You politely laugh off something that makes you uncomfortable, only to later realize you wish you’d spoken up.
You didn’t even hint at your discomfort, because you didn’t realize it was a problem for you, until after-the-fact. What would help in this situation? Learning your boundaries, and then learning to assert them.
Setting boundaries is both nerve-wracking and necessary. Few of us learn our own personal boundaries while growing up, and many others sacrifice their boundaries for others’ sake.
To learn about our own boundaries and begin asserting them is to begin healing. We can’t fault ourselves for not knowing our boundaries, but we must do the work of getting to know them before we can start honoring them.
Use the jump list below, or browse to find answers to your questions.
- What are boundaries?
- Why we need boundaries for our mental health
- How do I learn what my boundaries are?
- What does setting boundaries look like?
- Types of boundaries
- Who are you setting boundaries with?
- How to set boundaries
- What do you do when someone doesn’t respect your boundaries?
- How to be assertive and calmly stand up for yourself
- Scared of honoring your own needs?
- In parting…
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are the standards we set as necessary to care for ourselves and keep our relationships healthy. Boundaries let others know what we need and what makes us uncomfortable.
While the word “boundary” may sound harsh, these expressions of our personal needs are fundamental for maintaining emotional health. You can also call your boundaries your limits, your needs, or your expectations, depending on the situation.
The intent behind setting a boundary is to show up for ourselves in a functional way. It’s about what you allow in your life, your schedule, your mind, and your relationships. How people will react to boundaries will vary due to where they’re at in terms of understanding the function of a boundary, but the intent behind a boundary isn’t to hurt anyone.
Why we need boundaries for our mental health
When we lose sight of our own needs and the boundaries we require, it becomes much easier to get used to disrespect.
A boundary distinguishes what you are and are not ok with, in a way that is clear and tangible for others. When you set a boundary, you tell others what your needs are. As such, boundaries are an essential part of having and keeping healthy relationships.
Just like, “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” you can’t do what you can’t do, give what you aren’t comfortable giving, or be present for what you aren’t comfortable being present for and simultaneously maintain a healthy relationship. In order to maintain healthy relationships, boundaries must exist and be respected.
A lack of boundaries or respect for others’ often creates unspoken negative feelings, resentment, and conflict. These painful emotions build up and can ultimately lead to the demise of an interpersonal relationship, whether with a friend, family member, or romantic partner.
Without boundaries, a relationship’s give-and-take becomes uneven, though neither side may be aware of that. Or in the case of emotional and physical boundaries, you may feel violated, disrespected, or even exhausted if your boundaries are crossed. While you might be a giver and want to please those around you, you cannot get through life without learning the boundaries you need to stay healthy.
Setting boundaries is challenging, but knowing our boundaries in the first place can pose an even greater hurdle to self-advocacy. So how can you know your boundaries, before feeling comfortable asserting them?
How do I learn what my boundaries are?
In general, it’s important to think about what you want in your life. Who are the people in your life that make you feel good? Why do they make you feel good? Likely, the positive connections in your life are uplifting and respectful of your autonomy. In the case that there’s a a minor conflict, you’re probably able to hear each other out and work through it.
Conversely, who are the people in your life that you don’t feel good around? For whatever reason.
Do they treat you as less-than intellectually or cross your boundaries? Do they tell you that you’re overly sensitive when you ask them to stop doing something that makes you uncomfortable in any capacity?
Think about what you require for self-preservation in different situations.
- Does it exhaust you to know that a person in your life will get upset if you don’t reply to their texts right away?
- Does it bother you when people ask invasive questions? Is a family member or partner telling a crude joke that makes you uncomfortable?
- Are there topics that trigger trauma, a mental health condition, or strong negative emotions you have?
- Similarly, is there something that you’re simply not comfortable talking about or something that doesn’t require a repetitive conversation?
These are all instances where you might want to set a boundary. When you’re in a situation that requires preserving yourself in some capacity, it’s time to set and assert a boundary.
Ask yourself questions about what is generally okay and not okay with you, to get the gist of what your boundaries might be. Then get familiar with these boundaries, and remind yourself of them often. Regularly keeping your boundaries in mind helps you notice –and stand up for yourself — when someone crosses one.
What does setting boundaries look like?
All of us have set boundaries in our lives. If you’ve said any of the following, then you’ve set a boundary.
- “Please don’t touch me,”
- “I need to go to bed,”
- “I can’t work for free,”
- “Please knock before you come in,” or
Setting boundaries can also sound like: “I love getting to see you. Can you please give me a heads up when you stop by in the future?” Whether the reason is that an unannounced guest freaks your pet out, or that it triggers your anxiety, not everyone is okay with their friends or family members stopping by without notice. It’s not only okay, but also healthy to assert your need.
The above is only one of many types of boundaries one can assert.
Types of boundaries
Physical boundaries refer to physical touch, our bodies, and our physical space. Setting a physical boundary might range from
- “I need to eat lunch and will call you back later,”
- “Please do not touch me,”
- “I love you; please don’t kiss me on the cheek. I’m not comfortable with it,” or
- “I’m teaching my kids about boundaries – please don’t hug my children or me without asking first.”
Emotional boundaries are sometimes the hardest to set. Emotional boundaries refer to our feelings, our capacity to be there for others emotionally, and our limits on how much we’re comfortable sharing. Emotional boundaries can also reflect our limits for taking on others’ struggles.
Setting an emotional boundary might look like saying,
- “I need to step aside and cool down before we have this conversation,”
- “Please do not bring that topic up in conversation if I am around,”
- “I love you and I’m so sorry that you’re struggling right now; I’m at work and can’t talk,” or
- “I want so badly to be there for you, but I am also having a hard time and don’t have the emotional space to help right now.”
Material boundaries are about your possessions, including money and personal belongings. Your material boundaries also include limits as to what you can or cannot give to another person.
Setting a material boundary might look like saying:
- “I’m sorry, I can’t lend anyone money right now,” or
- “You can use the car, but I need to use it on Thursday night. Please make sure it still has gas when you return it. “
We’re all busy, so as with material boundaries, many of us are familiar with time boundaries.
Time boundaries relate to the amount of time you can or cannot allocate to various situations. Everyone has different commitments, and we need to prioritize our time based on those commitments so that we won’t burn out. To take care of ourselves, we have to allocate an appropriate amount of time for work, school, family, projects we’re working on, and so on.
Setting a time boundary might look like saying:
- “I can only talk for about a half-hour,”
- “I’m sorry, I can’t take on that project right now,” or
- “I won’t be able to make it to the party, but I hope you have a great time!”
It’s likely that you and the people in your life have different opinions on certain topics that you’re both passionate about on an intellectual level.
These differences can fruit productive debate, but without boundaries often cause personal insult and animosity. There are a couple of ways that you can cope in this situation, which you can tailor to the subject matter and the other person’s relationship to you.
If you have a disagreement that is NOT a philosophical dealbreaker, you can simply use the classic “agree to disagree.” That simple phrase can be used to casually set an intellectual boundary.
Another approach to setting intellectual bounds might look like:
“We’ve discussed this topic before, and it’s clear that we have different views. I respect your opinion, and I understand that you respect mine. But for the sake of our relationship, please stop bringing this subject up, and I won’t either.”
It’s also fully acceptable and appropriate to say, “Can we please avoid this topic when we’re together?” No further explanation needed.
Sexual boundaries pertain to physical intimacy, but they vary from physical boundaries in the sense that they’re specific to sex.
Expressing your needs or discomfort in sexual situations can feel complicated due to our attachment, the relationship’s power dynamic, and fears of being alone. Regardless, sexual boundaries are a frontline defense for our mental health in relationships.
Setting a sexual boundary, at its most basic, looks like a simple, “no.” In sexual situations, there is no excuse for boundary transgressions after the word “no.” Don’t let yourself be guilt-tripped into thinking otherwise.
You might also set a sexual boundary by saying:
- “I don’t want to have sex tonight,”
- “Don’t talk to me like that,”
- “Let me sleep,”
- “Leave me alone,”
- “That does not feel good,”
- “Please stop speaking about me in a sexual way,”
- “The way that I dress has nothing to do with you,” or
- “Do not sexualize me, my body, or my apparel.”
Sexual boundaries are essential and should always be met with immediate respect. Anything except for “yes” means “no” when it comes to sex, and you must ask a person for consent before sexualizing them or pursuing them sexually in any manner.
Spiritual boundaries pertain to our religious or spiritual beliefs. You likely have a friend of different spiritual or religious beliefs.
A spiritual boundary can look like saying:
- “I am so glad that you found a church you love. That said, I’m happy with attending my own,”
- “I respect your religious beliefs. I have my own and ask that you please respect those as well,” or
- “I don’t feel comfortable with conversations about religion. I don’t mind that you’re religious, but please don’t bring it up when I’m around.”
There are many different types of boundaries, and the situations we set them in may require nuance and tact. The nature of our relationship to the person we’re communicating with, the nature of our emotions, and the strength of our feelings all play a role in how we set boundaries.
Who are you setting boundaries with?
Some boundaries can be harder to set than others, and it can be more difficult to set boundaries with certain people than others. One’s comfort level in setting boundaries depends on the other person’s respect for your needs, and on the role that this person plays (or has played) in your life.
You can establish boundaries with partners that you can’t with your children, and you can set boundaries with your friends that you can’t with your boss. That said, in any situation, there is a way to protect your personal needs.
How to set boundaries
First, remember that “no” is a complete sentence.
In many situations, and with many different types of boundaries, it’s appropriate to simply say, “I’m not comfortable with that.”
How to say no
Here are some examples of how to say no, from Carolyn Hax of the Washington Post:
- “I gave you my answer to this: No. Please kindly accept it.”
- “You’re still pressing me to change my mind. I don’t appreciate that. Letting people say no is a matter of respect.”
- “I’m your friend/sibling! I want to make you happy. I just have my limits, as do you. We’re both entitled to have them, and both of us should be able to trust the other to respect them.”
- “I’ve made my point here, and now we’re just doing laps. Let’s drop it, please.”
Tips for friends and finances
When it comes to more nuanced issues such as those related to finance, however, you may have to get more specific.
Let’s say that you work in a creative or service field such as accounting, copywriting, or doing nails. You have a friend that wants you to “hook them up” or asks you if they can pay you later for providing that service to them right now.
It feels uncomfortable when you want to help your friend, but they don’t see their request might harm you. In this case, you can say something like:
- “Would love to help, but I don’t have availability to complete that project right now,”
- “Unfortunately, I need to reserve all my working hours for paying clients right now. Once I’m more stable I can devote some time,” or
- “I need to keep my payments and services consistent and can’t bend protocol for friends; it’s unfair to other people.”
Tips for family
Another tricky situation is setting boundaries with family, particularly as an adult or as an emerging adult. Sometimes, this will require a long heart-to-heart conversation, as parents may struggle to respect their children’s autonomy.
A personal perspective: I know that I have had to (and continue to have to) set boundaries with my own family as someone who’s undergone an eating disorder and eating disorder treatment. A personal boundary I have is that I can’t be around diet or weight loss talk. Additionally, as a teen, my therapist and I decided that it’s vital for me to live in a scale-free home.
This sort of conversation will often require you to go in-depth about your situation, particularly for family members who aren’t used to you asserting your needs just yet. They will likely understand, but if you feel invalidated or frustrated, it’s always okay to excuse yourself from a conversation or to leave the room.
What do you do when someone doesn’t respect your boundaries?
Many people will respect your boundaries the first time around, whereas others will require frequent reminding and reassertion of your needs.
Boundaries are a way to protect ourselves and our space, so when someone really isn’t getting it and constantly crosses your boundaries, you might start to feel that they aren’t listening to your requests in the first place. One thing that we know for sure is that we can’t control other people; only ourselves.
So if someone repeatedly ignores your boundaries, or makes you feel like you have to defend and justify your boundaries, you have a decision to make. How will you respond to this disrespect, as an advocate for yourself?
The other person isn’t making the situation any better, so it’s up to you. Some options:
- Leave the room
- Hang up the phone
- Change the subject
- Repeat your reply of “no” or your request for respect, until they acknowledge it or go away
- Limit the amount of time you spend with someone who struggles with boundaries, or only spend time with them when you have lots of emotional energy
- Cut ties entirely with someone who continues to disrespect your needs
As mentioned earlier, there will be some variations in the way you defend your boundaries with different people. But the above examples can serve as templates to tailor to your situation.
Talking to a mental health professional can also be extremely helpful when it comes to difficulties with boundary setting. When you find yourself feeling hurt after a person in your life dismisses your boundaries, talking to a counselor, or even asking a friend if you can vent is incredibly helpful. Having a support system is crucial for all of us, and having people in your life that acknowledge the concept of boundaries can be a life-saver when we’re dealing with others who don’t.
How to be assertive and calmly stand up for yourself
Learning how to be assertive is helpful in situations where people overstep your boundaries, or where you have personal difficulty setting them. If you would like to set the record straight rather than removing yourself, use the tips below to be both assertive and productive.
Express your needs from the right perspective.
When someone repeatedly ignores your boundaries, it can feel like they do it intentionally. Whether that’s true or not, asserting yourself really only works when it’s about what you need to be healthy and happy, rather than the other person’s inherent wickedness.
If you are concerned about assertiveness coming off in a way that’s too harsh, try to use “I” statements when setting boundaries. This will allow you to assert yourself, without making the other person feel attacked. When people feel less attacked, they remain more open to what you say, and more willing to acknowledge any boundary transgressions.
Banish any guilt over asserting yourself.
Reiterating and enforcing your boundaries might feel awkward at first, as if you’re being too sensitive or demanding. Don’t let anyone make you feel that way! It’s important to learn to be assertive in life when you’re not treated well, and standing up for yourself is a crucial skill in boundary setting and maintenance.
When you have a need that impacts your physical or emotional well-being, you must treat it as something that is foundational in your life. You are not being petty for noting the need and its impact on you.
Study your personal assertiveness roadblocks.
Think about what is making it difficult for you to be assertive in the first place.
- Is it the way that you grew up?
- Is it patterns in society that affect you or make you feel that you need to remain small for others?
- Is it a matter of shyness?
- Do you worry that people will leave if you express your needs?
These are all extremely common feelings–even more so if you’ve ever experienced abuse or manipulation. Once you scope out what is holding you back from advocating for yourself, you can work through that and learn to take your own side without fear.
Scared of honoring your own needs?
Maybe, you are used to being there for other people and attending to their needs, but are less attentive to your own. This does not mean you are doomed to a life of serving others at your own expense. You can use your caring tendency as a skill.
Think of what you would do if you witnessed someone breaking your own boundaries. If you were standing up for someone else in the same situation, what might you say or do to straighten out the situation?
If you would feel ok defending someone else in this situation, then why question the validity of the needs you’ve expressed? You are in the right for requesting fair treatment.
Another thing that you can do is to practice setting boundaries by rehearsal. Before you set a boundary with a particular person, verbalize what you plan to say, to a friend or to yourself in front of a mirror.
Think through what you’re going to say if they push back, keeping “I statements” in mind. And work through any issues that you think may arise during the conversation, ahead of time.
If you continue to struggle with boundary setting over time, consider seeing a mental health professional or even going to a support group to work through different sticking points. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you’re not weak — just too willing to make others comfortable at your own expense!
Learning how to set boundaries is a process, but you will improve over time. Whether you found this article by searching “boundaries meaning,” “what are my boundaries,” or “how to set boundaries,” know that it is possible to start sticking up for yourself–and to feel comfortable doing so.
Working through automatic submission to others may take a while. But it will go faster if you build evidence for yourself that your needs are valid. Practice advocating for yourself as often as possible, and you’ll begin to see that good people will respect the boundaries you assert.
If you’d like to talk about issues with boundaries, concerns about a specific situation, or just the struggle of being a human — you can chat with understanding peers 24/7 and fully anonymous, here.