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Defining Your Self

What Are Boundaries and How to Set Them

Setting personal limits can help you live by your values and establish healthier relationships.

Caroline McMorrow
Caroline McMorrow

Caroline is a content strategist in the health and wellness industry, having contributed to brands like Oura Ring, Rescripted, Elo Health, and Coa. After having overcome an autoimmune condition with no cure, Dermatomyositis, she studied Health & Human Sciences to help people understand their bodies through health and science communications.

10

min read

Boundaries have become a bit of a buzzword, especially since the onset of the pandemic when suddenly all boundaries became blurred and our bedroom became our gym, office, hangout zone, and ideally, still a sanctuary for sleep.

But with buzzwords comes some confusion about what something actually means by definition versus what we assume it means based on social media clips.

Below we get into what healthy boundaries are and aren’t, signs you need to set them, and how to set and reinforce them so you can stay accountable to your own internal needs. 

What are healthy boundaries? 

According to Dr. Laryssa Creswell, LPC, healthy boundaries define your personal limit. They’re like making a personal contract with yourself. Boundaries are where you draw a line in the sand and establish an agreement with yourself to not go beyond that point. 

Dr. Creswell emphasizes, “Boundaries are all about you, and not other people. You can’t force your boundary on someone else but you can stand your ground and stick true to the contract you made with yourself.” 

The key to healthy boundaries is having a clear understanding of how far you will go — knowing the max you can take without overextending yourself and pushing yourself into the brink of depletion where frustration can start to build. 

Signs you need to set boundaries

This will vary from person to person, but there are a few consistent threads. 

You may find that you feel:

  • Out of control and like things are happening to you
  • Overwhelmed 
  • Physically and/or emotionally exhausted
  • Ongoing yet subtle resentment or frustration towards others
  • Like you have no personal time
  • Taken for granted or used
  • Guilty when you try to take time for yourself

Signs can also show up in your behaviors, such as:

  • Having a hard time saying “no,” even when it inconveniences you or goes against what you authentically want to do, in fear of letting others down 
  • Being chronically available to calls, texts, emails, and requests at all hours 
  • Neglecting real self-care, such as exercise, rest, relaxation, and time with loved ones due to excessive commitments or a sense of obligation to others 
  • Over apologizing, even for things that don’t need an apology
  • Difficulty expressing your needs, preferences, and emotions to others

All in all, if you feel like you’re in a large crowd that’s constantly pushing and pulling you in different directions so you can’t get your footing or find anything to hold onto, that’s when you know you need to start establishing boundaries. 

How to know which boundaries to set

As a first step when setting boundaries, Dr. Creswell advises to tune into yourself and ask, “What do I need to be different here?” 

If you’re struggling to pinpoint your area of need, reflect on past experiences that made you feel frustrated, resentful, or personally violated in some way. Also, consider current experiences that create a sense of overwhelm, exhaustion, or guilt. 

Pay attention to your emotional reactions in different situations and interactions. If something makes you uncomfortable or upset, it may be an indication a boundary needs to be set there. 

Next, clarify your core values, priorities and needs. Usually those feelings of frustration or overwhelm are because there’s a mismatch between your personal values and needs versus what’s happening in actuality. 

Ask yourself:

  • What are the things that matter most to me? 
  • What do I need to feel safe, respected, and fulfilled in various aspects of my life (relationships, work, personal time, family, etc.)?
  • What are my non-negotiables?

Boundaries should align with your values—what matters to you—your needs, and things you’re unwilling to compromise on. 

When you first start setting boundaries, it can feel like a lot, so start small with one or two aspects of your life. As you become more comfortable with boundary setting, you can gradually expand them into other areas.

6 different kinds of boundaries 

To give you some more food for thought as you think through your boundary setting process, below we outline the six different kinds of personal boundaries and what they look and sound like in practice. 

1. Physical Boundaries

Physical boundaries include the physical distance you prefer to maintain between yourself and others, your comfort level with hugs, kisses, and other forms of physical contact, as well as your physical needs such as rest, food, hydration, and sleep. 

A physical boundary may sound like:

  • “I’m starving and need to get something to eat so I’ll catch you guys later.”
  • “I’m actually pretty tired so I’m going home, but I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
  • “I’m not a big hugger, but am all for a handshake or fist bump.”

2. Emotional Boundaries

Emotional boundaries are about deciding when and with whom you share your most intimate experiences, communicating how you feel, and recognizing that while you can support others, it’s not your job to take on their emotions or fix how they feel. 

An emotional boundary may sound like:

  • “I love and respect you so much and am sorry that you’re going through such a hard time, but right now, I’m not in the best headspace to take all this in. Is there another way I can support you?”
  • “When you say [X] to me, it makes me self-conscious. It’s hard to fully engage in our relationship when you make comments that feel like personal jabs.”
  • “I trust you a lot as one of my closest friends. There’s been a lot going on lately. Would you be open to talking about it with me? I really need someone to listen.”

3. Mental Boundaries

Mental boundaries help you engage in a discussion without feeling the need to always agree and recognize you don’t need to share every single thought with others. They also include knowing when it’s a good time versus a bad time to talk about something.

A mental boundary may sound like:

  • “I hear you, but now isn’t the best time to talk about this. Is there any chance we could continue this conversation later in private?”
  • “I respect that you have a different point of view on this. We can civilly disagree, but if you yell at me like that again, I’m going to have to exit the conversation.”
  • “I don’t want to talk about this right now. I hope you understand.”

4. Time Boundaries

Time boundaries revolve around how much time you allocate to various activities without overcommitting, while also setting aside time for your priorities (work, self-care, relationships, family, dating, etc.).

A time boundary may sound like:

  • “I can only stay until 9pm because I have to wake up early tomorrow for my kids.” 
  • “I can’t make it anymore. I overcommitted this week and am exhausted.”
  • “I wish I could help with this extra project but I’m already swamped with work.”
  • “I usually shut down my computer at 5:30pm, so if you send me a request after that via email, I won’t see it until the next day.”

5. Sexual Boundaries

Sexual boundaries ensure all sexual activities are consensual and that you’re able to openly communicate your preferences, desires, and comfort levels with any partners. They also include discussing contraception and protection with new partners.

A sexual boundary may sound like:

  • “I don’t like how that feels. Can we try something different?”
  • “I’m feeling pressure and that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not interested in having sex right now.”
  • “Can you tell me more about what you like and don’t like?”

6. Material Boundaries

Material boundaries include your possessions, home, car, and other belongings, and how you feel about lending or sharing them. It also involves how you manage or share financial resources in personal and professional relationships. 

A material boundary may sound like:

  • “That’s totally fine if you borrow my bag, but could you bring it back by this weekend, please?”
  • “I’m sorry but I can’t let anyone other than my family stay at my house while I’m away.”
  • “Since we share this account together, could we talk about purchases that are over $1,000 before we make them?”

How to set and reinforce your boundaries  

Setting a new boundary with someone else takes time for it to be fully actualized, so be patient with yourself and others as you’re establishing new guidelines for how you’re choosing to live your life. 

In the words of Dr. Creswell, “For the person you’re setting a boundary with, it’s their job to step on your boundary and keep pushing your limits.” 

They’re gotten accustomed to getting their needs met by overstepping your boundaries. They might react and get upset at first because the new boundary you’re setting blocks how they’ve historically operated. 

Remember: it will be uncomfortable to start—for both you and for others—because things are changing, so be patient. 

1. Be clear and clarify your why

When setting a boundary for the first time, be very clear about what’s not working for you and how you need things to change. Clarify why setting this particular boundary is important to you and how it ties back into your personal wellbeing. 

State the behavior or action you’ll be taking from here on out with specificity. Vagueness can lead to misunderstandings, which will likely lead to frustration. Communicate potential consequences of crossing the boundary, if and where appropriate. 

For example, try saying, “I need you to call before coming out to my house. Next time, I won’t open the door if you don’t.”

In some rare cases, you may be open to compromise to respect their personal boundaries and needs in the process. Be careful with whom and how you decide to compromise, though. 

2. Find a good time and place

Find an appropriate time and setting to discuss, and make sure you’re both in an even keeled headspace. Ensure you have their attention and they have yours.

Open it up to be a two-way conversation. Active listening on both ends demonstrates respect and helps you both understand how the other person is feeling.

3. Use “I” statements 

Don’t make the boundary about them or what you need them to do. Remember boundaries are about your actions and behaviors, and what you can control. You can’t project your boundaries onto someone else. You can only control yourself.

For example, say "I need" or "I feel" instead of accusatory language. This makes the conversation less confrontational, which helps open up the other party to hearing you and respecting your newly established boundaries. 

For instance, "I need some personal space and alone time after work. This is important to me so I can decompress and engage in self-care. Otherwise I can’t show up as my best self in our relationship.”

Stay calm and direct during the conversation. Try to avoid giving into your emotions or matching their aggression, if they start to respond in that manner. Fighting fire with fire will only push you further away from establishing your boundary. 

4. Re-establish and maintain boundaries consistently 

Once you’ve set a new boundary with someone, it will likely need reinforcement. Again, their role often involves stepping on your boundary to get their needs met.

After you’ve set a boundary, be sure to uphold it consistently and stand your ground. This reinforces its importance and builds trust between you and the other person that you do what you say you do.

A final note

Be sure to take care of yourself and express self-compassion throughout the process of setting and maintaining new boundaries. It can be emotionally exhausting, so don’t let the beginning stages take you out of self-care because that would defeat the purpose of setting boundaries in the first place. 

If you find yourself getting stuck, remember that setting boundaries is a necessary part of maintaining healthy relationships with yourself and others. When done thoughtfully, boundaries let you advocate your own needs and values, while also respecting the needs and values of others. 

About the author
Caroline McMorrow

Caroline is a content strategist in the health and wellness industry, having contributed to brands like Oura Ring, Rescripted, Elo Health, and Coa. After having overcome an autoimmune condition with no cure, Dermatomyositis, she studied Health & Human Sciences to help people understand their bodies through health and science communications.

Edited by

Eliana Reyes

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Every UpLift article is created by our team or other qualified contributors, and reviewed for accuracy by clinicians.

Jack Sykstus, LMFT

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