It’s Okay To Have Boundaries

A lot of TV, movies, and books portray people who set boundaries as selfish and people who cross boundaries as passionate. I think this is one of the worst things that media does to us. As somebody who didn’t see a lot of healthy relationships modeled for me growing up, it took a long time for me to learn that I didn’t have to just accept however a friend or partner wanted to treat me. It also took a long time for me to learn how to really listen to the needs of my friends and partners.

Learning about boundaries and communication has drastically improved my life and my relationships. I am a happier and healthier person because I only surround myself with people who respect my boundaries, and I’m a better friend because I know how to do the same.

What are boundaries? 

A personal boundary is a rule that you set for yourself in a relationship. A boundary says, “I am okay with this thing, but I’m not okay with this other thing.” It’s your responsibility to communicate your boundaries, and it’s everybody else’s responsibility to respect your boundaries.

Boundaries are different for everybody. We can have boundaries for the way we physically, emotionally, intellectually, or materially interact with people.

  • For example, “I am okay with giving a family member $200 if they are in an emergency, but I’m not okay with giving them $500.”
  • Or, “I am okay with shaking hands with new people I meet, but I’m not okay with hugging people I don’t know well.”
  • Or, “I am okay with working late during busy times, but not with 50 hour work weeks being the standard.”
  • Or, “I am okay talking about my romantic life with my friends, but not with my coworkers.”

Boundaries are an expression of our personal values and needs, which means you’ll probably run up against some differences in values. More on how to deal with those differences later!


How To Set Boundaries

Think about a time you felt uncomfortable, disrespected, or taken advantage of. That is probably a sign some boundaries were being challenged or crossed. What about the situation didn’t feel right to you? What needed to change for you to feel comfortable?

Giving Yourself Permission

The best gift you can give yourself is permission to put yourself first. The most important thing I can tell you is this: it’s not selfish to set boundaries.

When you take care of yourself first, you avoid emotional burnout. That means you have more bandwidth to care for the people you love. More, not less!

A lot of people have trouble expressing their boundaries because they’re afraid of the reaction. But think about it! The people you love probably love you back, and they (hopefully) wouldn’t want to be hurting you.

I wasn’t always good at this. Actually, the first time I set a boundary it went very, very poorly.

Messing Up

When I first started protecting myself with boundaries, I was very bad at it. I had a friend who was constantly asking for attention and emotional support at a time when I could not give it to him. 

It caused me so much stress that I decided to end the friendship completely. And I didn’t do a good job of that, either.

I knew I needed space to deal with my own problems. I knew I couldn’t take care of him without taking care of myself first. Even though my therapist had given me strategies to talk to him, I was scared of confrontation. I felt selfish. I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t want to help him.

So I ghosted, 100%. I stopped all communication and I avoided any get-together he might be at. I’m sure it was very confusing for him, and the only reason I wasn’t honest was that I was uncomfortable. It was a terrible way for me to end the friendship.

But here’s the thing. Even though I regret the way I handled the situation, I don’t regret putting my mental health first. I needed to process the death of my father. I needed to not fail out of college. And, I needed to spend time in therapy talking about me and not about how this other guy was stressing me out.

(Note: There are times when ghosting is the right thing to do. If you think a conversation will put you in harm’s way, feel free to cut dangerous or violent people out of your life guilt free.)

Communicating Boundaries

Here are some key points to remember when you’re communicating boundaries:

  • You don’t need to be sorry about your boundaries.
  • You don’t need to ask permission for your boundaries.
  • You need this for yourself.
  • This boundary makes it possible for the relationship to exist.

Some examples for setting boundaries with friends or colleagues:

“Hey, I love you and I really want to support you. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed myself lately… let’s save this conversation for when I see you this weekend so I can give you my full attention.”

“Thanks for sending me that document on Saturday – I check my emails over the weekend so if something serious comes up I can deal with it. In the future, please keep that in mind and save weekend communications for true emergencies. Thank you!”

“I don’t feel comfortable with lending money to friends. If there’s another way I can support you, please let me know.”

Be prepared to stand your ground, because you might receive some pushback.

Upholding Boundaries

Once you tell somebody your boundaries, it’s important that you reinforce them. In an ideal world, everybody would listen the first time you asked them not to do something. But has anything following the phrase “In an ideal world” ever been true?

You should think about making an action plan for yourself in case somebody crosses your boundaries. If somebody doesn’t respect the boundaries you’ve communicated, what is the next step?

This is where you need to be brave! If you’re consistent, folks will change their behavior.

  • If you have a friend who constantly calls late at night after you ask them not to, you might stop answering the phone.
  • If you have a coworker who constantly emails on the weekend, you might start responding to every email, “Let’s talk about this on Monday”
  • If you have a family member who says racist things, leave the table or the room when they start going off.

My key strategy here: disengage from situations where your boundaries are crossed. As you do, remind them of your boundaries. When my partner does something that doesn’t align with my boundaries, our conversation goes something like this:

Me: “Hey, I’m not mad at you, but you haven’t done the dishes for a few days so I can’t start making dinner until they’re done.”

Him: “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks for being patient with me, I’ll go do them now.”

We can communicate without fighting or getting mad because we’ve set clear expectations for each other. When one of us doesn’t meet the expectations, we immediately own up to it and correct ourselves.

And lastly….

It’s important to say thank you! 

This is the best lesson my fiance taught me. When I express a boundary or a need, he says, “Thank you for letting me know.”

When I give him quiet time to read, he says, “Thank you for respecting my boundaries”

When I tell him he hasn’t done the dishes in four days, he says, “Thank you for being patient with me.”

When people respect your boundaries, I think it’s great to verbally appreciate the effort. Even if people are falling a little short, you can thank them for making progress.

Thanking people for respecting your boundaries will go a long way for them continuing to do so. It reinforces that it’s important and helpful for you. And it always feels nice to be appreciated!

Setting boundaries can be really scary, but it will absolutely improve your life and your mental health! 

Share in the comments if you have any tips for others struggling to set boundaries.