What Even Are Boundaries and How Should You Set Them?It can be difficult to tell whether your boundaries are helpful or hurtful to you and the people in your life.
I still remember the first time I let someone violate my boundaries. In third grade, there was a boy who had a crush on me and nervously told me one day at lunch. I let him down gently and said I wasn’t interested and hoped that was OK. Spoiler: He didn’t let it go and made it his mission to bother me every day. I felt humiliated, violated, and hot with anger, but I pushed it down instead of pushing back. Instead of reiterating my boundaries, I was more concerned about his feelings. (I was 8, though, so baby steps.)
As time went on, I fell into similar patterns with dates, friends, and family. I went out with people who I didn’t like in that way and engaged in physical contact I didn’t want. I discussed personal life decisions with nosy family members, and I kept up friendships I was ambivalent about in order to keep the peace. Even though I wanted to put up boundaries and envied those who did, I had none.
If you’re anything like me, you know that setting and maintaining boundaries can feel like something you’d never be able to pull off—especially if you’re from certain cultures, like ones that emphasize family, self-sacrifice, and the importance of children obeying their parents, or one that normalizes physical punishment, says therapist Psalm McDaniels, LSW. But through therapy and years of practice, I learned that it’s OK to speak up when someone crosses my lines. So, if you need a crash course in boundaries and how to know when yours are too flimsy or too rigid (yep, that’s possible too), we got you:
What are boundaries and why do we need them?
So WTF is a boundary, really? In short: Boundaries are standards that you set that can be used to provide some distance from someone or something, but they can also help you meaningfully connect with who and what matters most to you. Put another way, “Boundaries are limits that you set for yourself regarding the way you would like to be treated,” says McDaniels.
Boundaries can serve as our personal compass to being as emotionally and physically secure as possible, McDaniels says. Ultimately, the point is to protect your mental health and prevent issues like miscommunication, codependence, resentment, frustration, and even physical threats if you want to preserve a relationship or foster a healthier connection, she says.
The best boundaries also include “a clear response that will occur if the boundaries are crossed,” McDaniels adds. So if a loved one shouts at you, for example, you might respond with, “If you continue to yell at me, I will end the conversation by hanging up or walking away,” and stick to that boundary if the person doesn’t respect it.
Important note: Boundaries aren’t something you put up when someone just generally throws off your vibe without causing any harm, McDaniels says. We need to be able to handle some of life’s discomfort and engage with people or situations that might help us grow in the long run. So keep in mind that boundaries aren’t for avoiding conflict entirely. Instead, they’re a tool for navigating those inevitable tricky situations with mutual respect and understanding.
When can I set a boundary?
The beauty of boundaries is they can be used for just about any situation, whether they have to do with physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, or financial standards, says psychologist Nicole LePera, PhD. At work, that might look like putting up a Slack status (or a literal sign) to tell your coworkers when you need to be free from distractions or setting clear expectations with your manager about not responding to calls or emails after work hours. With your hard-partying bestie, a boundary might sound like telling them that you can go to dinners with them but will be skipping the late-night bar crawls for the foreseeable future.
And boundaries might need to be revisited or reinforced over time if they aren’t being respected. For example, you might have to tell your friend, “I am not comfortable with you pressuring me to drink. If that continues, I will not be able to maintain this friendship,” McDaniels says.
Boundaries may also help in situations where your identity is being targeted—like if you’re exposed to racism, LGBTQ+ harassment, or sexism, McDaniels adds. Though the extent to which boundaries can help in these situations really depends on whether you feel safe and comfortable voicing your boundary and whether this is a relationship you (and they) actually care about.
For instance, the next time someone you otherwise love or would like to maintain a relationship with does something like uses a slur or touches your hair without asking or is constantly slinging microaggressions your way, consider saying how that makes you feel, how it affects your relationship, and what steps you’ll have to take to protect yourself if the behavior continues. Even though it might feel like turning the other cheek would help you maintain those connections, you’re probably not going to feel as comfortable or fulfilled by this relationship if you don’t establish boundaries for how you want and need to be treated by them.
As helpful as they are, boundaries don’t need to be set in every area of your life. If you have an otherwise self-sufficient partner who asks for help once in a while, you probably don’t need a boundary, for example. And if the boundaries you set are being respected, then the person got the memo and you don’t need to constantly reset or re-assert the boundary, says licensed clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, PhD. So if you tell your boss, friends, and fam to GTFO your inbox on Tuesdays, for example, and they listen, then mission accomplished, he adds.
How do I know if my boundaries are too flimsy, rigid, or just right?
TBH, you probably won’t know if your boundary is doormat material or a brick wall until you try, because setting boundaries that work for you might take some trial and error. The boundary sweet spot is one that is “clear and decisive,” has reasonable limits, and fills a specific need, McDaniels says. “A boundary that strikes the right balance will also help you be your best authentic self,” she adds.
If your boundary is too flimsy, you might run into people constantly violating your rules because the boundary is unclear. You might also end up prioritizing their comfort over yours, giving them more of your time and reserving less time and energy for yourself, Dr. Howes adds. When you do that, you might end up resenting the other person, miss out on quality time with yourself, and beat yourself up for not sticking to your plan. Oh, and when your boundaries are flimsy, you might try to keep the peace by never enforcing those negative consequences that you said you would, which may mean you end up doing things that cause you mental or physical harm. Being too flimsy can also make other people confused because if you bend once (or a few times), they might think you’re actually chill with their boundary-breaking behavior and not understand that what they’re doing is a real dealbreaker for you. So yeah, there are a lot of consequences to weak boundaries.
On the other hand, boundaries that are too strict can prevent human connection “and take away the wiggle room humans may need to interact with you,” McDaniels adds. When I initially started drawing boundaries, they were rigid and unreasonable. Instead of forgiving a friend for not giving me some alone time when I had asked for it or seeing that a date had misread my signals to stop physical touch, I would aggressively assert my point of view and become argumentative instead of looking at a situation from all sides and being a bit more understanding when people make mistakes.
“You do not want people to walk on eggshells around you, [and] connection is hindered when people feel they have to hide their authentic selves,” McDaniels says. If you were hoping a boundary would make you feel closer to someone but it has done the exact opposite, check in with yourself and see if your boundary could be rehashed. For instance, when I noticed my friendship was going cold after I got upset with a friend for not respecting my “me time,” I realized that my boundary and delivery was too rigid. To help me avoid any more issues with this friend, I had to find some middle ground (calmly explaining why this is important to me instead of ranting about how they didn’t listen to me) so that I could advocate for myself and not snap at them in the process.
And beware of punishing boundaries, which can be “set to cause someone else pain” and focus “less on our peace and more on revenge,” McDaniels says. These types of boundaries tend to come up with loved ones who made you feel sad or anxious, and instead of vocalizing that (which can be hard, so no shame), you set a strict boundary that was fueled by those emotions and not a specific need. So before you ice someone out, take a deep breath and try to chat through what’s bothering you.
How might people react to me setting boundaries?
Naturally, some people may have issues with your boundaries, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong for sticking up for yourself or that your boundary is too strict, McDaniels says. Sometimes, they might also just be surprised with your new limit and need some time to adjust. It’s not uncommon for people to need two or three reminders to really understand that you mean business, Dr. Howes adds, so give them a little grace if you can.
Other times, they might try to make you think your boundary is mean when it really isn’t, McDaniels adds. If that happens, remind them why this boundary is so important to you and that it’s to help you maintain your relationship with them or foster a healthier one. If they push back, give them a mini reality check and state that you’re not asking for their permission to set this boundary—you’re telling them how you want and deserve to be treated and what will happen if that isn’t respected.
If they don’t get with the program, stay strong and follow through with your response, whether that be to limit your time with that person or not talk about certain topics with them. Down the road, you can remind them that you did this to protect your well-being, and you might also want to ask them why they continued to ignore your boundary or if they even realized that they did. That can help you figure out how you want to approach this relationship going forward.
The bottom line: Ultimately, boundaries start with you valuing your needs and letting that guide you, Dr. Howes says. Then, it’s up to you to determine when a boundary is called for and what it should look like. As time goes on, any discomfort you might feel should slowly decrease, and you’ll notice who responds well to your boundaries and who does not, McDaniels says. Soon, you might even feel more confident and more assertive in choosing what feels right for you in different situations. And always remember that people who truly care about you will respect your boundaries.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.