two clear hands held out in front of a face that is blurry to communicate boundaries and saying no

How Do I Set Boundaries?: Learning to Care for Yourself by Advocating for Your Needs

While the term boundary gets used often these days, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand what boundaries are necessarily, or what it takes to establish and reinforce them. My eldest started playing basketball this year, and while I’m typically not a huge sports fan, I was invested when it came to watching her play. One of the things that I quickly learned was when the ball would go “out of bounds” the kids would have to stop playing and the team that was responsible would have to turn the ball over. The “bounds” were clearly defined by a line on the floor. I loved this. It was so easy to understand and the consequences were just as clear. I wish that boundaries were as easy to navigate in our relationships and in our daily lives.

We communicate so much through the boundaries we set within our lives: what our values are, what we’re comfortable with, what we feel about any given relationship or topic, and yet, they can be so hard to establish and even harder to maintain. Establishing clear and defined boundaries, however, can be one of the most integral components of a balanced life, and a life that works for you. Not only do they communicate our needs, they can also act as a form of self protection, keeping us safe from threats to our emotional and even physical well being. In this month’s blog article we delve deeper into the different types of boundaries, the importance of boundaries (both for our mental health as well as for the health of our relationships), and we aim to provide some helpful suggestions on how to set boundaries in your own life. 

When thinking about how to set boundaries it may help to first consider that boundaries can be rigid, flexible or diffuse in nature. Rigid boundaries might sound unappealing but they can actually be some of the most protective and significant boundaries that we can set. A rigid boundary is like a concrete divider, it’s solid and immovable and it serves as a strong barrier. There are instances in a person’s life that could warrant a rigid boundary, but for some, creating rigid boundaries is very challenging. Many of us have been socialized to disregard our own wants and needs for the benefit of others, and for folks who have experienced past trauma, creating rigid boundaries can feel impossible, and they can be a key to the process of healing. Without rigid boundaries some may face the possibility of becoming retraumatized when they are most vulnerable and exposed. An example of a rigid boundary would be completely cutting off communication with an abusive ex partner to help ensure that they can’t find their way back into your life. You could also set rigid boundaries around issues that you hold dear or values that are important to your life; for example, if you are a staunch climate activist, you could create a rigid boundary around which companies you support and elect to only use public transportation. 

Flexible boundaries on the other hand are much more malleable. They can be just as protective as rigid boundaries but there is also space for them to shift and adapt as the circumstances that created them change and evolve. It can be important to maintain flexible boundaries in relationships, as people are not static and we often change our behavior and views with time. Maintaining a flexible boundary in a romantic relationship, for example, can also be crucial when it comes to the very necessary compromise that such a relationship can require at times. A flexible boundary might be around your expectations for new guests in your home, the more they come to visit and the better you get to know each other, the more those boundaries can shift and change. While it is beneficial to some relationships to cultivate a sense of flexibility around boundaries, it can also be harmful and disorienting for others that need the structure of a more rigid boundary in order to function, like say a student/teacher relationship. Flexible boundaries can also be less effective in certain contexts, especially if one finds themselves continually compromising their boundaries in order to make others happy.

Diffuse boundaries may perhaps be the least effective of the three, and we may find ourselves in situations where our diffuse boundaries fail to sufficiently shield us from discomfort. Diffuse boundaries are much more like a beaded curtain than any sort of solid barrier, they may exist but they serve as more of a suggestion, or in some circumstances they are not there at all. There may be relationships or situations in which we prefer diffuse boundaries. And in other circumstances, when we operate with diffuse boundaries we may find ourselves regretful and resentful because we didn’t feel we could communicate what we really needed. A situation that might work for some is having a diffuse boundary with your closest friends, where they walk into your home and help themselves to what is in the fridge without asking first. The same diffuse boundary may not work with an acquaintance however, and having them help themselves to food in your fridge the first time you invite them over may feel wildly inappropriate. 

Creating boundaries has at times been conceptualized as this combative and really aggressive act that is intended to push people away, but in fact, most boundaries only serve to strengthen relationships. Communicating your boundaries with someone signifies that you trust and respect them enough to let them know what your needs and limitations are so that you can continue the relationship. Sharing what our boundaries are is also a way of asking for respect in turn. There is a good deal of vulnerability in acknowledging and honoring one’s limits and sharing that vulnerability often has the effect of bringing people closer together.  

Setting clear and defined boundaries is not only good for one’s relationships, it’s also just good for you in general. People who feel comfortable enough to set and maintain healthy boundaries tend to have higher self esteem and self confidence and have less stress and fewer conflicts. There is a great deal of stability in knowing where you stand with others and knowing that you’re on roughly the same page in terms of your expectations. For some folks who struggle with anxiety, and social anxiety in particular, communicating their boundaries openly is a great way to help alleviate some of that stress while still figuring out how to maintain the relationships that are important to them. This could look like anything from setting a time limit on phone calls with friends to feeling comfortable with refusing to engage in some large group settings. By communicating that you want to spend time talking to and hanging out with your friends but that you need to put limitations on that time, you’re staving off any miscommunications or possible misconceptions about your behavior and keeping your relationship functioning in a way that works for all parties. 

We set boundaries with ourselves and with others. If I determine that it’s best for me to turn off my phone an hour prior to my bedtime, that is a boundary that I have created and I will have to reinforce. And similarly, this could be a rigid boundary, one that I maintain on a daily basis, or it may be more flexible, and I only reinforce it during the week. But if I say that my intention is to turn my phone off an hour before bedtime, and yet I find myself still scrolling as I am trying to fall asleep, then in fact there is no boundary. 

Boundaries mean different things to different people and in some cases they can also help solidify one’s sense of self or self identity. Religious norms, for example, can call for the adoption of certain behaviors and the establishment of boundaries that one may come to identify with. Many religions abstain from alcohol and their adherents may then choose to lead a substance free lifestyle which can become a part of their identity. 

Culture also plays an important role in how we conceptualize boundaries. In the field of psychotherapy, much of the language around boundaries and what are considered “healthy” boundaries, were conceived by white men. The US tends to prioritize individual needs and wants, sometimes over the community at large, and that is also reflective in the conversations around mental health and boundaries too. In many cultures the community is prioritized over the individual, and in these cultures diffuse boundaries tend to be prized. While we are writing about boundaries in the more western sense, it is important to acknowledge the boundaries only work if they work for you. You get to determine what type of boundaries you want to adopt and when, and you are the one who will be reinforcing them (or not). 

Despite the potential benefits of establishing clear boundaries, it can be very hard to maintain them; We’re taught from a young age that being a kind and compassionate person means being giving, of our time and of ourselves, but we’re never taught how to set very necessary limitations on that giving. In fact, we’re often made to feel guilt about the need to set boundaries as a form of self protection. Demands from our work, our families and our relationships are often so persistent that we can get lost in being there for everyone but ourselves. So how do we set better boundaries so that we may take care of our needs before we try to take on the needs of others?: 

Don’t be afraid to say no. It’s the end of a long week, you’d like nothing more than to head home and relax but your friends who are always asking you to go out with them are even more demanding than usual, telling you that you can rest the next day because it’s the weekend. We’ve all been here and it can be so hard to say no, especially after you’ve already tried to decline in a less direct manner and so much of our programming tells us that to be liked, we must be agreeable. But your body is telling you it needs rest, so rather than acquiesce and allow yourself to be dragged along from bar to bar when you’re really not feeling up to it, you could use this as an opportunity to set a clearer boundary with your friends. Let them know that there are times when the work week really drains you and when that happens you need to take time for yourself. It doesn’t mean that you want to stop hanging out with them altogether but rather, that you are going to say no from time to time and that needs to be okay. And if these friends aren’t okay with this boundary, it might be time to get curious about your relationships and to consider how this could be addressed.

Practice advocating for yourself. Even the most experienced professionals have trouble advocating for what they need. It takes a healthy sense of self to ask for what you want and be confident in the belief that this will get your needs met. Additionally, we (especially women) are often made to feel that by being assertive and advocating for ourselves, we’re actually being demanding and rude. Part of creating boundaries, however, is in the act of speaking up for oneself and yes, being demanding about one’s needs. While the boundaries we create are meant to let other people know what our limits are, they’re ultimately for us; we must let go of the notion that we are putting someone else at an inconvenience simply just for having needs in the first place, much less advocating for them. If this seems like a nearly impossible task, you’re not alone. A good place to start might be to literally practice asking for what you want. Write it down in a journal, recite it to yourself in the mirror, role play with someone supportive. That way, when the time comes to assert your boundary, it will feel just a bit less like unfamiliar territory. 

Be prepared to have some challenging conversations. For so many of us, conflict is the last thing we’d like to encounter and so we spend more time than is probably healthy trying to find ways to avoid it. And oftentimes, that can mean supplanting our own needs in order to do so. In valued and safe relationships, ideally there is space to have honest conversations around needs and wants. While these conversations may not be easy, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t worthwhile. And like with most things, they can get easier with practice. You don’t have to address everything at once, but if there are boundaries that you would like to have honored, you will likely have to name them first. And unfortunately, just naming them isn’t enough. For most of us, we will have to reinforce these boundaries too, and that may include additional conversations and clear consequences. 

While I know that the conversation around boundaries exists far beyond this article, I hope that you may have a different perspective on what boundaries can look like and why it’s worth considering what types of boundaries you want (or don’t want) in your life and in your relationships. Setting boundaries will never be as easy as they are in basketball games, but we can work towards making them more clear, which in turn will hopefully make them easier to reinforce. If you’re new to boundaries or need help considering how you want to establish boundaries in your life, please know that we are here to help. Send us an email or give us a call and we can discuss your needs and figure out if therapy could help.

anxiety counseling, boundaries, communication challenges, depression therapy, family challenges, family dynamics, poor self-esteem, relationship challenges, self-care, self-image