As a child, setting boundaries came in the form of posting a “PRIVATE” sign on your treehouse or a line (literal or figurative) down the middle of the back seat of the car to keep your sibling(s) on their side.
As an adult, however, boundaries can blur.
Where does work end and personal life begin when you get emails 24/7 on your phone?
And if you have kids, how do you learn how to set boundaries with them without feeling like The Worst Parent in the World?
It’s possible — and totally necessary.
“Setting boundaries is how you take care of yourself,” says Sarah O’Leary, an associate marriage and family therapist in San Diego.
“When you have healthy boundaries, you keep yourself in your comfortable area where you can show up for yourself, interact with others, take chances, and feel confident in your decisions,” she explains.
You are able to stay true to your personal values and mean “no” when you say it.
If you feel overstretched, irritated, or burned out lately, perhaps it’s time to set some boundaries.
How to Set Boundaries
There different types of boundaries and how you set them can vary:
- Physical: Choosing to shake hands rather than hugging when meeting someone new or expecting that people won’t take your work supplies without asking.
- Emotional: Not letting yourself feel responsible for other people’s problems and emotions.
- Mental: Being able to discuss and share differing thoughts and views without attack.
- Spiritual: Staying true to your religious or spiritual practices.
But you wouldn’t build a wall just to build a wall. You create barriers where they’re necessary.
So the first step before you actually set any boundaries is to figure out where you would most benefit from having them.
1. Consider Your Boundaries Before You Set Them
To figure out where you may want to establish some boundaries, reflect on your day or week.
Notice when you felt angry, resentful, or guilty and what you were doing in those moments, suggests therapist Shirin Peykar, L.M.F.T.
Also pay attention to your body’s reaction — a tight chest, clenched jaw, strained shoulders, or a heavy feeling in your stomach could be a signal to set a boundary, O’Leary says.
Once you know where to put boundaries, determine what the boundary should be.
It can help to reflect on what was out of your comfort zone and why.
“Try to think through the scenario and pay attention to when you get a physiological reaction, or think of what moment in that scenario stuck with you the most,” recommends O’Leary.
2. Decide Which Boundaries You Need in Place
To help, here are some examples of boundaries at work:
- establishing what hours you respond to emails
- standing up for yourself when someone is blaming you for something that is not warranted
- asking to revisit a topic at a later time rather than in the office
- keeping relationships professional
- how many hours a day you work
- scheduling (and taking) regular breaks
And here are some examples of boundaries at home:
- not allowing phones at the dinner table
- who is financially responsible for what
- when you need alone time
- things you are or are not ready to do with another sexually
- deciding when you are ready to communicate if you are angry
3. Figure Out How to Explain Your Boundaries
If you’re uncertain about how to set boundaries in a specific way, O’Leary recommends going broad at first and narrowing your boundary if it feels right.
“It’s easier to open up the boundaries a bit instead of closing them,” she explains.
So, say you’re not sure if your boundary is that you never want to talk politics at work, you don’t want to talk politics with a specific person, or it’s for a certain time in a situation.
A broad boundary would be no politics in the office, period. Boundaries can also mean delegating tasks or asking for help.
When setting boundaries at work, you may only tell others of your boundaries when the situation arises.
For boundaries at home, however, since you’re comfortable and close with your partner, you may prefer to say, “Hey, this thing has been on my mind.”
Explain why you need the boundary (“It helps me be more productive or less stressed, for example, which helps me be a better spouse or parent.”) and what exactly your boundary is (“It’s important to me that I am not disturbed when I’m doing yoga. I will open the door to signal when I’m done and you can enter.”).
In either situation, do what feels right to you.
4. Learn How to Keep Boundaries
Inevitably, people will infringe on your boundaries. When this happens, be firm.
Co-worker asks why you didn’t respond to their 9 p.m. email? Remind them that evenings are family time, so you don’t reply to emails after 6 p.m.
For some people, setting and keeping boundaries means learning how to stop being a people pleaser.
These individuals often feel guilt or fear when establishing boundaries, Peykar says.
“It’s important that we consider these feelings but stay true to our needs and limits,” she adds.
You also need to get comfortable with saying “no” — and sticking to it.
“Ask yourself, ‘What will I get out of this? How will I feel if I say yes?'” says Lindsay Brancato, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and psychoanalyst based in the Washington, D.C., area.
If the answer isn’t great or at least good, say “no.”
From time to time, you will slip up — learning how to set boundaries (and maintaining them) is a lifelong process. Keep trying.
“It takes practice to get comfortable with setting and asserting boundaries,” O’Leary says. “Once you get used to setting boundaries, you will find that not only does it become easier, but you feel more fulfilled and confident.”