How to Set Boundaries for Your Emotional Well-Being

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Think back to geography class: Your teacher probably showed you a map and explained that certain lines were used to show boundaries between states and countries. For the most part, these borders are not visible in real life. And yet, even though we can’t see these boundaries, people accept them and understand how far they can go before entering another territory.

Unlike a map, there aren’t literal, physical barriers between ourselves and other people. Unfortunately, healthy personal boundaries can be pretty nebulous to identify and even trickier to set. Most of us never learned how to set boundaries, avoid toxic relationships, or foster healthy connections. To help you better understand personal and emotional boundaries—including how to stick to them—follow these tips from trained mental health professionals.

  • Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California, and the author of the books Joy From Fear, Aging Joyfully, and Date Smart.
  • Leela R. Magavi, MD, is a psychiatrist and the regional medical director of Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers.
  • Melissa Flint, PsyD, is a certified clinical trauma provider and a professor of clinical psychology at Midwestern University in Arizona.

What Are Boundaries?

People talk about “setting boundaries” all the time, but what does that mean? Setting figurative (or even literal) personal and emotional boundaries can help people know how far they can go regarding emotional support and labor, seeking your help or advice, or even how frequently you’re expected to get in touch.

“Boundaries are the separations that humans need—mentally, emotionally, and physically—to feel safe, valued, and respected,” explains Carla Marie Manly.

Hard vs. Soft Boundaries

When defining boundaries, it may help to separate them into hard and soft boundaries.

  • Hard boundaries are things you find non-negotiable and will not compromise on. They are those “make or break” situations you will never accept or do.
  • Soft boundaries are more flexible: They’re things you’re willing to compromise, negotiate, or accept (within reason). You can think of soft boundaries like wishes or setting goals.

Types of Boundaries

Within hard and soft boundaries, there are various types of boundaries you may wish to develop in your personal and professional relationships.

  • Physical: These boundaries regard your privacy, body, and personal space. They can help when coming across strangers, but also close relations. Physical boundaries include stating your preference for a hug or handshake (or neither), asking people to respect your workspace or bedroom, and other physical aspects that help you feel safe and comfortable.
  • Sexual: Your preferences, expectations, and concerns around intimacy fall under sexual boundaries. This can range from sexual comments and how people touch you to asking for consent and communicating with your partner when intimate. Healthy sexual boundaries apply to long-term relationships as well as new connections.
  • Emotional: When protecting your emotional well-being, you’re setting emotional boundaries. These include sharing your personal feelings and how other people’s feelings affect you. They can also refer to your beliefs, ideas, and values, sometimes called intellectual boundaries.
  • Material: Anything regarding your possessions and belongings is referred to as material boundaries. These limitations help avoid being taken advantage of, especially if you’re a generous person. Financial boundaries are also included here—e.g., letting others borrow money.
  • Time: Setting restrictions on other people’s access to your time helps you preserve your time for things like focusing on work, yourself, family, or passions. Declining invitations or requests is one way to set time boundaries.

Signs You Lack Healthy Boundaries

Boundary issues arise in many different situations and various parts of our lives, but it’s not unusual for them to fly under our radar until they’ve clearly been challenged, Manly explains. “In general, boundary issues tend to occur from allowing your own boundaries to be crossed or crossing others’ boundaries,” Manly adds.

According to Manly, a few of the most common signs that your boundaries need attention include:

  • Feeling chronically taken advantage of in certain situations, such as emotionally, financially, or physically.
  • Saying “yes” to please others at your own expense.
  • Not having your needs met because you tend to fear conflict and give in to others.
  • Often feeling disrespected by others but not standing up for yourself.
  • Fear of being rejected or abandoned leaves you accepting less than you deserve.
  • Engaging in people-pleasing behaviors in order to be liked and to receive approval.
  • Engaging in disrespectful behavior that hurts others.
  • Flirting with people in relationships or when you are in a relationship, even when it harms others.
  • Doing whatever you want to meet your needs and believing that limits don’t apply to you.

Keep in mind that setting boundaries may be more difficult for some people than others. According to Dr. Magavi, people who live with anxiety or depression may struggle with creating and maintaining boundaries.

Qualities of Healthy Boundary Setting

Before setting boundaries, it’s helpful to know what healthy boundaries look like in practice and how they affect your everyday life. These aspects are common when people establish healthy boundaries.

Verbalization

Ultimately, boundaries speak to what we identify as making us comfortable or uncomfortable, says Dr. Magavi. This often involves using verbal strategies. “Individuals could use succinct, clear phrases to address and clarify their comfort level and needs,” Magavi says.

“For example, [during the COVID-19 pandemic] a person [may have] respectfully ask[ed] loved ones to wear their masks, stand further away from them and each other, or wash their hands. This practice at home may ease any discomfort when conversing with neighbors and members of the community,” adds Dr. Magavi.

Saying No

Another crucial (but difficult) part of setting boundaries involves learning how to say “no” to others. “Many times, we feel that we owe others a dissertation-level response to why we cannot do this task, go to this event, etc.,” says Melissa Flint.

“The fact of the matter is, a good boundary is an explanation in and of itself. ‘I’m quite sorry, but I cannot commit to working on that project over the weekend. I appreciate you thinking of me and having confidence in me, but not this time!’ is a perfectly adequate response,” adds Flint.

Leela R. Magavi, MD

“Some individuals derive comfort from how others perceive them and may avoid boundaries in order to please others. However, this could lead to burnout and passive-aggression.”

—Leela R. Magavi, MD

Honesty and Transparency

Making a conscious decision to set certain boundaries isn’t enough: You must also communicate those boundaries to the people they involve in an honest and transparent way. Otherwise, how will others know your preferences? “Setting boundaries also includes letting others know what they are—not expecting others to have a crystal ball and just know what you want or do not want,” Flint explains.

Flexibility

It’s also worth noting that a person with healthy boundaries can adjust their boundaries depending on the situation to allow for the appropriate level of connection, says Manly. Boundaries can change. “In practice, we consciously and unconsciously use boundaries to let others know what is acceptable or appropriate,” adds Manly.

“When our boundaries are too permeable, we might tend to let people take advantage of us or accept abusive treatment. When our boundaries are too rigid, we might behave in highly defended ways to keep respectful, loving people at a distance,” Manly explains.

Why Boundaries Are Important

Given that boundaries help us feel safer and more comfortable, it makes sense that they come up so frequently in therapy: Healthy boundaries have a major impact on our mental well-being. “Our emotional boundaries are important because they give us the personal space—emotional, mental, physical, or otherwise—we need in a given situation,” Manly explains. Here’s why boundary setting is so important.

Security

While maintaining boundaries can be difficult, it increases self-compassion and boosts self-esteem by allowing people to prioritize their voices and needs, Dr. Magavi explains. “When our emotional boundaries are respected, we feel valued, honored, and safe. Boundaries can be healing; boundaries can help one not feel taken advantage of,” Magavi adds.

Avoiding Anxiety

When our emotional boundaries aren’t respected, it may leave us feeling overwhelmed, bullied, or anxious. “Not only that, but if our boundaries are chronically disrespected, the ongoing feelings of despair and powerlessness can trigger chronic anxiety, depression, and even trauma. On an instinctual level, we may feel like caged animals who are at the mercy of threatening perpetrators when our boundaries are disrespected,” Manly says.

Healthy Relationships

Additionally, boundaries are vital, Manly says, because they create the foundation for healthy relationships with the self and with others. “When healthy boundaries are not present, people can be left feeling angry or sad due to interactions that create a sense of being taken advantage of, devalued, unappreciated, or bullied,” Manly adds.

How to Establish Boundaries for Yourself

Now that you have a firmer grasp of what boundaries are and why they’re so important for maintaining our mental health, you may be wondering how to set the boundaries you need in your life. Here are some strategies and examples from our experts to help you get started.

Think through what you need or want to accomplish by setting boundaries.

You may not immediately know which parts of your life are most in need of boundaries—and that’s OK. Give yourself the time and space for self-awareness and reflection, and then process your thoughts to gain clarity.

This can be done by talking with a therapist (or loved one) about them or writing them down in a journal, Dr. Magavi suggests. “Verbalizing and naming emotions allows individuals to understand different perspectives and makes a request appear more like a request rather than a criticism,” Magavi explains.

Use your personal values as a guide.

When setting boundaries, Flint says they need to be in line with your values: “If I highly value my time for religious expression, my boundary may be [that I] never accept a work shift during service times.”

“[If] I do, the area being pushed aside is one I value highly, and I feel even more encroached upon,” Flint explains. When we are mindful of our values and prioritize what brings us contentment, fulfillment, and joy, we can control such scenarios, Flint adds.

Understand that different relationships require different boundaries.

According to Manly, boundaries are often very different depending on the situation and the people involved. For example, you may have very flexible boundaries with an intimate partner. “Intimacy thrives when both partners understand and honor each other’s boundary needs, and this respectful attitude contributes to the ongoing boundary flexibility,” Manly explains.

In a work setting, however, it is appropriate for employers and staff members to have more rigid boundaries. “Certain behaviors, such as sharing of personal information, sexual contact, and flirting—especially between management and staff—are generally inappropriate, and often illegal,” Manly notes.

And when it comes to family members, the nature of healthy boundaries depends on the overall family dynamics. “If family members tend to be overbearing, fairly rigid boundaries may be needed for psychological well-being,” Manly says. “If family members are respectful and considerate, boundaries may be far more flexible in nature.”

Evaluate your relationships.

Knowing that different types of relationships require their own set of boundaries, it’s time to take a closer look at those relationships. “In order for you to know where you need to put boundaries in place, you need to evaluate your relationships and what you value in your life,” Flint says.

“If you aren’t getting enough of what you value—like family time, financial security, etc.—how do you set a boundary to support the fulfillment of bringing life into more balance? Boundaries are often trial-and-error as we start. It is OK to ‘tweak’ them over time so that they are the right expression of your limits,” Flint explains.

Realize that setting boundaries takes practice and patience.

For some people, even thinking about setting boundaries can trigger anxiety. “As you practice setting boundaries, you may certainly feel anxious and unsettled until it becomes natural,” Manly explains. “Even if it’s tough at first, practice stating your truth with dignity, courage, and respect.”

Speak up (respectfully).

Once you start to figure out which parts of your life could benefit from boundaries, take steps toward implementing them. According to Dr. Magavi, this could involve things like asking someone for clarity, respectfully correcting someone, or expressing discomfort with someone’s behavior. But don’t be surprised if your issues with a person don’t disappear after addressing them once.

“It may be necessary to reiterate information,” Dr. Magavi explains. “Setting a foundation and allowing fluid conversation at the beginning or any point of a relationship solidifies a pattern and allows healthy boundaries to stand tall and strong. If individuals do not respect boundaries, it is appropriate to contend that this causes discomfort and walk away from the relationship.” Boundaries are about protecting your peace; they are not about changing someone else.

Pay attention to relationship changes, and walk away if needed.

When you establish healthy boundaries, naturally, the people who are used to you being a doormat may get irritated or upset. Manly says that some may even continue to disrespect your boundaries.

“As you move forward, you’ll find that some people will be supportive of your healthy new boundaries,” Manly notes. “Others may be unwilling to accept and honor the ‘new you.’ Sometimes, the wisest move is to distance yourself from those who choose not to respect your boundaries.”

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