9 Tips for Setting Healthy Boundaries
How do we kindly and proactively ensure healthy boundaries? It’s not an easy task, and oftentimes, rather intimidating; telling people what you need might seem selfish, aggressive, or even rude. But it’s important: Boundaries allow us to feel safe and respected both physically and emotionally. Honoring our limits helps us to take better care of ourselves, builds trust, prevents burnout, and infuses more meaning and authenticity into our relationships.
And there’s a way to do it that protects our best interests and helps loved ones understand us better.
While most of us weren’t taught this vital life skill in school, it’s never too late to start exploring how we might benefit from better boundaries. Here are a few ways to begin:
Our bodies always give us signals when we are near a personal limit. Notice if you feel your jaw tighten or your fists clench. Maybe you start to squirm, or you break into a sweat. Perhaps you feel it in your throat or stomach? Whatever the cue, honor what your body tells you and take some time to explore your discomfort and understand the arising boundary.
Understand your priorities
Your time is a limited and valuable resource. If you try to please everyone, you not only purchase a one-way ticket to burnout and resentment, you also deny yourself the pleasure and growth of focusing on what you value. Next time you say yes to someone, make sure you’re not saying no to yourself. Take some time to write a list of priorities and compare it to where you spend your time and energy to assess if you need to make any adjustments.
Communicate with clarity
Practice saying no when you don’t want to do something. You don’t have to explain yourself or offer an excuse. The following phrases are complete answers: “No, thank you.” “Thanks, but I can’t.”
If someone you care about has violated your boundaries, you may want to give them more information. Here’s a helpful template to express your frustration:
When you ___________, I felt ______________.
Please don’t ___________.
_____________ is important to me.
“When you told our friends about what’s been going on with my family, I felt hurt and embarrassed. Please don’t share things about me without my consent. My privacy is important to me.“
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
If you’re not used to asserting your boundaries, you may find yourself feeling awkward, scared, guilty, or nervous when addressing a personal limit. Give yourself space and time to build up your tolerance. You may also feel supported by breathing exercises, meditation, or talking with a trusted friend or therapist.
If you’re ever caught off guard by someone crossing a boundary, and you’re not sure how to respond, offer yourself permission to return to the conversation after you’ve had some time to reflect and recenter yourself. Try saying something like, “I need some time to think about what just happened. I’d like to come back to this conversation in a few hours/days.”
Boundaries can be flexible
Our boundaries will change for different people, and they may shift over time based on the conditions of your life and the evolution of a relationship. It’s crucial to check in with yourself to ensure that your relational rules feel good for you. If your boundaries are quite rigid or extremely loose, it may indicate that something is going on underneath the surface for you. If that’s the case, you might consider getting some additional support.
Don’t be surprised if some people react poorly to your feedback. People who are controlling, manipulative, abusive, or who have unhealthy boundaries themselves may be triggered when you set a boundary. You can express your limits with compassion, but it’s not your job to make it okay for them.
Cultivate clarity around what you want to do if someone consistently disrespects your boundaries. Will you take a break from the relationship? Will you stop working with them? Choose something that you are willing and ready to do and stay firm. If this feels challenging for you, don’t go it alone: ask a trusted friend, family member, or therapist for help.
Respect other people’s boundaries
People often give us both physical and verbal cues about their own boundaries. Notice if they take a step back, avoid eye contact, or seem uncomfortable. Of course, everyone is unique, and their cues will mean and communicate different things. Ultimately if you’re not sure what someone’s boundary is, you can always ask. “May I offer you some feedback?” or “Can I ask you a personal question?”