stay home. Let’s plan to Zoom, though! When is best for you?
- We’re disappointed too, but we have to do what makes us feel safe. This year, it’s staying home. We’ll miss everyone.
- We’re not comfortable compromising on this. The answer is no, and we’re not going to change our minds.
- Thanks for inviting us! We will come grab a cocktail in the backyard, but when people start to move inside, we’re going to head home.
- We’d only feel safe coming if it was a small group and everyone is outdoors. If not, we’ll pass this time, but we look forward to seeing you a different time!
- We’re not comfortable socializing in groups right now. Thanks for asking, though.
(Remember, “Thank you so much for inviting us, but we’re unable to attend” is a complete response. These suggestions are for when you want to offer more explanation or if the host is pressing you for more.)
Setting Aside “Me” Time, Protecting Your Schedule
- Hey, [spouse/partner]. With holiday busyness, I’m having a hard time finding any time to exercise. It’s really affecting how I feel physically and mentally. Can we sit down and figure out where I can schedule 30-45 minutes to work out each day?
- I need to exercise to stay healthy and happy. I’d like to set aside 7 to 7:45 a.m. as my workout time, which would mean you’d be in charge of getting the kids’ breakfast. Is that doable?
- If I don’t get half an hour to myself to exercise every day, I’m going to lose it. The whole family will be happier if I disappear for 30 minutes after dinner. Cool?
- The decorating committee sounds fun, but I’m already swamped. I’m not able to take on any extra projects. I’ll be happy to donate to the toy drive, though.
- No, but I can’t wait to see what you’ll come up with. I’m sure it will be great!
- I’m not able to help with holiday festivities this year.
Saying No to Obligations/Forced Holiday Fun
- Oh gee, no thanks, I don’t want to participate in the office Secret Santa this year. Have fun!
- Secret Santa’s not really my thing, but thanks for thinking of me.
- The annual cookie swap is so much fun, but I just don’t have time to make 10 dozen cookies. Maybe I could swing by for a glass of wine.
- I won’t be able make it. Can’t wait to see the pictures on Facebook!
It’s normal to feel nervous if this is new territory for you. These conversations can be uncomfortable even for boundary-setting pros. Give yourself a pep talk. Remind yourself that candor allows you and the people around you to be more authentic. Boundaries can improve relationships, or they can release you both to pursue more compatible ones.
When you set boundaries, you implicitly encourage others to set their own. Go into these conversations with the mindset that you’re being constructive. Most of all, remind yourself that maintaining harmony isn’t a path to true happiness when peace comes at the expense of your wellbeing. It’s far better to do the (hard) work to build relationships built on honesty, mutual respect, and shared purpose.