We all need to set them—here's what that means and how to do it for mental well-being.

By Elizabeth Yuko
July 21, 2021
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Think back to social studies or geography class in elementary school. Your teacher probably showed you a map and explained that certain types of lines were used to show boundaries between states and countries. Sometimes there would be a natural feature (often a river) that would divide one territory from another, but for the most part, the lines we see on the map were not visible in real life. And yet, even though we can't see the boundaries, people accept that they're there and understand how far they can go before crossing into other territory.

For a variety of reasons, this concept is much easier to grasp on a map than it is when it comes to our personal relationships. Most of the time, (unfortunately) there aren't literal, physical barriers between ourselves and other people. And even when there are (think: office cubicles or a large geographical distance), these boundaries don't always work, and you can find that other people are crossing the line in some way.

This is where setting figurative (or even literal) personal and emotional boundaries comes in. They're your way of letting other people know how far they can go with you when it comes to things like emotional support and labor, seeking your help or advice, or even how frequently you're expected to get in touch. 

But for all this talk of personal and emotional boundaries, in reality, they can be pretty nebulous to identify and even trickier to set. Sure, we know we're supposed to "set boundaries," but what exactly does that mean, and how exactly do we do that? Unlike geography, this isn't something we learned in school: Most of us were never trained in how to do it and foster healthy relationships in our personal lives. To help you get a better understanding of personal and emotional boundaries, including how to set them and stick to them, here's some (solicited) advice from trained professionals. 

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What it means to 'set boundaries'

People talk about "setting boundaries" all the time, but what does that actually mean? "Boundaries are the separations that humans need—mentally, emotionally, and physically—to feel safe, valued, and respected," says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, Calif. and author of Joy From Fear and Date Smart.

It means verbalizing what impacts your comfort levels.

Ultimately, boundaries speak to what we identify as making us comfortable or uncomfortable, says Leela R. Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist and the regional medical director of Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers. And this often involves using verbal strategies. "Individuals could use succinct, clear phrases to address and clarify their comfort level and needs," she continues. "For example, [during COVID] a person could respectfully ask loved ones to wear their masks, stand further away from them and each other, or wash their hands. This practice at home may ease any discomfort when conversing with neighbors and members of the community."

It means learning how and when to say "no."

Another crucial—but difficult—part of setting boundaries involves learning how to say "no" to others. "Many times we feel that we owe others a dissertation-level response to why we cannot do this task, go to this event, etc.," says Melissa Flint, PsyD, a certified clinical trauma provider and associate professor of clinical psychology at Midwestern University in Arizona. "The fact of the matter is, a good boundary is an explanation in and of itself. 'I'm quite sorry, but I cannot commit to working on that project over the weekend. I appreciate you thinking of me and having confidence in me, but not this time!' is a perfectly adequate response."

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It means being honest and transparent.

But making a conscious decision to set certain boundaries isn't enough: you must also communicate those boundaries to the people they involve. "Setting boundaries also includes letting others know what they are—not expecting others to have a crystal ball and just know what you want or do not want," Flint says.

It means knowing how to expand—or constrict—the boundaries we set.

It's also worth noting that a person with healthy boundaries is able to adjust their boundaries depending on the situation to allow for the appropriate level of connection, says Manly. "In practice, we consciously and unconsciously use boundaries to let others know what is acceptable or appropriate," she explains. "When our boundaries are too permeable, we might tend to let people take advantage of us, or accept abusive treatment. When our boundaries are too rigid, we might behave in highly defended ways to keep respectful, loving people at a distance."

Why setting emotional boundaries is important for our mental well-being

Given that boundaries help us feel safer and more comfortable, it makes sense that they come up so frequently in therapy: They can have a major impact on our mental well-being. "Our emotional boundaries are important because they give us the personal space—emotional, mental, physical, or otherwise—we need in a given situation," Manly explains. "When our emotional boundaries are respected, we feel valued, honored, and safe. Boundaries can be healing; boundaries can help one not feel taken advantage of." And while maintaining boundaries can be difficult, it increases self-compassion and self-esteem by allowing people to prioritize their own voice and needs, Dr. Magavi explains. 

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But when our emotional boundaries aren't respected, it may leave us feeling overwhelmed or bullied, or anxious. Not only that, but if our boundaries are chronically disrespected, the ongoing feelings of despair and powerlessness can trigger chronic anxiety, depression, and even trauma," Manly says. "On an instinctual level, we may feel like caged animals who are at the mercy of threatening perpetrators when our boundaries are disrespected." 

Additionally, boundaries are vital, Manly says, because they create the foundation for healthy relationships with the self and with others. "When healthy boundaries are not present, people can be left feeling angry or sad due to interactions that create a sense of being taken advantage of, devalued, unappreciated, or bullied," she explains.

Common signs it's time to set some boundaries

Boundary issues arise in many different situations and in various parts of our life, but it's not unusual for them to fly under our radar until they've been obviously challenged, Manly explains. "In general, boundary issues tend to occur from allowing your own boundaries to be crossed, or crossing others' boundaries," she notes.

According to Manly, a few of the most common signs that your boundaries need attention include:

  • Feeling chronically taken advantage of in certain situations, such as emotionally, financially, or physically.
  • Saying "yes" to please others at your own expense.
  • You don't get your needs met because you tend to fear conflict and give in to others.
  • Often feeling disrespected by others, but not standing up for yourself.
  • Your fear of being rejected or abandoned leaves you accepting less that you deserve.
  • Engaging in people-pleasing behaviors in order to be liked and to receive approval.
  • Engaging in disrespectful behavior that hurts others.
  • Flirting with those who are in relationships and/or flirt when you are in a relationship even when it harms others.
  • Doing whatever you want to get your needs met—believing that limits don't apply to you.

But keep in mind that setting boundaries may be harder for some people more than others. According to Dr. Magavi, people who live with anxiety and/or depression may struggle with creating and maintaining boundaries. "Some individuals derive comfort by how others perceive them, and may avoid boundaries in order to please others," she explains. "However, this could lead to burnout and passive-aggression."

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How to Set Boundaries (the Right Way)

Now that you have a firmer grasp on what boundaries are and why they're so important for maintaining our mental health, you may be wondering how, exactly, to set the boundaries you need in your life. Here are some strategies and examples from our experts to help you get started.

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1 Think through what you need/want to accomplish by setting boundaries.

You may not immediately know which parts of your life are most in need of boundaries, and that's OK. Give yourself the time and space for self-awareness and reflection, and then to process your thoughts and gain a sense of clarity. This can be done by talking through them with a therapist or loved one, or writing them down in a journal, Dr. Magavi says. "Verbalizing and naming emotions allows individuals to understand different perspectives and makes a request appear more like a request rather than a criticism," she explains.

2 Use your personal values as a guide.

When it comes to setting boundaries, Flint says they need to be in line with your personal values. "If I highly value my time for religious expression, my boundary may be to never accept a work shift during service times," she explains. "When I do, the area being pushed aside is one I value highly, and I feel even more encroached upon." She notes that we do have some control over scenarios like these when we are mindful of what our values are, and prioritize what brings us contentment, fulfillment, and joy.

3 Understand that different relationships require different boundaries.

Boundaries are often very different depending on the situation and the people involved, according to Manly. For example, you may have very flexible boundaries with an intimate partner. "Intimacy thrives when both partners understand and honor each other's boundary needs, and this respectful attitude contributes to the ongoing boundary flexibility," she explains.

In a work setting, however, it is appropriate for employers and staff members to have more rigid boundaries. "Certain behaviors, such as sharing of personal information, sexual contact, and flirting—especially between management and staff—are generally inappropriate, and often illegal," Manly notes.

And when it comes to family members, the nature of healthy boundaries depends on the overall family dynamics. "If family members tend to be overbearing, fairly rigid boundaries may be needed for psychological well-being," she says. "If family members are respectful and considerate, boundaries may be far more flexible in nature."

4 Evaluate your relationships.

Knowing that different types of relationships require their own set of boundaries, it's time to take a closer look at those relationships. "In order for you to know where you need to put boundaries in place, you need to evaluate your relationships and what you value in your life," Flint says. "If you aren't getting enough of what you value—like family time, financial security, etc.—then how do you set a boundary to support the fulfillment of bringing my life into more balance? Boundaries are often trial-and-error as we start. It is OK to 'tweak' them over time so that they are the right expression of your limits."

5 Realize that it takes practice and patience.

For some people, even thinking about setting boundaries can trigger anxiety. "As you practice setting boundaries, you may certainly feel anxious and unsettled until it becomes natural," Manly explains. "Even if it's tough at first, practice stating your truth with dignity, courage, and respect."

6 Speak up (respectfully).

Once you start to figure out which parts of your life could benefit from boundaries, start taking steps towards implementing them. According to Dr. Magavi, this could involve things like asking someone for clarity, respectfully correcting someone, or expressing discomfort with someone's behavior. 

But don't be surprised if your issues with a person don't disappear after addressing them once. "It may be necessary to reiterate information," Dr. Magavi says. "Setting a foundation and allowing fluid conversation at the beginning or any point of a relationship solidifies a pattern and allows healthy boundaries to stand tall and strong. If individuals do not respect boundaries, it is appropriate to contend that this causes discomfort and walk away from the relationship."

7 Pay attention to relationship changes, and hold your ground.

When you establish healthy boundaries, naturally, the people who are used to you being a doormat may get irritated or upset. In fact, Manly says that some may even continue to disrespect your boundaries. "As you move forward, you'll find that some people will be supportive of your healthy new boundaries," she notes. "Others may be unwilling to accept and honor the 'new you.' Sometimes the wisest move is to distance yourself from those who choose not to respect your boundaries."

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